Thursday, January 10, 2013

The "I Don't Negotiate with Terrorists" Rule of Parenting

Some people bristle when I discuss this parenting rule. I've seen people actually physically recoil. Generally the person is a parent of a newborn or toddler who looks at parenting and childhood as this absolutely magical time. Dancing unicorns, rainbows, puppy kisses and warm chocolate chip cookies. Don't get me wrong, I love being a parent - but parenting is hard and messy mentally. My parenting rule helps make it less difficult and more enjoyable. Children are much like terrorists if you think about it. They can make unreasonable demands, ridiculous assumptions and do the darndest to get their way at any cost. Children are exceptional at finding your weak spots and exploiting them to their advantage. Even a two year old can figure out what presses your buttons and how far they need to press them to cause you to throw the white flag of surrender. I recall when my daughter Katie was about 15 months old and I was trying to pop her into her car seat to head to a park. She fought me and fought me HARD. Crying, screaming, and lots of carrying on. I was meeting a group of friends with their babies for a walk in the park and I didn't want to be late. I needed some adult-time and there was little I wouldn't do to make sure I met up with my pals. In order to bribe her into submission, I relented and gave her a cookie in exchange for her cooperation. Smart, right? WRONG. I remember the day very clearly because it started the beginning of 4 months of Katie refusing to get into her car seat without a bribe. One day I had nothing to bribe her with at all. She went ballistic. Of course this happened in the parking lot of the pediatrician's office, so it was in full view of all the moms going to the pediatrician. Embarrassing parenting moments never happen in private do they? That day I realized that by negotiating with her, I created a monster, adorable but still a monster. I was being held hostage by her unreasonable demands (a cookie) in order to get her to comply with getting into her car seat peaceably. It became crystal clear to me there are somethings that, as a parent, should not be negotiable with your kids. My mantra "I don't negotiate with terrorists" was born at that moment. I am not suggesting that you need to be like Chairman Mao, not at all. I don't have a lot of rules in my house, but the ones I do have are not negotiable and enforced. They also have changed over time. As your kid grows up, so do the rules. Here is a smattering of rules that over the years which I deemed non-negotiable. Birth to 4 years old
  • Car seat, car safety
  • Holding my hands in a parking lot
  • You have to try a bite of all new foods
4 to 8 years old
  • No means no
  • Do not shop for answers -- going to another parent or adult in hopes of a more favorable answer
  • Treat your siblings with kindness and love
8 to 13 years old
  • Treat adults with respect and be polite
  • No still means no
  • If anyone hurts you, find me or a trusted adult immediately
  • You are only allowed to go home with adults on our 'safe list'
A corollary to this parenting strategy is never draw a line in the sand without being willing to follow through with the consequence you have put forth. For instance, don't tell your child to behave in a restaurant or you will leave, unless you are willing to do so. Kids, like terrorists, can sense when a threat is empty. Make good on your promises of consequences. Never waver. Also be sure your parenting partner is on board. Don't let your partner be like Russian and give arms cookies to Syria your children in exchange for their cooperation. Nothing is worse than having your ally screw you over.

There are many things I do negotiate with my kids, but these are things that I do not feel are critical to them or to our happiness as a family. My son Patrick is very good at going to bed when he is tired, so if he asks to stay up later to watch a bit of Monday night football, I let him. Katie hates vegetables, but will eat red peppers. If she doesn't care for the veggie I am serving that evening, she can cut up some peppers for herself. My kids choose their own clothes, provided the girls don't look like Lindsay Lohan and my son has clean clothes on appropriate to the weather. They choose and make their own lunches for school. Our household and family life is much happier when we stick to this rule. If only it worked on husbands. Image 1, 2, 3 Originally published at

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