Teaching Children to Self-Advocate

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DEAR NEGOTIATION COACH

QUESTION:

Our two young children are natural-born negotiators when it comes to getting what they want from their dad and me, but they tend to rely on us to advocate for them with those outside the house. How can I help them be effective negotiators with their friends, teachers, and others?

ANSWER:

We’ve all read the horror stories of college freshmen whose parents swoop in to negotiate on their behalf at the first sign of wounded feelings or a disappointing grade. Whether or not “helicopter parenting” is the epidemic the popular media portrays it to be, many parents are looking for ways to ensure that their children become effective self-advocates. Girls in particular may need to be encouraged to assert their rights and interests to counterbalance societal pressures to be accommodating.

These days, kids often learn principles of conflict resolution in school, but they are rarely taught the types of mutual-gains negotiation skills that can help them advocate for their needs and head off conflict before it begins. Yet even young children are capable of grasping basic negotiation concepts, such as thinking about what they’ll do if they don’t get what they want and trying to meet their goals by giving others what they want.

You can introduce your kids to the concept of mutual-gains negotiation by explaining that it should always be a nonviolent process in which both sides treat each other respectfully, neither forces the other to give in, and both sides are satisfied with the outcome. Because parental lectures about negotiation best practices are likely to fall on deaf ears, you should teach them negotiation through more subtle means, such as the following:

1. Model good behavior. As our kids’ first teachers, the way we model negotiating behavior matters. Recently, I was frustrated by my six-year-old’s habit of talking over me—until I noticed I’m at least as guilty of finishing her sentences. Instead of putting words in her mouth, I’ve been trying to listen more actively: That is, to repeat back what she’s said, ask questions designed to test my understanding, and acknowledge her thoughts and feelings.
Similarly, when conducting everyday negotiations with others in front of your kids (with their soccer coach, a repair person, and so on), try to remain conscious of the fact that the children are watching and, presumably, learning from your behavior. (You may find that you negotiate more rationally and respectfully when you know they’re listening.) Talk to them about the situation after the fact, pointing out what went right and what you might have done better. You might also try discussing negotiation stories from the news, and lessons learned, at the dinner table.

2. Provide low-stress learning opportunities. Give children opportunities to respectfully ask others for what they would like. Teach very young children to order their own food at restaurants and to ask their teacher for missed homework assignments.

As kids get older, they can tackle more complicated “asks,” such as getting permission from a school administrator to sit at a different lunch table. Help your child prepare for such negotiations by setting goals, thinking about what the other side might value, and brainstorming potential compromises, concessions, or tradeoffs. In addition, discuss possible consequences of your child’s planned behavior and what he’ll do if he doesn’t reach his goals. After the negotiation, talk about how it unfolded and what he learned.

3. Don’t push too hard. As you encourage your children to negotiate, factor in their personalities and maturity levels. Children learn empathy gradually, so don’t be surprised if they have difficulty focusing on the other party’s point of view.

In addition, remember that kids have strong emotions yet little experience managing their feelings and those of others. Teach them about the value of taking a break and talking to you or another trusted adult if they or others become upset during a negotiation. Finally, never push a stressed-out child into negotiating; instead, continue to model effective behavior on her behalf.

Katherine Shonk
Editor, Negotiation Briefings
Program on Negotiation
Harvard Law School

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