American in Spain

Parenting: Perpetual Bargaining

July 10, 2011

Perpetual BarganingMy two year old now had the mental capacity to reason through simple causal statements like "Mommy is sleeping, because it's night time, so we need to be quiet," but the logical side of her brain isn't yet powerful enough to override the emotional side enough to accept, "It's night time, so you need to lie down in your crib, be quiet, and have the light off and no one else in the room with you." She does, however, accept small bargains where good behavior results in her getting something that she wants. Lately I've been using this to my advantage. In my daughter's mind, the ideal bedtime scenario consists of her mother bending over the side of the crib to hold her hand all night long. When she doesn't get this, she complains. Many nights my daughter and I have followed more or less this exact pattern of negotiations:

Nora: [cry] Daddy! Daddy! Give me your hand, Daddy! [cry]

Daddy: Nora, do you want me to sit down [in this comfortable chair near the crib]?

Nora: [cry] No! Give me your hand, Daddy! [cry]

Daddy: Okay, if you don't want me to sit down, then I'm going to leave.

Nora: [wail] Your hand! Daddy!! [cry]

Daddy: Okay, I'm leaving. Let me know when you want me to sit down. [leaves the room]

Nora: [screams]

[30 seconds of suffered punishment]

Daddy: [opens door] Nora, would you like me to sit down?

Nora: [sob] Daddy, sit down! [sniffle]

Daddy: Okay, I'll sit down, but only if you sit down [in your crib] too.

Nora: Daddy, sit down.

Daddy: If you won't sit down, then I'm going to leave.

Nora: [sits down fast] Daddy, sit down.

Daddy: Okay. [sits down]

[30 seconds of enjoyed reward]

Daddy: Nora, you need to lie down.

Nora: No.

Daddy: [starts to get up] If you won't lie down, I'm leaving.

Nora: Sit down! [lies down]

Daddy: [sits back in chair] Good girl.

Nora: Daddy?

Daddy: What?

Nora: Daddy?

Daddy: What?

Nora: Daddy?

Daddy: What do you want?

Nora: Daddy?

Daddy: [silence]

Nora: Daddy?

Daddy: Nora, you need to be quiet, okay?

Nora: Daddy?

Daddy: If you won't be quiet, I'm going to leave.

Nora: Sit down. [shuts up]

Once I can get her to lie down, be still and quiet, getting her to fall asleep is usually just a matter of 3-4 minutes of sitting in a comfortable chair in the dark. I could keep going, successively moving myself further out the door, but I don't mind a nice contemplative sit at the end of the day.

Of course this isn't a new and innovative parenting technique. Behavioral psychologists call it successive approximations, in rhetoric it's called moving the goalposts, and when the mafia does it, it's called extortion. It's a common method used by the powerful to get the weak to do what they want them to do.

I'm sorry, but due to budget concerns, we're going to have to cancel your pension program...although...the accountants say we could afford it if you could work on Saturdays.

Like all manipulation, it can be unethical, but it doesn't have to be. Whether your raising rent, freeing hostages or haggling on cheap flights to Larnaca, it's a good negotiation technique to have in your toolkit.

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