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The Negotiator: Does Your Preschooler Counter Your Every Request with Ideas of His Own?

Photo by Jakob / Stocksy United / 309026
Photo by Jakob / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

If your child is rounding the corner to three years old, you may be noticing his newfound negotiating skills. Maybe your first clue was a conversation similar to this one:

“I’d like you to eat your vegetables.”

“No. one carrot.”

“I’d like you to eat at least two carrots and all of your broccoli.”

“No. One carrot now...broccoli tomorrow.”

Congratulations—you’ve entered the preschool courtroom, where all routines and requests are now challenged by your precocious youngster. As great as it is that you have a budding lawyer in the family, the constant rounds of negotiations can be exhausting at best.

So why is your formerly compliant child now questioning what you thought were sealed deals? Well, right around the preschool years, children become very aware that life provides options. Until now, most decisions have been made for them. But they are discovering a sense of pride in having some control in their world—and part of that control involves negotiating deals.

Now, not every situation is up for negotiation: Safety and health situations require an adult decision-maker. But for minor battles, allowing children to do a little decision-making and negotiating will boost their self-confidence and help them learn to compromise and play cooperatively with others.

To give your three- or four-year-old a little control (but not too much), consider the following ideas:

  • Offer her open-ended choices. Knowing that she has opportunities to make decisions will lessen the need to negotiate. By asking, “Do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt to preschool today?” your child is able to step into the lead and make an empowered decision.
  • If the situation is not open for negotiation, make that clear.  “Our safety rule is that you hold my hand when we cross the street.” With consistency and clarity, your child will quickly learn what the non-negotiables are.
  • Set up a win-win. Ideally, entering a negotiation with your child will provide a win for both of you. Guide her to that end by saying something like, “That sounds like a great win for you. I would also like a win. Can you think of a way for both of us to win?” Bonus: This gives her practice using critical-thinking skills.

Sure, your lawyer-in-the-making may be wearing you a little thin with his constant attempts to put every option on the table. But you really can’t blame him for trying—after all, the negotiating is his way of beginning to assert his independence!

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