Parenting by imposing a bad alternative: The battle of the stuffed pig

Parents universally struggle with fighting kids. Whether the battle concerns toys, TV shows, or name-calling, bickering opportunities about.

Faced with fighting kids, many parents detect two unappealing options: Take a side and appear to arbitrarily play favorites. Or avoid intervening and hope they figure it out. I’m here to suggest a third way that can make such situations more negotiable: imposing an unappealing alternative.

To see why that helps, let’s analyze the situation: When two kids bicker, a nearby parent becomes an obvious third-party. By imposing a decision, the parent becomes a particular type of third-party—an arbitrator—and may therefore be seen as arbitrary. By avoiding the issue entirely, the parent becomes a different type of third-party—an observer—hoping beyond hope for a cooperative solution that may never arrive in the presence of a seemingly costless impasse.

But a third type of third-party—a mediator—is probably better suited to solve this problem than either of the previous options. And, while there are many ways to mediate, a common mediation strategy is to highlight or even impose a bad alternative.

Let me illustrate with a story—not that it happened to me last week. Imagine two young children who both simultaneously demand the incredible opportunity to cuddle with a particular stuffed pig. As any parent can tell you, this situation could turn ugly quickly. But what if a parent suggested that, should the kids not identify a fair solution themselves, the pig was about to cuddle with the parent instead, perhaps permanently?

Since the parent hasn’t made a decision about the pig’s status, this approach avoids the adverse perceptions associated with arbitration. And since the parent has motivated cooperation by raising the costs of impasse, it’s considerably more potent than silent observation.

If this whole situation had happened to me, not that it did, the kids would’ve quickly seen the need to sharpen their conflict resolution skills and come up with a solution. Indeed, they would’ve rapidly surfaced the obvious idea that the pig could cuddle with one kid one night and the other kid the next—obvious, but invisible and impossible for two angry parties who attach no obvious costs to impasse.

The point is that parents naturally become third-parties when their kids go to war. Imposing a solution makes them an arbitrator; avoiding the issue makes them an observer. Better yet is a mediator, and parents have the ability to act as a high-powered mediator who not only encourages agreement but motivates it by altering the alternatives. Do that, and the most intractable conflicts we face—battles with the gravity of a stuffed pig—suddenly become more negotiable.

False anchors II: Don’t get sunk by your teenager

My latest post discussed the topic of false anchors: large numbers issued by retailers for the sheer purpose of anchoring the consumer, then creating an immediate contrast with the “sales” price. “Our amazing TV usually sells for $3000 but—today only—get it for an unbelievable $1800!” The purpose of the post was to alert unsuspecting buyers to the possibility of a psychological trap.

Well, an astute reader offered another example well worth relating, in the spirit of making life negotiable. She actually mentioned the idea of false anchors to a bunch of high schoolers, who recognized the tactic like the back of their hand. Indeed, they immediately offered an analog from their own lives. Whenever they have some bad news to relate to their parents—a D on their math exam, perhaps—they admitted they often say something like this: “Mom, don’t worry: I’m not pregnant, and I haven’t been arrested. I do have to tell you something, though: I just got a D on my math exam.”

What a perfect extension of false anchors! Teenagers, like retailers, are essentially anchoring the listener—in this case, their unsuspecting parents—on some really bad news. And shortly thereafter, they’re bringing up the real news, which is bad but not REALLY bad. In the context of the really bad news, the bad news doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Using this example to make life negotiable depends on whether you’re the teenager or the parents. If you’re the teenager, it undoubtedly works—once. It’s a good way to deliver some bad news and make it seem slightly less bad. Otherwise, why would your peers use it so often? But that’s not to say it’s ethical, preying as you are on your parents’ psychological biases. Nor that it will work more often than once. Your parents, having at least half a brain, will probably cut you some slack the first time but call you out the second time, not necessarily for the bad grade but for the well-worn use of a sketchy tactic.

Now if you’re the parents, making life negotiable means recognizing this tactic the first time. I can only hope that this post helps you to do so. And when you do, your response should resemble the consumer’s response to the amazing TV deal. Just as the consumer must ignore the first price and compare the second against competitors, you the parent must force yourself to ignore the anchor—in this case, the impregnation or incarceration—and focus on the real point—the D. Then evaluate that D against whatever standard you usually use to evaluate grades, not the prospect of grandkids or bail bonds. And, while calling Best Buy to tell them you spotted their false anchor won’t get you very far, telling your kid you spotted their tactic will probably go a ways toward nipping it in the bud in the future.

Have you ever dropped a false anchor as a teenager or detected one as a parent?