These days, families are experiencing a lot of togetherness—and perhaps more disagreement and conflict than usual. In their new book, Negotiating at Home: Essential Steps for Reaching Agreement with Your Kids (Praeger, 2020), Rutgers Business School professor Terri R. Kurtzberg and Baruch College professor Mary C. Kern explain how parents can apply negotiation skills to achieve better outcomes—and relationships—with their children. Here, Kurtzberg shares some of these insights.
Negotiation Briefings: Some parents believe it’s a bad idea to negotiate with their kids. The reasoning goes that if children have a greater voice in decisions, they may no longer take “Because I said so” as an answer. Why do you believe we should negotiate with our children?
Terri R. Kurtzberg: You can’t always rely on “Because I said so” because they will tune you out. At the end of the day, you can’t force kids to do anything. You can change incentives, provide rewards, and lay down punishments, but they still need to buy in to whatever behavior or solution you’re hoping to enact.
You’ll end up with much stronger compliance if you take your child’s perspective into account and gain their buy-in. Negotiation doesn’t necessarily mean conceding; rather, it involves understanding and hearing the other side. When you view negotiation as a problem- solving tool, you allow your child to express their views and listen better, and you will likely improve your relationship and communication. You’re also teaching them a valuable life skill. As they grow up, they will need to know how to express themselves, listen to others, and come up with creative solutions to problems.
NB: During the pandemic, older kids’ socializing can create health risks for the whole family. How do you advise parents to handle negotiations over social distancing, quarantining, etc., with teens and young adults who are living at home?
TRK: Health and safety often come up first when we think about when is the right time to say, “Because I said so.” On the other hand, if you don’t have the ability to monitor behavior, edicts can backfire, especially with teens. Teenagers aren’t known for their appreciation of risks, so scaring them straight probably won’t work. Here again, trying to figure out what they need so you can gain their compliance becomes critical. You might say, “These are the constraints that we feel we need, but we understand you have to have some level of social interaction.” They will hopefully come to understand that when they respect what you’re comfortable with, you’ll become more willing to trust them to behave responsibly.
NB: Sometimes parents aren’t on the same page with each other. How do you advise parents to handle negotiations with their kids when, say, one is generally more lenient than the other?
TRK: You can use such differences to your advantage by making joint decisions about which particular moments call for each style. At the same time, it’s not necessarily wise to have one parent always be the default soft one and the other the default disciplinarian. Making a conscious choice to switch up the roles can be good for everyone while also giving you more credibility by showing that you’ve reasoned things through.
NB: Negotiate with your kids via text: Good idea, bad idea, or it depends?
TRK: It depends. On the downside, texting strips away a whole lot of useful communication signals, and the opportunity for misunderstanding rises. This is particularly true because every generation texts in its own way. So, what a parent might express and how a child reads it could be quite different.
At the same time, texting can be a helpful communication option. Given that kids often shut down in difficult conversations, texting can help them engage without the intensity of being stared down by their parents. It can open conversations that would be awkward or difficult, or add a little distance to an emotional situation. I wouldn’t rely on it for a whole negotiation, especially a complex one. But it can buy you some space and open up a less intensive channel with older kids.
NB: What is the biggest mistake parents make in negotiations with their kids, and how can they overcome it?
TRK: It’s probably the same mistake that most people make in negotiation, which is a failure to plan. In negotiations with kids, planning doesn’t necessarily mean a long, drawn-out process full of research but does include exploring their “Why?” and yours. What are you actually trying to accomplish, and how might that goal be met in different ways? Sometimes we find ourselves digging in on the first thing we decided when there are other, possibly better, ways to accomplish the same goal.
It also means taking their perspective—thinking through where they’re coming from, what’s behind their stubbornness or need, and what you expect to hear. Then you have to follow up by asking them questions: “What do you hope to accomplish in this situation? Why is this important to you? What might be different ways you hope to accomplish your goal?” We know our kids better than anyone, but we’re still not in their heads. Their actual motivations may surprise us.