How Experts Discipline Their Children

Family Meetings: Negotiating Your Way Through Conflicts

The expert: Scott Brown, a founding member of The Harvard Negotiation Project in Cambridge, MA; author of How to Negotiate With Kids ... Even When You Think You Shouldn't; married to Mary, who works in medical school admissions; father of four

His professional philosophy: Brown applies the same principles of negotiation to family conflicts that he used to help mediate peace talks in South Africa and El Salvador. "My experience has taught me that people are more likely to comply with an agreement if they've participated in making that agreement," he says. "If you spend time developing a way of working through problems with your kids, future problems will be a lot easier."

His own discipline dilemma: "Nobody wanted to go to bed in my family," says Brown. "Even though they had set bedtimes, the children would often be on the computer, playing a game, or just wrestling with each other, and they wouldn't want to stop what they were doing to go to bed. Three or four times a night my wife and I would end up having to say, 'Time to go up and brush your teeth,' before they'd actually do it."

At-home solutions: Brown and his wife held a family meeting to come up with a plan everyone could agree on. The parents explained their position: They wanted the children to get enough sleep to be healthy, so bedtime during the school week was non-negotiable. But they were willing to be more flexible on the weekends.

They also asked the kids for their input: "It's taking longer for you guys to go to bed. What can we do to get you moving more quickly?" The children took this discussion seriously and came up with ideas, such as having Mom and Dad warn them earlier or spend more time reading books with them after they had finished brushing their teeth. Then they talked about which ideas would work best. They also discussed consequences if the kids began stalling again (such as going to bed 20 minutes earlier the next night if they were 20 minutes late the night before) and agreed on what seemed fair to both parties.

His parting advice: "The earliest you can expect kids to participate in a negotiation process is when they're 3," says Brown. "They have to have their own thoughts and ideas and be able to talk." But that doesn't mean you can't lay the foundation at an early age. "A younger child might 'negotiate' by crying or being demanding," says Brown. "You can sit down with your child, listen to what he's trying to say, and find a way to bridge your needs with his. Even a 2-year-old will usually calm down if he knows that you understand how he feels. For example, you might say, 'I know it's hard to stop playing with your toys. But after you get up from your nap, we can play together.'"

There are issues in any family that are non-negotiable, says Brown, and in his clan, health and safety rules are sacrosanct: "For instance, if the kids want to go out in below-zero weather with T-shirts on, that's non-negotiable. But my research has shown that the most common conflicts in families are about cleaning up and helping out with chores, eating, sibling disputes, listening to parents, arguments about buying things, and bedtime and general attitude problems." Negotiating can work for any of these things, he says: "It's a constant process because children change so quickly. What works for them one time may not be the right answer three months later." As new conflicts arise or old ones need adjusting, families should sit down together and come up with solutions. "If you take the time to do this," says Brown, "your kids will be less likely to think you're being unfair and more likely to follow the rules."

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