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Top Secret Strategies for Negotiating with Your Kids

Stephanie Rausser

The other day my 12-year-old twins told my wife and me that they wanted to add a third sport to their schedule. We wanted to say you are two crazy son of a guns if you think that's happening. But we didn't. Because when the time comes, they're going to help decide what's got to give.

While life often feels like an assembly line of yes-no's, a healthier approach may revolve less around imposing your will and more around a business-centric tactic: negotiating. What's that, you say? Doesn't negotiating mean you're getting stepped on more often than Times Square? Nope. The key, says Lynne Griffin, author of Negotiation Generation, is to find the middle ground. “They have freedom within the fences, but you decide where the fences are put up. Too many fences built too high only creates a desire to jump them.”

In both business and politics, successful high-powered negotiators establish authority while maintaining good relationships with their “opponents,” says Barry Elms, author of Because I Said So: A Guide to Negotiating With Children and Grown-Ups. That sounds like what we want, doesn't it? So we went to the pros to uncover the tactics that will create peace in your living room as well as they do in the boardroom.

Strategy: Schedule a Session

The time to negotiate isn't after the boss chuckles when you ask for a raise. When emotions run high, irrationality can take hold. So set a time to tackle the issue.

Pro Secret: Dennis Cohen, county attorney for Suffolk County in Long Island, NY, and a former district court judge, negotiates every day—whether it's over contracts or settlements. The most important aspect of negotiation, he says: preparation. “I gather as many facts as humanly possible,” he notes. Allowing enough time to do that is the key. “When I finally go in, I'm armed with an honest assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the opposing side. I'm in the strongest possible position.”

Home-turf Takeaway: When my boys first wanted a video game that involved bloody 3-D, my wife and I a) lamented that the days of Lilo and Stitch were officially dead and b) didn't have the discussion in the store. We had to move the debate away from the impulses. Otherwise, you give them the impression that you're willing to cave if only they say the right thing. And the longer it goes on, the more likely you'll get frustrated and negotiate away your power.

“It's the opposite of a ‘teachable moment,’ which is actually the worst time to impart a lesson. You can't teach a drowning person to swim,” says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., professor of child psychiatry at Yale. “Negotiating is easiest when you're not on the spot.”

When you get home, talk about what's in M-rated games. Say, “Here's what's not going to work. Here's what the boundaries are. Now what?” Griffin says. Ask what part of the game he likes and see if you can find an alternative that doesn't involve brains splattering. And position yourself right: “If facts need to be explained, sit opposite with strong eye contact,” says Elms. “If you want to get an opinion, sit next to him.”

Strategy: Dangle the Alternative

There's a reason any two parties are at a negotiating table: They don't like the alternative (you quitting, them paying sticker price), Griffin says.

Pro Secret:Stare down the what-if. A stalemate is always a possibility, acknowledges Gregory Goff, CEO of, a resource for 3 million parents and educators. He negotiates everything from mega-business deals to interpersonal employee issues. And sometimes just saying it out loud is enough to keep things moving. “Figure out what is more valuable to the other party than to you. It's easier to give in to something you don't really care about,” he says. “The other party feels you're accommodating them, so they'll be motivated to give something back in return.”

Home-turf Takeaway: On a recent vacation, my son decided he wanted to use his money to buy a T-shirt. He spotted one with a crossed-out Osama bin Laden. We preferred that in the realm of tacky T-shirts, he choose a fart-joke one over a political one. We ended up letting him buy it (and he wore it once, as we predicted). But as kids get older, their style will become more and more of an issue: belly-baring shirts, high heels, bright-green hair. So after deciding it's a battle worth picking (are there really long-term ramifications?), remind them of their other option. In the case of wardrobe standoffs, it may be that she'll have to wear her nearly outgrown clothes from last year. So it's in her best interest to keep browsing. The message, Griffin says: “The alternative is bad, so you'll want to come up with a solution that works.”

Strategy: Think Big-Picture

“Principles unite,” says Deborah Kolb, author of Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas of Bargaining. What trips you up are the details of the issue, so trumpet what both sides want.

Pro Secret: Michael Moynihan, vice president of marketing for LEGO in the U.S., oversees negotiations with everyone from customers to the international executive branches. He urges his team to focus on the negative issues that affect everyone, no matter how awkward. “Collaboration,” he says, “is, as they say in Denmark, putting the smelly fish on the table.”

Home-turf Takeaway: Say your 10-year-old wants to do what her 12-year-old sister does. Parents often offer watered-down swaps (taking her and her friend to the movies, but sitting separately, instead of dropping her off). Fuhgeddaboudit. Just leave it at “Your sister didn't get dropped off until she was twelve,” says Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., professor emeritus of applied psychology at New York University, “and neither will you.” Come up with overarching principles that can be applied in many situations, rather than treating everything on a case-by-case basis.

Strategy: Ping-Pong

“Instead of barking orders, keep asking ‘What do you think? OK. Have you ever tried something like that?’” says Ed Brodow, author of Negotiation Boot Camp. “There's a truism in negotiation: If I think it was my idea, I'm more likely to go along with it.”

Pro Secret: Craig Wynett, vice president of Procter & Gamble, who spends most of his days negotiating, says, “You need to make it look like the answer came from other people. Nobody likes to feel that an idea was hammered into him.”

Home-turf Takeaway: My son is convinced he needs an iPhone 5. He's saved enough, and is trying to use the “It's my money” argument. We'd like to counter with the “Stop being a ding-a-ling” argument, but we asked questions instead: “Exactly what functions do you want that you don't have on your other phone? How are you going to pay for the monthly fees?” He's since backed off. One of the ways you can help build consensus with your child is by giving him some of the power. Let's say your child wants a Facebook account. Use the idea of reciprocity: Yes, you can have it, as long as I monitor the account. “I do something, you do something,” Kolb says. “You show that you really are listening.”

Strategy: Go All Ears

Rather than opening your mouth more than a drive-time shock jock, “talk only a third of the time,” says Brodow. “Listening builds trust and takes down the walls.” Never begin a negotiation with a demand or an offer. “First establish the facts and both positions,” says Elms. “Good negotiators find out what's in the other person's head and create a solution around it.”

Pro Secret: Stefanie Schaeffer, general counsel and director of Imperial Toy—as well as the winner of season six of The Apprentice—says, “My game is to disarm people.” She asks point-blank “What do you want?” “That takes away the adversarial role.”

Home-turf Takeaway: Your child wants to play for the travel soccer team, but it's going to tap you out, wallet- and time-wise. Ask why it's important to her to gauge her commitment. Then find out what she's willing to sacrifice. End with a hug or a smile—even if she doesn't like what's gone down—to create an emotional connection that's a smart part of any negotiation.