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The Art of Toddler Negotiation

Fatherhood Friday at Dad BlogsAt the time of this posting my daughter just turned 2 years old and she is fully embracing the “terrible 2″ phase. It’s almost like she was reading a magazine article written by another toddler that inspired her to begin consistently using the word “No”, refusing to eat or drink things that she normally loves, disobeying every command and reprimand given by her parents, and fighting like all hell to avoid a nap.

The transformation was quick and impressive – it seemed almost overnight that she became an extremely stubborn, defiant child, who not only disregarded instruction from my wife and I but would also purposely engage in activities that she knew would garner a critical reaction from her parents. This latter point carries some comic relief, especially the devious gaze she gives right before she breaks a house rule. This is when I refer to her as, “My Little Manipulator” – she’s learned how to push our buttons.

Now I’m not a pediatric psychologist or anything, but I’m sure this is all part a child’s natural development – she’s developing her own independent personality and part of that is testing boundaries and also understanding the dynamic between a stimulus and a reaction. Having said this, as a parent, it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Also at play here is a paradox that all Dad’s struggle with – trying to balance protecting a child from getting hurt versus willfully allowing them to fall or get hurt so they can learn more about those boundaries that they are constantly testing. During the first two years of childhood this balance is not overly difficult to manage – for most of the first year you allow your baby to develop their neck muscles, try to crawl, hold a bottle, table surf, and finally walk on their own. Sure, there’s some steps you can take to prevent unneeded injury, like adding table bumpers, but overall the baby needs to learn how to execute these essential tasks and you really can’t teach them how to crawl…not without looking like an idiot.

Fast forward to age 2 where my daughter has a much more advanced control of her motor skills, but still constantly teetering on the edge of serious injury. With this new physical competence she also has an ever-maturing personality and she is determined to get exactly what she wants all the time. As a parent, I of course know what is best for her, particularly in the area of what actions will end up with a trip to the emergency room.

Now, once again I struggle with the paradox of letting her figure things out for herself and allowing to fall, experience pain, cry a little, but hopefully learn. With that said I also think it’s important for her to learn what is right and wrong based on my feedback and instructions. This will ultimately end up being an important life-lesson, I would think. I’m not going to let her try cocaine one day so she can experience the side effects and learn on her own that it’s wrong. I surely hope that as you read this you are shocked and appalled at my juxtaposition of toddlers learning about falling and adults getting hooked on cocaine. You won’t find that type of contrasting inner-debate on every parenting site, now will you!

Circling back to my initial point (yes, there was a point there somewhere) – dealing with a difficult toddler requires parents to enhance their negotiating skills, because like terrorists, you cannot reason with a 2 year old. However, unlike terrorists, you should always try to negotiate.

With any negotiation, it’s all about leverage, and with children you have a plethora of leverage points to make him/her do (or not do) something. For My Little Manipulator, I have found the best negotiation tactic is exploiting television to my advantage. This is typically how it goes down:

Remote Control Negotiation

Remote Control Negotiation

Backdrop – we are in our den with Dora/Yo Gabba Gabba/Sesame Street/Wonder Pets on television. My daughter is causally watching the show, but also playing with toys. Inevitably, she will wander over to the fireplace where there is a raised ledge/hearth 10 inches off the ground spanning the facade of the fireplace and surrounding walls.

Within minutes she is standing on this fireplace hearth.

Functional Father: “Little Manipulator, please get down from the there.”

Little Manipulator: “No!”

Functional Father: “Get down or you will fall and get hurt.”

Little Manipulator: “No!”

Functional Father scratches his head, grabs the remote control and pauses the television show playing (courtesy of DVR capabilities)

Little Manipulator: “Dora?” or “Gabba?” or “Elmo?” or “Ming Ming?”

Functional Father: “Do you want your show back on?”

Little Manipulator with blank stare of confusion and annoyance.

Functional Father: “If you get down, then you can have your show.”

Little Manipulator with blank stare of moderate defiance.

Functional Father: “If you get down, then you can have your show.”

Little Manipulator gets down.

We will repeat this again in 15 minutes

At this stage of parenting, outside of holding a television show hostage, I have only 2 other negotiation tactics – innocent threats/ultimatums and the reward system.

Threats I utilize on a regular basis:

  • “Do you want to go to bed?”
  • “Do you want to go home?” (if we’re out somewhere)
  • “Ok, TV is going off.”
  • “Then no books tonight.”
  • “Alright, bye bye. Daddy’s leaving.”

Examples of the reward system:

  • “If you eat more yogurt, then you get a cracker.”
  • “I’ll give you the Pooh Bear if you…”
  • “Do you want Yo Gabba Gabba so Daddy can change your diaper?”

Perhaps someone reading this will find it pathetic that I am constantly negotiating with a 23 pound 2 year-old, but it’s often the best way to keep my sanity. Outside of spanking or issuing a “time-out” (both of which I also employ in certain situations), negotiation is the only weapon we have to keep our children in check. Just be prepared for a lengthy, frustrating process or hire a Teamster Union President to represent you and deliver the terms to your child.

6 Responses to “The Art of Toddler Negotiation”

  1. Andrea says:

    Keep in mind that she will be a strong, independent woman…eventually :)

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    Welcome to the world of parenting! It continues like that for the next 20 years!

    • Yes, I’d be lying if the next 20 years didn’t enter my mind from time to time. I’m hoping for a large-scale shift in teenage popular culture by then. Specifically, the retirement of female clothing that shows any skin, elimination of pop music videos, and a government-ordered nightly curfew.

  3. Mocha Dad says:

    Negotiating with a toddler is impossible. I just try to make sure no one gets hurt and yelling is left to a minimum.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mocha Dad. I do need to check myself every now and then with the yelling, usually at my wife’s urging. It’s particularly frustrating when you feel like your child is smart (as we do), yet she clearly arranges herself in “un-smart” situations. Lack of intuition frustrates me and I catch myself yelling, which is not good for anyone.

      Moreover, I’ve started to notice my daughter project this same behavior on her dolls. Just the other day she reprimanded her stuffed animal and then thew him in the corner for a “time-out.” Not something I want her to learn.

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