The Behavior Dialogue: Negotiating Agreements:
The first New School discipline skill is the ability to negotiate agreements with a child about right behavior. I call this the Behavior Dialogue. This forms the basis for holding the child accountable for their actions, which is discipline skill #2 (the Accountability Dialogue, or the “You-and-Me-Dialogue“).
But first of all, what the rationale for why a parent should negotiate “acceptable behavior” with a child?. As the parent, shouldn’t you just define the rules, and tell the child what’s acceptable, expected, and demanded? No! The New School way substitutes agreements for rules. Why?
Agreements Are Better Than Rules
Agreements with children are much more effective than “rules.” When a child makes an agreement with you, they are more likely to observe it than they are to obey a “rule” that was imposed against their will. I refer to this conversation as the “Behavior Dialogue.”
Once an agreement is reached, the child can be held accountable for breaking it, and you should expect that they will, often enough, break their agreements. At that time you will want to hold them accountable for breaking their agreement, and you can do that by entering what refer to as the “You-and-Me Dialogue,” which is a substitute for punishments, and which I describe in a different article. Right here I’m interested in discussing the “why” or the rationale of negotiating things with a child. In Part 2 of this article on Negotiating Agreements I address the details of “how” to do it.
The Golden Rule
In both the “Behavior Dialogue” and the “Accountability Dialogue” you are inviting the child to verbalize their ideas and feelings about an issue, and listening to what they say. If you can genuinely see your child as a person whom you take seriously, and who has ideas and feelings that you honor as much as your own, then you are showing them that you have the highest respect for them. This will not go unnoticed or unappreciated by them. At the same time, by sharing your own thoughts and feelings on the topic, you also stand up for yourself, letting the child know that you want to be treated the way you are treating them. While you are not being a dictator by imposing laws, neither are you being a marsh mellow or a doormat by letting them push you around or walk all over you. In this way you are helping the child–regardless of age–begin to learn the simple and profound truth contained in that fundamental concept of all moral systems: the Golden Rule (Treat others as you want to be treated) is the one rule everybody can agree on, and it never needs to be negotiated!
Dialogue leads to agreements, which replace rules.
You are accountable too.
Agreements on any topic can be reached with children of any age, as long as you are willing to take the time to engage in the conversation or dialogue. This will have to happen many times over, about many different issues, and whenever agreements are broken. In addition, by entering into these dialogues and establishing these agreements, you are most likely going to be freely and knowingly binding yourself to a commitment, just as the child is. This means, of course, that the child can hold you accountable as well. And children love to do this sort of thing–which is proof positive that are learning from you, from your modeling, how to handle a relationship fairly and respectfully.
Four phases of negotiating
In its simplest form, the basic guideline for negotiating agreements, or my “rule of thumb,” is that you want to include the child’s opinions as much as possible in decisions you make about them. There are basically four phases to reaching an agreement about something with your child (or anyone else, for that matter):
- Invite and listen to the child’s ideas and feelings about the issue, including options they find acceptable.
- Communicate your own ideas and feelings, including options you find acceptable, clearly in terms that the child can understand.
- Refine and/or eliminate options through discussion.
- “Pop the question,” that is, ask the child, “So, what can we agree on here?” Here you are requesting the child’s voluntary commitment on an option that the two of you find mutually acceptable. You yourself must be in agreement with what is proposed. If you are not, let the child know that and ask again for his idea on a possible agreement. If he needs help, propose your own idea.In much of the human relations literature this voluntary commitment is referred to as “free and informed consent.” It’s important for adults in all of life’s situations, and it’s important for kids as well.
Give as much credence to the child’s ideas as you possibly can.
I recommend that the parent give as much weight as possible to the child’s suggestions, even if it seems you are “stretching the limits” of what you find acceptable. It will show the child that you truly respect their opinions and take them seriously. It will give you more leverage in the “You-and-Me Dialogue” when holding the child accountable for a transgression. And it’s far more important to help the child learn to care, which I spell CAIRE (cooperation, accountability, integrity, responsibility, and empathy). This is a long-term undertaking, and it’s far more important than for the parent to “win” a battle of wills in the here and now over a comparatively minor issue. This is especially true if you are engaged in power struggle with your child, when you own ego is the driving force that motivates you to win and “teach the kid a lesson,” or “put them in their place.” And let’s face it: this does happen to us as parents because we’re only human.
In part two of discussing the Behavior Dialogue (“Negotiating Agreements, The How-To“), I have laid out some details, or hints, that you might find helpful in moving through the four phases of the “agreement conversation” and the “You-and-Me Dialogue” as well.
New School stuff
This is New School stuff. It’s not the way of our parents, who understandably used Old School (power and control) methods used with us in a different era. As children we tended to be more accepting than kids are today of parental authority, the use of power and control methods of imposing rules and consequences, demanding obedience, and then administering negative consequences (punishments) when we broke the rules. I don’t see negotiating with kids as surrendering power or authority in any way. I see it as using parental power and authority in a different way, and in a far more effective way at that.
My rationale for this approach
My rationale for taking this approach of negotiating with children, even very young ones, is that it is entirely possible. They can and will negotiate. They have a keen sense of fair play. I see breaking a voluntary agreement, which is a two-way street called mutual respect, as a far cry from breaking an imposed rule or law, which is a one-way street called being in charge. In this respect, it might help you to recall the times in your life when you fell in love, or became infatuated with someone, or were simply introduced to a new person. You were undoubtedly hyper-conscious about being fair and respectful toward that special person, and you might have been willing to “bend over backwards” to show them your greatest respect. How much more so do your children deserve that kind of treatment?
And the best part of all, your child will learn to cooperate with you instead of resisting you, because you are cooperating with him. What he is learning, through repeated practice with you, is responsibility, which is far better than mere obedience.
To be sure, this New School approach may seem risky. Here are some of the things you risk in using it. You might get that weird feeling at first, like you’re weak, or giving in, or giving too much, or not in charge of your child. You might feel anxious, uneasy, or fearful at first that you (or your position on an issue) will be changed. Indeed, that could happen, and then you might be in new and unfamiliar territory, faced with the challenge of letting go of part of your previously held position and adopting a new viewpoint. That’s the risk (but also part of the power) of listening, which I consider to be 90% of communication. On top of that, you’re suffering an “indignity” (that is, a blow to your ego) willingly, at the hands of your child. This is not welcome territory to the ego. But then again, parenting is not for wimps.
As if that’s not hard enough, you might also run the risk of feeling guilty because you might think you’re rebelling against your own parents’ ideals or directives, and tossing some lifelong lessons or ideals of theirs out the window. Well, so be it. Just as you are encouraging your child to stand up and negotiate with you, it’s obviously your right and responsibility to stand up and negotiate something new with your own parents, by which I mean the memory of your own mother or father you’ve been carrying with you. Take the risk here. Try something new with your child. See how it goes. After a period of time of experimenting with this approach, you might just be amazed at what you’re starting to learn about and see in your child–as well as in yourself.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.