Little Negotiators: How to Compromise With Your Preschooler

Kids this age try to broker all sorts of deals. Before you refuse, get some insight into what your child is thinking.
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One evening a few years ago, our next-door neighbors came over for dessert. When Stella, their then 3-year-old, tiptoed into the living room to sneak another cookie off the platter I'd set out, her mother, who is originally from Brazil, said, "Folgada, no!" When I asked what the word meant, she explained that it's a Portuguese term for mooch, or someone who's always angling for a little bit extra.

Folgada quickly became a favorite family expression in our house too. My oldest daughter, also 3 at the time, tested the boundaries on a daily basis, whether it was asking to watch another TV show or coyly suggesting that she have just a teeny piece of candy when I'd already said no to dessert. Maddening as it may be, preschoolers love to negotiate, but you can find common ground that makes you both happy.

Discussion Tactics

By age 3 or 4, most children have developed the language skills to communicate what's important to them, explains Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D., author of Raising Your Spirited Child. Negotiating is one way to teach them how to come up with solutions that are acceptable to both of you, but it takes a lot of practice. "My 3-year-old son, Tyler, wants to wear his superhero cape everywhere," says Blake Ellis, a mother of three in Durham, North Carolina. "Before a trip to a local museum, he decided he was going to take along his play sword and shield too. I said no, but he kept trying to convince me of it, and the whole thing ended with him lying on the ground as if I'd wounded him."

Power struggles like this are an unfortunate consequence of trying to rationalize with your preschooler about rules. "Even though your child is testing how to express himself, he's not necessarily emotionally ready to accept that he can't have everything his heart desires," says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., author of How Toddlers Thrive and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, in New York City.

Reaching an Agreement

When you're considering your preschooler's request, think about whether it's something she actually wants or whether there's another motive involved, such as getting more time with you. "When a child asks for 'just one more book' at bedtime, for example, she might not really want to hear another story," says Dr. Klein. "She simply might not want to say good night to you." In that case, you could respond, "We can't read any more books tonight, but I always have kisses for you. Here's one last one and I'll see you in the morning."

Another game-changer: sticking by your word. "If the rules keep changing, parents inadvertently teach their child to push harder trying to figure out where the line is," says Dr. Kurcinka. You can still let your child have a say in determining the rules. "When my son Henry was 4, he was constantly bargaining for screen time, so we made a deal: He receives an allotment of minutes per day decided by me, but he gets to decide how he uses them, whether it's on the iPad or watching a TV show I approve of," says Beth Angle, a mother of two in Campbell, California. "Because he's in charge of how he spends the time, we never debate it anymore."

Finally, don't underestimate the power of empathy. When a child feels heard, she usually calms down, explains Dr. Kurcinka. Case in point: If your preschooler starts haggling with you about buying a box of the brilliantly colored cereal at the grocery store, Dr. Klein suggests commiserating with her rather than simply nixing the idea. Say, "Oh, man! Wouldn't it be awesome if we could eat nothing but cereal?" By having a sense of humor and keeping things lighthearted, you might actually ward off a tantrum, says Dr. Klein.

Looking on the Bright Side

Your pint-size dealmaker's behavior may be frustrating, but it's actually a positive development. Not only is negotiating an indication that he's learning how to express his own ideas, it also shows that he's discovering how to work with others. In one study from Sweden's University of Gothenburg, the researcher found that playing together is how young children learn to negotiate. Even when the negotiations appear to be a disagreement -- say, two girls are playing "family" and both want to be the mommy -- it's best for grown-ups to not intervene right away and give the kids time. Typically, they can resolve the conflicts on their own, and this helps them learn to compromise.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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