The Behavior Dialogue:
Negotiating Agreements: The “How To” (Discipline Skill #1)
In this process (the Behavior Dialogue) you use all the listening skills (acknowledging, questions,and reflecting) and the illustrating skills (especially modeling and I-messages). While arriving at an agreement on something here and now is important to you, what’s even more important in the long run is that the child learning to respectfully negotiate a solution to a problem and reach an agreement that you can both live with.
The following steps might seem pretty complicated at first. But they’re very logical, and if you make this your standard M.O. (method of operation), you’ll get pretty good at it, and you’ll be able to do the whole process without even trying to concentrate on whether all the steps have been used. What’s even better, the child will also become capable, through practice, of intuitively using a very important life skill: negotiating an agreed-upon solution to relationship problems.
Step 1: Set the table–get her attention by inviting cooperation. Here you invite the child to enter into a dialogue with you about something you consider important. These should be stated as “I-messages.” In other words, they start with the word “I.” As the parent, I am conveying to my child that I am the one who has a problem, and not that the child is the problem, has a problem, or is doing something wrong. For example:
- “Johnny, I’d like to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me.”
- “I’d like to get your help on solving a problem we’ve got around here.”
- “I was wondering what made you so upset with me yesterday when…….”
- “Honey, I’m having a problem with something and I’m hoping you can help me with it.”
Step 2: In an I-message, state YOUR problem as clearly as you can. In other words, give your reason(s) as to why you think it’s a problem for you. You can refer to what the child does behaviorally. This is a legitimate part of an “I-message.” Give them your reason, too. Examples:
- “I get irritated when you whine, because you’re not a baby and I expect you to act your age.”
- “I got upset when you hit your sister earlier, because I don’t like you kids hurting each other.”
- “I get worried when I don’t know where you are when you’re out at night, because it can be very dangerous and I’m afraid you might get hurt (or in serious trouble, etc.).”
Don’t pass negative judgments on the child, like “When you act like such a little baby,” or “When you bully your sister,” or “When you go gallavanting the streests all night.”
Don’t propose the solution. Don’t start out by saying something like, “Would you be willing to take out the trash?” Or, “From now on it’s your job to take the trash out whenever the bag is full.” It’s too early to start imposing solutions. You might say something like:
- “I have a problem with the garbage bag getting full, and starting to smell, I really don’t like smelly garbage in the kitchen.”
- “When you and I are at the store, and you start whining and crying and reaching for things, I get upset with you, I get distracted from what I’m trying to do there.”
- “When you hit your sister earlier, I got angry with you because I was afraid you might hurt her.
Step 3: Ask for their ideas.. Build a list of possibilities. Here’s a great way to invite their cooperation. Simply ask, “What do you think we can do about this?” Or, “What should we do about this?” Or, “How can we handle this?” There are lots of ways this can be put out there–the point is you’re inviting their ideas before giving your own. Other examples:
- “What ideas do you have about how we could handle this?” Or,
- “How do you think this could be handled?”
- “What do you think should be done?”
- “How do you think you could do better in that situation?”
You’re asking him to brainstorm possibilities here. Accept and acknowledge everything he says as a possible solution, even if it’s unacceptable to you. Then ask for more ideas. Let’s say he says, “Make Sue do it.” Or, “Let mom do it.” Or, “Do it yourself!” You can respond with, “Okay, those are some possibilities. What other possibilities are there?” He might not suggest that he could do it, so you can put that one on the table: “Well, another possibility is that you could do it.” When he objects, listen to the objections (“Sue never has to do anything!”). Don’t get into an argument about what s/he says, but use I-messages to let him know how you see it: “I see you as part of the family team, and I expect you contribute your fair share.” Listen to his objections (“I always have to do everything!”). Again, don’t take the bait and get into an argument, but let him know what you think, using I-messages (“I expect you to do a little more to help out around here.”), not you-messages (“You never do anything around here!” Or, “You’re nothing but a lazy oaf!”).
Step 4: Share your ideas. You have ideas too. They count as much as the kid’s ideas! You might say:
- “Okay, I have some ideas too. Would you like to hear what they are?” (Seek permission first!)
- “Well, I have some ideas that I’d like you to consider.”
- “I’m going to share my ideas with you.”
- “I’d like you to hear my ideas now.”
Share those ideas on what you would like to see happen, or what you expect from your child as a member of the family team. Eliminate possibilities that are completely unacceptable to either of you.
Step 5: Pop the question: “Okay, so, what can we agree on here?” As this discussion continues, remember what your main objective is: reaching an agreement. Don’t force your solution, even if it means you don’t get an agreement this time around. Be willing to let the subject drop (for the time being) if he digs in his heels and refuses to play ball with you. “Okay, Johnny, we’ve eliminated all the possibilities. I was hoping you’d agree to take on that responsibility. Why don’t you think about it, and we’ll talk about it again later.” This is all about parenting smarter (New School), not power and control (Old School). You are trying to teach cooperation, not force compliance, submission, or obedience. This is part of why New School parenting methods work better than Old School methods.
You could, of course, try to ram it down his throat. (“That’s enough! It’s your job from now on, and that’s that! Got it?”). Life happens that way sometimes, and Johnny has to learn how to cope with it, right? Well, he will (hopefully) at some point, but right now you’re trying to help him to learn to negotiate solutions to problems and reach agreements. Try not to view this as a zero-sum, win-lose type of ball game. If you drop the discussion for the time being, and let Johnny think about it, he just might surprise you. He might come up with something “out of the box.” (“I talked to Sue and she’s willing to take the garbage out if I load the dishwasher for her twice a week.”) Or, he might even agree to do it himself–perhaps with a condition attached. (“Okay, I’ll take the garbage out if I can stay out till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.”) If it’s an outlandish proposal, you might want to make a counter-proposal. (“Well, I think that’s too late, Johnny, but I’d be willing to say ten o’clock on one of those nights if we know where you are and how you’re getting home.”) You want more than what he might be willing to do. You want a commitment. Have a little more discussion here, and be willing to bargain, till you’re clear that he’s proposing an adequate solution in your eyes (that is, an agreement you can live with). If you incorporate his/her ideas into your agreement, you greatly increase the chance of cooperation and commitment to follow through.
The big value I see in negotiating agreements with children is that, besides teaching them how to do it, agreements constitute the basis for an effective discipline system. When the child doesn’t follow through on agreements, the parent has two options, at least: 1) administering the punishment (Old School approach), and 2) holding them accountable for breaking their agreement via the “You-and-Me Dialogue” (my New School approach). I prefer the latter, particularly with children who are willing to “play ball,” talk things through with you, and reach the agreement in the first place.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my ebook that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model (power, control, and punishments) and the New School Parenting model (dialogue, agreements, and accountability). The ideas contained here represent a shift from parenting harder to parenting smarter. They can transform a stressed parent-child relationship from conflict and arguments to one of cooperation and harmony. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.
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