Toddlers can make you doubt your sanity. They really can. How can a crushed cookie be the end of the universe as they know it? Why do they think you can make more cookies appear on demand? And how to explain to this person that thinks you hung the moon that you simply cannot erase crayon marks?
This post is an effort to explain how to successfully negotiate (most of the time) with children 18 months to 5 years old. It is based on The Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies by Dr. Harvey Karp. Once I learned his techniques, I never looked back and became a toddler whisperer. Really. You need to embrace his two most important ideas and then you are ready to hit the negotiating table with your toddler.
Dr. Karp’s most basic concept is that you need to understand that the toddler brain isn’t capable of much logical thinking due to immaturity. This means that they cannot negotiate well, even when calm. It gets better as they get older, so a 4 year-old will have flashes of rational negotiation, and an 18 month-old may never get it. She can’t. Her brain simply doesn’t “do” rational well at all until that frontal cortex is mature. The other concept is true for negotiation with anyone, including your partner and your boss. You have to see their side of the story and communicate to them that you are aware of their feelings….whether or not you agree with them!
Agreeing that they get 2 more bedtime stories but not a snack as well, agreeing that they get the giraffe cup but can’t spill half of it on the new carpet to make a pattern, agreeing that they can wear pajamas to the park but only with shoes are all successes. Tell them that you understand that wearing Spiderman jammies is indeed cooler with Spiderman sneakers helps them negotiate the deal. Honestly saying that you are too tired to read 6 more books using an exaggerated yawn and a sad look helps. You need to go night-night too. They may be able to see your perspective since they are tired as well (but may never admit it to you).
So here is where your paradigm shift happens. You have to be OK with deals that seem unfair to you. Adults want a 50/50 split at the very least. But you aren’t negotiating with another adult. Be prepared to leave your ego at the door. If you are the kind of person that needs to be right, you are going to fail at toddler negotiation. Toddlers negotiate from the heart and with heart. A mature sense of fairness isn’t going to be helpful with an irrational mind. Hint: if you have ever had a totally irrational boss that you actually liked when things weren’t exploding all over the office, you will have had some experience with the toddler mind.
Successful initial negotiations with a toddler often yield a 90/10 split. 90% for them, and 10% for you. If they walk away happy, you should too. This is why this is not only a good deal for you, it is the only way to teach fairness in negotiation: toddlers start out expecting 100%. A 90% deal is, in their mind, having given in big-time. But if they feel OK about it and life goes on, you won. If you can manage that, the next negotiation could be 80/20.
Many toddlers cannot manage this when tired, overwhelmed, hungry, etc. So negotiations can start over something simple, something that doesn’t matter very much to either party, and when things are calm. You are teaching a skill, not making a business deal. But the results could make everyone’s life a lot calmer in the end!