Brainy Fridays: The Busy-Brained Negotiator

This is a post that came to The Equuschick in a moment of sheer inspiration during a fb conversation with a friend whose 4 year old had announced during supper, “Mommy! I’m helping you.” When his mother asked how, specifically, he was helping her, he replied cheerfully, “By eating my supper and not spilling it on the floor. By not dumping the crockpot out onto the kitchen counters. By not throwing my dishes off the table…” and etc.

This amusing incident of course touched off a discussion on how small children resemble nothing so much as politicians in their ability to redefine terms, realities and expectations.

And then it dawned on The Equuschick that most likely, every mother in the world of a busy-brained child must need some serious hostage negotiation Skillz training, man.

Because here’s the thing about Busybrains and negotiation. It isn’t that only busy-brained children negotiate. Hardly. Children like to argue.

But Busybrains? The trouble is, they are really, really, really, good at negotiation. And they are very, very, very persistent with their negotiations. Maybe they’re good because they are so persistent, or maybe they persist because they know they’re good, who knows.

What is known, is that they are so good that they Win. Alot.

Now, the first question to consider here is whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing. And this depends. The Equuschick has struggled with this intensely over the past year, especially, trying to walk a fine line between being willing to be flexible and open to other ideas (because the Dread Pirate Grasshopper has some good ones) and making it unmistakably clear that she is the final authority.

At this point The Equuschick would like to make it especially clear this is very much another one of those Calling All Older & Wiser Mothers, S.O.S, sorta posts. If you’ve been there, and have some thoughts, please chime in.

The Equuschick can only address this from where she now stands, so for the record here are her current thoughts. (These are not things she’s currently very good at, mind. She could wish she were much better at them.)

There are some things in life that are negotiable. There are some things in life that are not. The first thing is to have this distinction very clear in your head. The second thing is for the Parent to know very clearly in their own mind which is which. Are you going to die on that hill, or are you willing to host a peace summit on that hill? Parenting is full of hills, veritable landmines for the undecided. So ideally, you should never go in undecided. That old adage “think before you speak” is very, very applicable here. Think first, commit second, speak last.

Then you’ll know, before you even start speaking to your Busy-brain, how to start your conversation. If it is a peace summit, you can phrase it as a request or consideration. If it is a hill for dying on, then you know to phrase it as a command and follow through accordingly.

A brief interlude here to point out the obvious, namely, sometimes you’ll make the wrong decision and you’ll find yourself dying on a hill you thought was meant for peace, or vice versa. Sorry, The Equuschick can’t help you there. You’re just toast. Ha.

No worries, The Equuschick has been toast lots of times. Here’s the tip to help untoast you slightly- You can always apologize. This might not matter if it was a peace summit hill and your own preferences were the only things sacrificed, but in the unfortunate event that your child died on a hill you later realized needn’t have been a battlefield, do go back and admit your mistaken priorities. You won’t be telling your child anything he didn’t already know when you say “Hey, I just blew it and I’m sorry,” but your child will respect you more (and not less) for the open confession.

So yeah, you’re going to make some lousy decisions. But make the decisions anyway. An undecided parent is never far away from a land-mine.

The Equuschick is not going to advise you on which matters are negotiable and which aren’t, because that’s your business. However, she will say, that even on the negotiables, it is still very important for a child to learn to negotiate respectfully. The Equuschick could go on a great deal about what is due to a parent in this regard, blah blah blah…But while this is not necessarily untrue, there is more to it than that. Learning to communicate and negotiate successfully and respectfully is a life skill that will serve your child very well into adulthood.

What your rules are in this matter will vary. “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” are good things for a child to learn to say, though hardly mandatory. What is mandatory is to learn to take turns when speaking. Modeling this yourself, as the parent, helps the child to learn this, but on the other hand, your child can’t learn this if he’s always the one getting to talk first. So it is quite acceptable to tell a child sometimes “It is my turn to speak and your turn to listen, when I’m done talking I will listen.” (One visual way The Equuschick has read about this being enforced is to carry with you a literal picture, laminated or some such, of an ear and a mouth. The person with the mouth talks while the person with the ear listens, and when it is time to switch turns, you trade visual aids.)

Perhaps the most significant matter on the subject of respectful negotiations is the matter of tone. But it is also the most tricky, because this one, even more than all the others, is the one that has to be “caught, not taught.” Your child will speak in the tones they have heard, and they will not know how to speak in tones that they have never (or rarely) heard. Some tools can help with this, such as rewarding polite tones with a spoonful of honey and rude tones with a spoonful of soap or vinegar and some choice passage in the book of Proverbs, so use all these tools. But the bottom line on this one is that your children will speak to you, in the tones they have learned from you.

But what about those other hills, the ones you know you need to die on? You know your child is going to ask why. Do you discuss your reasons for making this a non-negotiable? Sometimes, yes, of course you should. Sometimes not. Sometimes, you can, but you can only explain so much before you realize it doesn’t matter how long you explain yourself, your child is not going to be happy about it. In that case, beware: It might be acceptable (and sometimes it is much the wiser choice) to explain yourself, but some days your child wants more than explanations, he wants negotiations on the non-negotiable. To even begin the process is to lose the high ground. You have to decide.

So you Decide. You’re gonna die on this hill, because you are convicted. But instead of a glorious and final death on the battlefield, you find yourself locked up in some excruciating, lingering, guerrilla warfare. Psychological torture is next on your Busybrain’s agenda and you’re all JUST SHOOT ME ALREADY.

This is the fate of the mother of a negotiating busybrain who made one crucial error. Just one.

She argued back.

Once you have mounted that hill, here is what you need to understand: You OWN that hill. You are not defending that hill, you OWN it, and you’re not gonna come back down and in fact, you don’t even speak english, or whatever language your would-be adversary is arguing with you in.

This is not going to be popular advice, but don’t mistake this advice for a parent’s raging tempter tantrum. When you own the hill, it doesn’t look like that at all. Things only look like that when you’re afraid of losing the hill.

When you own the hill, there are lots of versions of how that would look. If you’re interested in the “professional” version, Dr. Lucy Jo Palladino calls one approach the Broken Record Approach in Dreamers, Discoverers & Dynamos: How to Help the Child Who Is Bright, Bored and Having Problems in School (Formerly Titled ‘The Edison Trait’). Specifically, your state your command in a calm and quiet monotone, and every time your child voices an objection you repeat your command in the same tone and begin to enforce it yourself, via the hand-over-hand method if your child is small enough, or by removing privileges one by one until the child “gets” it. (Turn the t.v off if it is on, take food away, carry a child to time-out spot, etc.) But you always use the same tone and the same command. (In the book, the author specifies this approach for a child much nearer the teen-age years, and The Equuschick will be honest. She thinks that if a teen-ager still needs this approach something has gone majorly wrong and you need to get Way More Serious than a Broken Record, but this is a good approach for a toddler or a preschooler.)

If you caught the subtle hint of the Broken Record analogy you’ve probably already realized that this approach is not very dramatic, at least on the parent’s end. You are not engaged in open combat as the child’s adversary. You are the Wall on the Hill.

You don’t have to move forward. All you have to do is stay where you are and let the child run up against you as many times as it takes to wear themselves down. You only have to remember two things:

1. Stay Calm.
2. Be Persistent.

Yes, this approach can be extremely exhausting. The Equuschick’s phrase of choice is “I am not going to discuss this anymore.” Having said this phrase, she usually shuts up and grabs some coffee and chocolate and hunkers down with some metaphorical earmuffs. She knows she’s in for a long assault.

Sometimes, for fun, she says with a southern accent, “I’ve said my piece and I’ve counted to three.” (Special points to anyone who can name that reference.) That’s another helpful idea- Use humour. Be funny. Inflexible, but funny.

There are other parents who also warn the child himself not to bring the forbidden subject up again or run the risk of discipline, and while she very much understands that theory as well, The Equushchick has never mustered the energy for it. (With the DPG, it requires a great dealof energy because he is both persistent, and very slippery. He has very clever and veiled ways of approaching the unapproachable.)

Then again, there is the approach where a child loses certain privileges once the negotiation has crossed that invisible line that leads to what is commonly called “nagging.” The Equuschick hasn’t tried it yet, but has been beginning to wonder if the DPG might be old enough to benefit from this approach this year. “If you ask me again for a popsicle, than not only are you not going to get one today, you won’t get one tomorrow at all either.” That sort of thing.

In summary, there is very little here that is specific only to Busybrains. It is just that, if you have a Busybrain, you probably find yourself dealing with this issue a wee bit more than you would if your child’s brain wasn’t just so crazy busy all the time.

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  1. Posted August 30, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Counted to three: O Brother, Where Art Thou? Interesting how many people quoting it online spell it “said my peace.”

  2. Juanita
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I would just say not to automatically say no to everything. It’s a trap that parents often fall into. It’s much easier to negotiate if you haven’t already said no, because sometimes, on further reflection, their request is actually reasonable. “We’ll see”, “I’ll think about it”, and “we’ll have to talk to your dad” all work well. However, I have banned further discussion until *I* am ready to discuss it. My younger kids are 12 & 14 and they know when the “look” tells them they better be quiet now or lose the chance of getting a positive reply. 🙂

  3. Fatcat
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    This persistence does pay off eventually. The teen years are so wonderful when you have parented well and persistently in early childhood and your teens are responsible and respectful.

    Hang in there.

  4. Headmistress, zookeeper
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    We are using the “If you ask again, you’re in trouble for merely *asking*” approach with your brother. He says he is not asking to nag, but because he forgot. This may be true, in which case, we are only giving him an incentive to help his memory. He does nag with great charm and charisma, and also wit, which is probably why, at 15, he still does it.

    At any rate, my point is only that I agree, I wouldn’t do this with the Dread Pirate Grasshopper yet, but there is a time when it may be useful.

  5. Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I was so relieved to read this and finally see some practical advice for my daughter! This sounded so much like most conversations we have. Thank you for the humor and help.

  6. SanderM
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I have really enjoyed the Brainy Friday posts. I have a 4 year old expert negotiator, I often appreciate his skill as it seems to help facilitate more discussion and less outright tantrums. Its hilarious to watch him convince his 3 year old sister that she really wants to share nicely with him, take a bath, give him half of her cookie ect. But I have to watch out for this as there is a fine line between convincing and bulling. And I have started the “if you ask for that again, no matter how differently you phrase it this time, you will not get it at all today” approach.

  7. Lizzie Smith
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Lots of food for thought here. Thank you.

    Learning to limit the questions or head them off entirely has been a most useful skill with my BusyBrain. I’ve been slipping in that department lately, and need to step back up and require respect in all our dealings.

  8. Inga
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    If I have already said yes to something, such as “we’ll have ice cream after supper,” or “we’ll go to the park when the baby gets up,” and the child is still nagging, I try getting those reasoning skills to work in my favour. “Did Mama already say ‘yes’? Does Mama lie to you?” (hopefully the child doesn’t think I am a liar!) If Mama said yes, and Mama doesn’t lie to you, then you don’t have to remind me. I will do what I say. It often works to reduce the questions. After that, I do have consequences if the child continues to nag.

  9. Kai Jones
    Posted August 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    My mother always had R.H.I.P. in her pocket. Rank Hath Its Privileges: I am an adult and sometimes that is the necessary and sufficient reason for my making the decision. Worked pretty well with my kids.

  10. Posted August 30, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    I am now a grandma but recognise these types in both my children and their children. Your strategies are sound, and I used many of them, but would also mention that it is always worthwhile having a fresh one up your sleeve. A bit like removing some toys so they seem new months down the track.

    I still remember and my eldest grandson is now almost fifteen, driving in the car with eldest son four, possibly just five, his brother 15 months younger and the baby, then not walking. I was paying careful attention to the peak hour traffic, knowing that the three were securely strapped in in the rear seat.

    Eldest, a very bright busy boy indeed, asked me a question which I answered. Apparently my answer was not the one he wanted to hear. I drove on and there was another question. This happened several times till he asked yet another and too late I saw the trap. I had been concentrating on the traffic and he had led me in a circle so that to answer his last question would mean that I needed to contradict my first answer.

    So a word of advice. Yes, there are some hills to die on, definitely. However there is a time and place for discussion, so choose it carefully or you will find yourself in the predicament I was in. I had to pull over and we had a small discussion about where it was appropriate to have such a discussion with Mum and even about it being appropriate to try to trick her.

  11. Posted August 31, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    This is what my house is like all the time . . . whether my children are lawyers by nature or nurture, they certainly have it in spades. I do use the *I am done with this discussion* line with some frequency with my oldest, who has the longest attention span. Accurate nitpicking is usually allowed and approved, which would probably drive most parents crazy.

    I wish I could tell my children not to keep “reminding” me of things because I would be sure to remember, but unfortunately, I know I *won’t* remember. So I try to just work on tone and frequency. However, it doesn’t work very well.

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