In a recent panel discussion about parenting on National Public Radio, “When No Means No” (11 minutes of audio), some moms and a family therapist were debating the extent to which parents should negotiate with their children. It is an interesting discussion about how children need to learn to negotiate at home so that they can learn to negotiate the waters of the river of life. There was no debate among the panel members that negotiation is a vital life skill, and all agreed that parents need to teach children how to do it well. The big question is: How do you allow children to negotiate with adults, without allowing them to become obnoxious little princes and princesses who feel the kingdom is entitled to them?
The power struggle between children and parents is a primary issue in every household, in every culture, in every era of history. It should be. How much power should a child have over his or her life? And how much power should a parent exercise on behalf of the child?
As in all things, the extremes get the most attention. The parents who have total authority over their children make the news with their abusive behavior, and the parents who have no authority in their household make the news with their negligence. The children of these extremists invariably suffer from a wide variety of unhealthy mental and emotional problems. Some work it out, in spite of their parents’ grave mistakes, while most do not successfully grow up well. But most of us don’t fall in the extreme cases.
Most parents learn that very young children need lots of boundaries and very little freedom. And we learn that, as time goes by, they should get increasingly more freedoms and responsibilities, until one day they are independent and can handle living alone at college.
But the real question for most of us is something like, “What do I do with my 8 year old who questions and begs and tries to negotiate with me all the time?”
Well, let’s start with the basics. One of the, if not the, most important things that a parent can teach a child is the word NO. “No means No” is a pretty good motto for the parent of a toddler, and again as a parent of a teenager (who often act like toddlers).
You want to say “Yes,” but you know better, so you put on a strong front and declare, “No, you can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Why not, Mommy?” says your beautiful child who you love more than life itself. You can feel the tension rising fast. And this is the moment of truth. What do you do? How about something like this:
“No – because it’s not safe, and I love you too much to let you get hurt.”
“No – because you are not quite old enough yet, but later you will get to do it.”
“No – because it’s not healthy for you, and I want you to be healthy and happy.”
“No – because that’s not a good use of our money.”
“No – because I love you too much to let you make that grave mistake.”
Notice that each response has a reason attached to it. It’s not an extreme statement. You don’t say, “No – because I said so.” Or “No, because I’m the Dad and you’re the child.” The truth is that just “No” is better than those two lousy reasons.
Explaining reasons to a child is teaching reasoning to that child. And a brief, respectful discussion related to the reasoning behind the decision is good teaching; it’s training a child to think like an adult. That’s the right way to negotiate, even if after the discussion you change your mind. Yes, the parent can always change his or her mind; that’s not a weak compromise; that’s just good reasoning. In other words, if a child has better reasoning than the parent’s initial thinking, then a respectful discussion can bring about a better decision and a better lesson on reasoning and judgment. That’s a good relationship, as long as the child is showing respect for the authority and dignity of the parent.
Negotiation might have its place in a parent-child relationship, but it’s a small niche. Perhaps, the kid wants to have three friends over for a sleepover, and the parents say “No.” If the child respectfully asks to just have one friend and will be in bed by ten, then that’s the start of a healthy negotiation. The discussion can be lengthy, but in the end, if everyone stays cool and reasons with respect, and if the parent is the ultimate authority in making the final decision, then it’s all good. Respect maintained, reasoning practiced, judgments weighed, authority maintained, wisdom prevails, lessons learned.
Unfortunately, this is not the normal parent-child interaction. In most cases, it’s a disrespectful form of negotiation in which the child is well aware of his or her ability to manipulate mom and dad. The child has discovered from a very early age that mom and dad hate to say “no” and will capitulate and cave in, if the right buttons are pushed. The child has learned the soft spots and knows exactly how to go for the jugular, if necessary, in a negotiation. It might be with a sweet puppy dog look, some crocodile tears, or a full-on hissy fit, but the kid knows how to work over the parental units when they are at their weakest.
The bottom line is that too many parents are giving over too much power (by granting too many freedoms) to their children at too early an age. The result is that kids are growing up too fast with too little guidance, and the consequences can be awful for both the parents and the child in the long run.
We have a generation of young people ill-equipped to deal with the real world, largely because they think they are entitled to all of the world’s benefits in exchange for very little of the hard work, patience, respect, and self-discipline that it takes to get some of it. Just ask a college professor, or someone in Human Resources who hires young people; ask what they think of the latest batch of twenty year olds. I think you’ll find that they are less than impressed with their respect for authority, their ability to deal with difficulty, their work ethic, and their relationship skills. Young adults tend to think that their world should be customized to fit their needs and their desires, rather than striving to meet other people’s needs, impress the boss, and get along with difficult co-workers.
What caused this societal shift? I think it goes all the way back to childhood, when they were given too much freedom and control at too young of an age because they were able to negotiate every little decision their parents ever tried to make. They learned that everything is negotiable and that manipulating others is just what you do to get what you want. Additionally, most modern American parents give their kids every toy, piece of clothing, and electronic gadget that they can afford to give them without any expectations – no chores, no partial payment, no researching to find the best deal, no persuasive discussions about why it’s a wise purchase. So why are we surprised that so many kids grow up with a sense of entitlement? They have been slowly, steadily spoiled since birth. Yes, the average modern American teenager is spoiled. So, let’s determine to NOT be average. Let’s do things differently.
So, parents, let’s take a hard look in the family portrait. Look at your family. Look at yourself. Look beyond appearances. Maybe even ask a friend to comment, if you dare. Do you say “No” firmly and give a reason for your decision? Do you listen to their reasoning, and demand that they discuss in a respectful way at all times? In all seriousness, are you intentionally teaching your kids how to negotiate with adults in a respectful, reasonable way? Or are you letting your little princess rule the kingdom?