Negotiating With a 3-Year-Old

Even though it is tempting, and perhaps effective, to run my house like a dictatorship, sometimes my daughter craves a more democratic regime.
03/17/2014 01:36 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

Once your kid starts talking, they also start talking back. They probably won't be smart a**es all the time, but enough to test the limits of your patience with the precision of Isaac Newton. Unless you're a Dickens character, chances are that your kid will feel comfortable asserting their will against you at times, and you will have to decide when to put your foot down (preferably not on their head).

Recently, I saw this video of a little boy debating with his mom about his attempt to steal cupcakes after she told him that he couldn't have any. This video has clearly gone viral because so many parents relate to it. Maybe our grandparents' generation would have never tolerated this type of "conversation" because it would have ended with getting beaten by a tree trunk, but since corporal punishment is frowned upon these days, kids are both seen and heard.

One of the great challenges of disciplining our children is how often we have to do it -- especially when they are toddlers (otherwise known as a**holes). My 3-year-old daughter has the mental capacity to verbalize her desires -- incessantly, mind you -- but she often lacks the tools to deal with her emotions if she doesn't get what she wants. When she relies on her base instincts to express her discontent, it is easier for me to stand my ground. The whining, weeping and wailing don't make me want to give in to her. It may be annoying to witness her protests, but I feel justified in my reasoning.

Yet children are like the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park -- eventually, they will find a way. The art of negotiation is one of the most effective strategies for getting what you want as an adult, which is exactly what the 3-year old in that video exhibited brilliantly.

My daughter is also discovering the effectiveness of debate. She has begun to realize that if she approaches me politely and attempts to outwit me with logic rather than tears, there is a greater chance that I will cave.

Munch: "Mamma, can I have a treat?"

Toni: "No, you just woke up, you can't have a treat for breakfast."

Munch: "What if I ate a really healthy breakfast? Then can I have a treat?"

Toni: "But it is the morning. It would be insane to give you a treat at 8 a.m.."

Munch: "Mom, you could give me just one candy, and then I won't ask for any more treats for the rest of the day."

Toni: "Yeah, but that is still just not done. Treats in the morning will get me committed into an institution. I can't let you start your day with sugar."

Munch: "I have an idea. I will eat my healthy breakfast and you will give me one candy. I will put in in my pocket and wait for three and a half minutes. And then I can have it?"

Toni: "No sugar for breakfast."

Munch: "But you know how we sometimes have pancakes for breakfast?"

Toni: "Yes..."

Munch: "Well, pancakes are a treat aren't they? They have maple syrup sugar on them."

Toni: "Ummmmm yes... but for some reason that is socially acceptable."

Munch: "So maybe I should have a candy this morning, and we won't have pancakes."

Toni: "You weren't going to have pancakes anyway. I am making you eggs."

Munch: "How about if I have my treat in the morning after my healthy breakfast, I won't have a treat later. Then, I won't eat sugar at night so I can go to sleep nice and early and won't stay awake because of the sugar."

Toni, internally: Why does that actually make a lot of sense to me right now?

Even though it is tempting, and perhaps effective, to run my house like a dictatorship, sometimes my daughter craves a more democratic regime. Her challenging my rules and rationale is not always something I want to deal with, but I also respect her tenacity. It would be more convenient if my daughter did everything I said without trying to dispute me, but it is also important our children learn the skills of dialogue and persuasion.

PS: I want to arrange a marriage between my daughter and that 3-year-old cupcake negotiator.

For more on this conversation around discipling your toddler, watch this video blog!