It’s Saturday and you have errands to run; your son Seth (who at nine is too young to leave on his own) is whining, “But I don’t want to come.” You know how miserable driving around with a sulky kid can be, so you offer him a deal: You’ll buy him a burger at his favourite fast-food spot if he comes along, no whining. He agrees and off you go.
Is it a bribe?
You’re happy with this arrangement until your partner gets home and tells you she thinks you’ve bribed Seth into co-operating. You’re in charge, so Seth should simply do what he’s asked to do without whining, and without the offer of a burger. You see it as negotiation. Who’s right?
It’s a bribe, says Sherry Beaumont, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern British Columbia, but that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Bribes may work effectively with younger children — and at nine, Seth counts as younger — but as children get older, Beaumont says negotiation is preferable. “Bribes are about power differential — something is being offered by the person with more power to influence the other person. That makes it ultimately ineffective and unsatisfying to older children who are ready to be involved in negotiation.”
She gives some examples: “If a parent offers to take a child out for a burger if she cleans her room, for example, that’s a bribe. But if the parent says to the child that he, the parent, has a problem with the state of the child’s room, and the child says she doesn’t want to clean the room, and then they begin the process of resolving the problem in a way that satisfies both of their needs, that’s negotiation. There’s some give-and-take on both sides.”
Younger kids generally accept the authority of their parents, according to Beaumont (toddler tantrums notwithstanding), but as they become preteens, they “develop greater reasoning and problem-solving skills, and naturally want to practise those skills by making contributions to family decision making — by negotiating. At the same time, they start to question why their parents should have unilateral authority.”
So yes, you’re right in suspecting your authority is being challenged when your 11-year-old wants to negotiate about everything. On the other hand, that’s a normal part of adolescence and a sign of growing social maturity.
Moving to negotiation
How can you and your child move from bribery to negotiation? Try these steps:
• Make sure you both understand the problem or issue. In the example with Seth, you need to complete some errands and Seth doesn’t want to go.
• Begin suggesting or brainstorming possible solutions. Maybe the errands could wait until your partner is home to stay with Seth. Maybe you could drop him off at a friend’s house on your way. Maybe he could bring a video game to play in the car so it will be less boring.
• Evaluate your solutions until you can both agree on one — which may involve some compromise for each of you. For example, you might decide that Seth will come with you for the first couple of errands, then you will drop him off to visit his buddy while you finish up the rest. It means he has to endure a few errands, and you have to drive a little out of your way, but it’s a deal you can both live with.
“Negotiation is effective and necessary in any relationship,” Beaumont says, “and a positive way to solve problems.” Of course, the parent-child relationship is unique. Your preteen will need to understand that ultimately you, as the parent, do have more power — and more experience — but that you are open to his input.