Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Negotiating with Children

After three recent posts in a row about politicians I thought I'd risk the cheap shots and change the topic to negotiating with children.

Negotiators (always eager to broaden our audience) regularly point out that negotiation doesn't just take place at work. People negotiate with neighbors, with spouses, with almost anyone we have relationships with. Certainly parents have to negotiate with children, and doing so in a positive way helps children grow up smart and makes parenting more fun.

Let me start by contrasting two parent-child negotiations.  The first comes from Guhan Subramanian's book Negotiauctions: New Dealmaking Strategies for a Competitive Marketplace as Guhan negotiates the end to a game of catch with his five-year-old son:
"I'll throw you five more pitches, and then it's time for dinner."
"Come on Dad...[pause for thought] ten more."
"OK, deal."
After the eight pitches are thrown and we're sitting at the dinner table, my five-year-old looks at me with a sly grin: "Hey Dad, guess what -- I only wanted eight pitches!"
I've never felt prouder.
(Guhan offers this as an illustration of the midpoint rule, an important negotiation dynamic by which the final agreement is often midway between the opening offers from each party.)

The second happened recently with one of my daughters, then four years old.  We were about to drive half an hour and Morgan wanted to bring a toy in the car.
Morgan:  Daddy, can I bring this?
Me: No, sweetheart, not this time.
Morgan:  Why?
Me: You need to eat your snack in the car and we're going to a park so I don't want your toy getting dirty or lost.
Morgan: I won't take it out of the car and you can hold on to it and only give it to me when I'm done with my snack.

Morgan engaged in classic negotiation.  She went beyond my position (no) to my interests (having her eat her snack and not having to deal with the toy being lost or damaged if she played with it at the park) and then proposed a solution that met my interests while still letting her bring her toy.

Guhan's son showed he understands the negotiation "dance" of competing offers.  He made an aggressive request in order to bargain down to an acceptable number.  It's an important real-world skill to have and a charming story, but I think parents should be cautious about encouraging this sort of haggling for three reasons.

First, while aggressive offers are often a correct tactic, they are contrary to relationship-building.  When they become routine they are fundamentally dishonest.  It's hard to build honest communication if every time either of you suggests a number of cookies, amount of TV time, number of stories or time the child has to be home it's understood that you don't really mean what you say -- you're just asking for more than you want or consider reasonable in order to negotiate.

Second, you won't always be able to haggle -- which will be confusing and frustrating children for whom the change is likely to feel arbitrary.  Whatever negotiation you practice with your children should be as consistent as possible.

Finally, this sort of haggling is about value capture; I much prefer to emphasize value creation when negotiating with children.  Value capture is essentially adversarial -- it's about getting more of what you want at the expense of someone else.  Value creation is collaborative problem solving that genuinely makes everyone better off than before.  It gives kids power to affect their world without removing your power as a parent and encourages them to work with you as partners in meeting their interests rather than as adversaries that need to be overcome.


  1. Yes, I am troubled by the statement that Guhan is "proud" of his son manipulating to maximize his outcomes. (I don't think he was saying he was proud that his son disclosed that, which would be an alternate interpretation.) Is a family a negotiation between parties with disjoint interests, where each member's goal is to maximize their personal utility function, or is it a joint activity to maximize their joint utility function? It's an elementary principle of game theory that a group with shared interests can optimize better than a group where everyone pursues only their interests at the expense of the group and thus doesn't share all of the information they have with the group. There may be situations in life that have to be more like the former than the latter, but I am not convinced that families should be one of them.

  2. I'm certainly not troubled by it. I think Guhan is looking at his son's understanding of how haggling works and being proud of him figuring it out. Surely a parent can feel pride for a developmental step a child takes even if the step isn't strictly a "good" one? I felt something an awful lot like pride when my first daughter told her first real lie. My point is just that while we can appreciate a child learning how to haggle we should teach them cooperative negotiation, especially for family.

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  4. I would not be proud if my child lies to me. That seems like a strange reaction. Maybe we have different values. I wonder if it's correlated with attending business school. :-)

  5. Do you think there's any gender-based tendencies in "natural" (non-explicitly learned) negotiating tactics?