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June 19, 2020

How to use your negotiating skills (with your kids)

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Apr. 7, 2021.

    You're great at negotiating deals at the office, but when it comes to your kids, do your tactics fall flat? Writing for Harvard Business Review, Mary Kern and Terri Kurtzberg offer four tips to successfully apply your office negotiation skills to negotiations with your children.

    Should you be nice or tough in negotiations? Here's what the research says.

    Mary Kern is an organizational psychologist and associate professor of management at Baruch College–City University of New York, and Kurtzberg is an associate professor of management at Rutgers Business School.

    Why it's hard to negotiate with children

    Parents typically have to negotiate with their children frequently, with one informal survey finding that parents negotiate with their children six times a day on average, Kern and Kurtzberg write. They also note that negotiations with children present unique challenges that don't often occur in a professional work environment.

    For instance, they note workplace negotiations typically are pre-planned and quickly resolved, meaning there's less repetition from one situation to the next. However, at home negotiations with children can

    occur out of nowhere, and parents often are forced to have the same conversations related to bedtime and meals on a near daily basis. In addition, negotiations that take place at home often become emotionally charged, as children are prone to guilt-trips and meltdowns—which are negotiation tools that differ from our work colleagues, Kern and Kurtzberg write.

    4 tips for negotiating with children

    But just because you're not partaking in an office negotiation when you're talking with your children, doesn't mean you can't use many of the same negotiation tools you'd use at work, Kern and Kurtzberg write. Here are four tips on how to negotiate with children like you would a colleague, according to Kern and Kurtzberg.

    1. Stay focused on the big picture

    Typically, when you're approaching a negotiation at work, you know your overarching goal and can focus your negotiations on that outcome, Kern and Kurtzberg write. According to Kern and Kurtzberg, parents can take the same approach with their children.

    They provide an example of a parent whose daughter doesn't want to wear a hat outside. Instead of arguing with their child over the matter, the parent proposed they play a game of Little Red Riding Hood. The parent told their daughter that their scarf was Little Red Riding Hood's hood, and said the parent would "get to be the star" of the game because they'd be wear the scarf, Kern and Kurtzberg write. That led the child to "be[g] to wear" the scarf over her head, according to Kern and Kurtzberg

    Kern and Kurtzberg explain that, in the situation, the parent focused on their main goal of keeping their daughter's head warm rather than forcing her to wear a hat. "Knowing what's most important, and what you can or cannot live without in an agreement, will help you stay true to your 'north star' instead of getting stuck on any one idea," Kern and Kurtzberg write.

    2. Ask questions

    When a parent and their children disagree, the parent should try to figure out why their children sees the situation differently by asking them questions—much like they'd do with a colleague, Kern and Kurtzberg write.

    For example, Kern and Kurtzberg cite an instance in which a child wanted to eat a donut that was whole instead of a donut that was divided into two halves, with the parent giving the child one half at a time. After an "ugly" confrontation, the parent "gave in out of exasperation" and allowed the child to have a whole donut, Kern and Kurtzberg note.

    "If we had a disagreement like this at work, we would likely ask the colleague why they cared so much about it, but the parent skipped this step," Kern and Kurtzberg write.

    Asking for the child's perspective "might have changed the interaction in tone at least, if not in behavior," according to Kern and Kurtzberg. Further, they write, "Offering [the child] the chance to participate and explain his side would also have helped inspire a sense of fair play."

    3. Use the correct approach at the right moment

    "Every executive knows that some battles don't need to be fought at all, some might be strategically postponed, and others just need a firm decision from the top-down," Kern and Kurtzberg write. Along those same lines, parents should know to pick their "battles" with their children and identify when they'd "benefit from choosing the right strategy for the right moment instead of engaging thoughtlessly," Kern and Kurtzberg note.

    And that includes knowing when it's better to "disengage entirely," according to Kern and Kurtzberg. They write that it's okay for parents to utilize the phrase, "'Because I said so!'" But they caution that, "if used too often, our kids start to tune it (and you) out." They note, "Explaining how decisions get made can greatly increase compliance and goodwill."

    4. Say what you want in an appealing way

    According to Kern and Kurtzberg, "[e]ffective managers know that it's not just what you say, but how you say it." Parents can use that skill with their children, too, and "minimize contentious back-and-forth by crafting their statements to pave the way towards acceptance," Kern and Kurtzberg write.

    To do so, parents can use the following strategies:

    • Go first: Parents should be the first to make an offer in a negotiation with their children—and they should do so with the anticipation of a counteroffer. This will set both parents' and childrens' expectations and anchor the remainder of the conversation, Kern and Kurtzberg write;

    • Give children a choice: Instead of giving children one offer, patients should give their kids two or three choices. Allowing children to make a choice "gives [them] a sense of control over both the process and outcome," according to Kern and Kurtzberg;

    • Provide reference points: People tend to "consider offers not in isolation, but as compared to other alternatives," Kern and Kurtzberg explain. They write, "For example, an item on sale seems like a great deal in no small part because of the larger (original) price tag." Similarly, providing children with reference points can help the ultimate conclusion of a negotiation seem more reasonable. For instance, parents could let their children know that a punishment could have been worse given their actions, but that they're giving the child some leniency;

    • Address fairness. According to Kern and Kurtzberg, children often have their own ideas of what fairness looks like. If they express that something feels unfair, parents should talk with them and analyze why they feel that way; and

    • Remember that silence can be useful: Sometimes it's useful to stay silent, as it can prevent parents from prematurely making unilateral concessions and allow children the chance to contribute to the conversation, Kern and Kurtzberg write.

    Overall, Kern and Kurtzberg note that "[s]uccessful managers know how to prioritize their goals, ask good questions, and put offers on the table in ways that inspire creativity and generate agreements that both sides want to say yes to." They write, "These same skills can help working parents … create positive outcomes with their kids to both help navigate difficult moments and model effective problem-solving skills" (Kern/Kurtzberg, Harvard Business Review, 5/29).

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