3 year olds and the art of negotiation

Uttered by my daughter last night to a good friend:

“Auntie M! Auntie M! When Mommy told me to go sit on the step, I DIDN’T ARGUE!!!”

Ah, it’s the little things.

Yes, we have a negotiator in the house (and no, it’s not me). J’s first answer to just about everything is “no” or “but” and I’m seeing how this is a huge foreshadowing of her teenage years.

So yesterday we had a discussion about how some things are ok to negotiate and some aren’t, and time-out is one of those that clearly falls in the “non-negotiable” camp. Not much later, she was mad because she hadn’t finished her dinner and therefore was not getting dessert. She literally smacked the table twice with her hands in anger/frustration. Since this is not acceptable behavior, I told her she needed to go sit on the step and cool off. Normally this is met with “no” and “I don’t want to” and on and on and on. This time however, she went and sat and took a breath and waited for me to do the same (yes, I think time outs are often just as much for parent as for child). Then I asked her, as I always do when they go to time out, “Why did you get sent to the step?” And she said, “because I did THIS” and she repeated the hand smacking motion. And I asked her “and is that ok to do?” “Noooo” she says.

But I didn’t want her other breakthrough to go unnoticed. So I said to her: “BUT, J, I want to say thank you SOOOO much for not arguing with Mommy when I told you to go to time out. I’m very proud of you for doing such a good job!” And she was thrilled. She lit up and ran around the house yelling “I didn’t ARGUE!!!!”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of parent who thinks children need to be obedient little creatures doing the will of their parents. But I do think that negotiations have a time and a place. And when you have a child who negotiates EVERYTHING (“How many bites do I have to eat? “I want to hold your OTHER hand.” “Hey I have a great idea, how about [insert anything here that makes it so she ends up getting the better end of the stick]?”) it can get to a point where they are trying to negotiate basic safety issues, e.g. holding hands in a large crowd or in the parking lot. While I don’t want to quash her natural enthusiasm for building a better mousetrap (who knows, maybe she’ll cure cancer), she has to learn there’s a time and place.

This whole experience taught me something about her, and something about myself. It taught me to remember to praise more than anything else, because the results are much more immediate and much longer lasting. And it taught me that J is mature enough to understand the concept of a time and a place. While she might be too young to know how to implement it consistently, she gets it, and she’s a smarter cookie than we give her credit for sometimes.

And boy do I love that smart little cookie.


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