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.

Many negotiations in a Mexican restaurant

It never fails to amaze me how many of our daily interactions involve negotiation. Such is the point of this blog! But a recent trip to a Mexican restaurant really drove home the point, so I thought I’d relay it in the spirit of making life negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations, all from a single Mexican dinner:

  1. With a busy host: On our way into the restaurant, I saw a sign offering free bowling coupons to patrons. But I saw no bowling coupons upon entry. So I had to negotiate with the host by asking where I could find the elusive coupons. And the harried host looked none too pleased to track them down. But eventually, we got them. And this illustrates the principle: if you want something, ask for it!
  2. With a busy waiter: In the process of scarfing down her chips, my younger daughter seemed to get a crumb stuck in her throat. It was nothing major, but she did feel uncomfortable. So I had to flag down the first waiter I saw for some water. Unfortunately, he was carrying seven margaritas at the time. And he looked none too pleased at my interruption. But he brought the water, and pronto, when I explained. This illustrates the principle: don’t back down from your most important needs.
  3. With my older daughter: My older daughter, during the chip incident, had gone to the bathroom with mommy. That left daddy to order the drink I thought she’d like – a delicious cup of apple juice. But inevitably, daddy was wrong. What she wanted was pink lemonade. Of course! So I decided to suggest a contingency contract: If you’re still thirsty after the ginormous apple juice, I’ll buy you a lemonade. (Inevitably, she wasn’t.)
  4. With both daughters: Both daughters like to put 12 shakes of salt on each chip. Unfortunately, that’s a ticket to the cardiologist. So I had to negotiate over the salt, specifically by promising to dispense a moderate amount of salt over the entire chip basket if they would promise to drop the salt shaker. This illustrates the topic of concessions: I was willing to make a small concession in service of a greater good (my daughters’ long-term health and wellbeing).
  5. With my wife: I wanted a second margarita, as I usually do. My wife didn’t want her first, as she usually doesn’t. But I forgot my wife’s preferences and started to order my second. Luckily, she interrupted my order by offering hers, thereby illustrating an integrative solution: she saved us $15, and I got entire margarita minus one sip.

Through these somewhat silly and mundane examples, I hope you see how common negotiations can be. While few of our meals involve five negotiations, most of our lives involve negotiation in some way or another. So here’s to making life negotiable!

Happier households through narrower choice sets

Parents frequently give their kids choices: “What do you want to eat for breakfast today?” “What do you want to wear to school today?” And choices are great for enrolling them in the decision-making process.

But often, to no one’s great surprise, kids choose an option that is not particularly attractive to their parents. “Definitely some Fruit Loops!” “Definitely my (ratty old) Frozen shirt!”

And then comes the inevitable negotiation: “Don’t you want to eat something a little healthier, Billy?” “Don’t you want to wear something a little nicer, Petunia?” And so on, and so forth.

Conversations like these play out in millions of households, multiple times a day, to everyone’s great frustration. But I’m here to tell you that there’s an easy way to make life negotiable: presenting a narrower choice set.

A recent story to illustrate: I was planning out a daddy-daughter Sunday and really wanted to attach a tasty restaurant visit to the typical outdoor activity. But I suspected that the typical open-ended question—“What do you want to do with daddy this morning?”—would probably elicit an answer wholly at odds with a restaurant: “Swimming!”

Now, I know from experience that two little girls shivering from wet hair are not particularly inclined to dine at restaurants—at least without a fight. So I didn’t present the question that way. I gave them a different choice set: “Girls, do you want to take a hike in the state park or go on a bike ride?” Either choice, I knew, would be just as enjoyable for the girls. And either choice would leave their desire to go to a restaurant in-tact—even enhanced by their desire for some air conditioning and a cold drink.

The lesson is clear: In this type of negotiation and many others (even with adults), we control the options we present. But often, from a lack of preparation or genuine inclination to be as flexible as possible, we put many options on the table—including more than a few that would leave us utterly dissatisfied. So next time you face a negotiation, with your kids or someone older, consider narrowing the choice set to the point at which you too would approve of all the remaining choices.

“No conditions on hugs!” Three situations that don’t call for concessions

Let me introduce you to one of the world’s best negotiators: she’s five and sleeps across the hall. Why does she qualify as one of the world’s best? Because she always knows exactly what she wants and takes every—I mean every—opportunity to ask for it. In particular, she sees all of my requests as opportunities to extract concessions.

“Can you please eat the rest of your dinner?” “Only if I get an extra piece of candy.”

“Can you please brush your teeth?” “Only if I get an extra story.”

In the interest of supporting her budding aspirations as a negotiator, I sometimes play along, adjusting the initial offer accordingly. Knowing she’ll request an extra piece of candy to wrap up dinner, for example, I initially offer one rather than the allowable two.

But more often than not, I don’t play along. And this aspiring negotiator would do well to learn why. Indeed, every aspiring negotiator would do well to understand the underlying lesson: that many situations offer opportunities to extract concessions, but some just don’t. And understanding which is which is crucial for making life negotiable.

Three situations in which it’s probably not appropriate to request a concession:

  1. When a concession would devalue the discussion: In keeping with her strategy, my aspiring negotiator often seizes on the request for a bedtime hug by saying, “Only if you sing another song!” Setting aside the potential merits of another song, a father-daughter hug is sacred rather than transactional—sanctified rather than commoditized. And treating it as a commodity to be bought and sold only serves to devalue the discussion. “No conditions on hugs,” I say.
  2. When you already owe a concession. My little starling—hard as it is to believe—doesn’t spend every last moment having stellar behavior. What five-year old does? And when I observe the non-stellar behavior, it’s incumbent on me to communicate as much. “We don’t throw markers on the floor,” I might say, “and now we need to have a timeout.” “Ok, but only if you let me watch a movie,” she might respond. But wait—it’s me who deserves a concession in the form of time served out—not she who deserves a concession in the form of cinematic magic.
  3. When the same concession request has been denied a hundred times before. Typically, at the end of a school day, I ask my starling to tell me anything interesting or important that happened that day. “Ok, I’ll only tell you two things,” she might say. “No, I’d like you to tell me anything interesting or important,” I always say, after which about ten things spontaneously pop out. But my aspiring negotiator, not to be deterred, requests the same concession the very next day. Now, the best negotiators are certainly persistent in the face of adversity, and they certainly try again when their first attempt is denied. But after the hundredth denial, they also conclude that they need to focus their concession requests on a more negotiable issue.

In sum, my five-year old is a master negotiator in many senses of the word. But she has yet to learn one of the most important lessons, as have many people who rank themselves among the world’s best negotiators: there’s a time and place to request concessions, as well as a time and place to accede to other people’s wishes. Identifying and accepting the latter situations can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Convincing kids to do things, part II

Last week, we considered convincing multiple kids to do things, characterizing the whole process as a multiparty negotiation. This week, let’s consider convincing one kid to do one type of thing: something good for them but not particularly appealing. For example: eating their veggies, getting their flu shot, or making some form of physical contact with the ocean during an expensive and time-consuming beach trip (not that the last holds direct personal relevance).

In my experience, a few simple, research-based tips can make these beneficial but fear-eliciting requests a bit more negotiable. For example, you might try to:

  1. Make an aggressive but justifiable first offer: Do you actually hope they ultimately eat but one veggie? I’d suggest starting by asking them to eat all their carrots, broccoli, and spinach. Then, when you eventually back down to carrots, you’ve become a reasonable and accommodating parent rather than an intransigent and annoying one.
  2. Plan for judicious concessions: I wouldn’t recommend jumping right from all of all three veggies down to the carrots alone. If you do, they’re likely to try and nix the carrots too. Instead, I’d suggest an initial concession of half the spinach, most of the broccoli, and all the carrots (or something like that). Then, make smaller and smaller concessions as you approach all the carrots, thereby signaling to your aspiring negotiator that you’ll go no further.
  3. Ask why: The most powerful word in the negotiator’s dictionary is “why.” Why? Because it often paves the way toward a creative solution. Perhaps it’s patently obvious they’re afraid of the ocean because of its immense waves. But then you ask why and hear something about its probably chilliness or sharp shells—problems you could solve by asking them to submerge a finger or wear their water shoes.
  4. Treat it as a multi-round negotiation: Supposing your aggressive first offer doesn’t work, you could always try the reverse: a multi-round negotiation in which you ask for a little and then progressively request more. Will your nervous daughter perhaps dip her toes today, wade to her waist tomorrow, and catch some crazy surf the third day? (For more on #1 versus 4, here’s a good reference.)
  5. Introduce new issues: Let’s be honest: there’s very little to like about a flu shot (other than avoiding the flu). Even you don’t even like it, so your kid won’t either—and you won’t get far by touting its benefits. In that case, you might consider adding an issue—namely, an issue that your kid will find more appealing than the shot, like stickers or lollipops. Introducing one of these possibilities upon the successful completion of the flu shot could spell the difference between a meltdown and mature acceptance.

In sum, adults know they have to do things they don’t much like. But kids often don’t, necessitating a creative and thoughtful strategy on behalf of their parents. Here’s hoping some simple tips can make these fearsome situations a bit more manageable.

Convincing kids to do things: On multiparty negotiation

Convincing multiple children to do something—anything—is a multiparty negotiation. Coming out of the bath, putting on their shoes, going to bed, you name it: it’s a multiparty negotiation (I’m told.)

Given the complexity of such situations, wouldn’t it be nice if negotiation research could help? It would, and it can. Negotiation scholars have surfaced several important principles that can make this and many other quasi-conflicts with multiple people more negotiable. Particularly relevant to parenting:

  1. Set the agenda: In any multiparty setting, research emphasizes the importance of setting the agenda—that is, dictating what will be discussed and when. So if you want your multiple kids to get out of the bath, and they also want to discuss the possibility of a nighttime snack, make sure you dictate the order of the topics. For example: “I can only discuss snacks with dry people.”
  2. Clarify the decision rule: In any multiparty setting, research also emphasizes the importance of setting the right decision rule and conveying it clearly. If it’s you and two small kids, will we decide whether we’re going to bed by majority rule or consensus? Either way, no one will ever sleep. Difficult and cold-hearted as it might seem, parents at least occasionally must remind their aspiring negotiators that the parent gets the final say.
  3. Form an early coalition: Research emphasizes the importance of forming and managing coalitions carefully. With experience, parents typically develop a refined understanding of their potential coalition partners. They know that when they want their two kids to get their shoes on, one will probably comply more readily. If so, then they might consider convincing that kid to act before making the broader appeal, thereby creating a sense of momentum moving in the direction of the front door.
  4. Break unhelpful coalitions: Perhaps you weren’t quick enough to form a stable coalition. Perhaps your two kids have conspired against you to never leave the bathtub, come low or high water. In that case, you might have to break the coalition, often by offering an inducement. “Whoever gets out of the bath first gets the monkey towel!” Just watch the coalitions shift.
  5. Emphasize ties that bind: Lest all this coalition building and breaking threaten to isolate one of the kids, it’s important to frequently reaffirm the broader identity and goals that bind the whole family together. “We all want to have fun at the amusement park tomorrow, Suzie-Q and Billy-Boy. So let’s all work together to get enough sleep.”

None of these strategies is rocket science, and anyone with kids can tell you that none will always work. In combination and with repetition, though, these strategies should start to make the multiparty negotiation of parenting at least a bit more negotiable. Good luck!

 

“It’s not fair!”

Any guesses as to the most popular phrase in the toddler’s vocabulary? That’s right: “It’s not fair.” While we may be tempted to discount these three words as a manifestation of the toddler’s irrational mind, I’m here to suggest that they can actually teach us something important about disputes. In particular, I’d like to suggest that this phrase represents nearly everyone’s reaction in a dispute situation, and recognizing as much can make our own disputes more negotiable.

Any parent has experienced something like the following:

  • Toddler (7 AM): “I want chocolate!”
  • Parent: “No, not for breakfast.”
  • Toddler: “But it’s not fair!”
  • Parent: “Oh, yes it is.”

This is a classic dispute. The toddler made a claim, namely that chocolate was appropriate at 7 AM. And the parent rejected it, namely by saying no. Both sides found their own positions entirely fair.

While this dispute may seem silly or contrived, consider the following analogue: It’s January, and you wish to take your vacation a bit earlier this year than last. So you ask your boss: “Boss, can I take my vacation in February?” “No,” your boss says, “We’re pretty busy that time of year.” A completely different domain, but a very similar situation. You wanted to do something a little earlier than someone else expected, and they simply said no. Again, both sides probably found their own positions entirely fair.

Anytime one party makes a claim and another party rejects that claim, you have the basic outlines of a dispute. And anytime you have the basic outlines of the dispute, both parties think that their position is fair. The fact that we identify with our own vacation claim more than the toddler’s chocolate claim doesn’t change the basic situation: everyone in a dispute considers their own view the very epitome of fairness.

In this light, toddlers can teach us something important: in the context of a dispute, appeals to fairness are not likely to work. However fair your own claim seems, you can rest assured your counterpart sees things just the opposite. So how convinced will they be by the natural and oft-made argument, issued later and in a professional adult manner of course, that this particular decision is not particularly fair? Not very.

In this respect, I have to lodge a slight amendment to the book Getting to Yes. Despite the book’s many positive qualities, which I have often extolled in this blog, it advises the reader to resolve conflicts by focusing on objective standards. But the toddler’s behavior shows us that objectivity is subjective, at least when a negotiation becomes a dispute. Since everyone finds their own views the epitome of fairness, trying to be objective is unlikely to get you any closer to a resolution.

So what can you do? Well, you can probably turn to another insight from Getting to Yes: Focusing on underlying interests. The toddler wanted chocolate at 7 AM, but why? Perhaps they’re just hungry for something a little sweeter than the normal dose of plain oatmeal, in which case an apple may do? Your boss said no to the February vacation, but why? Are they concerned that you won’t finish the big report, which you’ve actually already drafted?

Bottom line: “It’s not fair” is everyone’s reaction to a dispute, not just the irrational toddler’s. And however professional and adult-like you put it, it’s not going to convince your counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a dispute, resist the toddler’s temptation to highlight the unfairness of the situation and instead focus on unearthing whichever of your counterpart’s interests led them to reject your claim in the first place. It’s only by transcending the tendencies of a toddler—surprisingly hard for all of us in a dispute—that we can hope to resolve the disputes and achieve the interests in our own lives.