Leading and Caring for Children

Summary PDF 4 pg

Opening Dialogue About Responsibility

my basket
my basket
their basket
their basket

To recap, a decision first has to be made about responsibility, discussed on the previous page. Here I address how to open a conversation about negotiable agreements about better solutions to a troubling problem. I like the metaphor of two baskets. This page deals with their basket, and the next page deals with my basket. If the problem is my responsibility, it is addressed on the acting assertively page.

A few more thoughts about the differences. First, the situation and age of the child can determine whether a rule is non-negotiable or negotiable. For example: the expectations for how a child eats while camping are different than how the child eats in a restaurant. The expectations for how or what a child eats at age 2 are different from how the same child eats at age 13.

non-negotiableEveryone must be seated while eating. No walking around with food. (The adult will act quickly to stop all mistakes.)

negotiableIt’s best when we have some way to make sure we have fun and eat without inhaling food down our lungs.  How can we make sure of that? (The children have the opportunity to have a voice in finding a way to act that allows them freedom, anticipates consequences, and gives them a voice in making that decision.)

Second, generally speaking, the more problems that are addressed by negotiation at a young age, the more responsibility is transferred to the child — which is a relief!  As the child grows your non-negotiable fiat domain gets tinier and tinier. You get out of being a police officer. Ideally, their basket should be as large as you can make it. I have marveled in very young children’s strength and caring as they take care of themselves and each other. They rise to the occasion when given the chance to come up with their own solutions. They like being competent and using language to negotiate.

Negotiable Practice

The negotiable way of talking treats children more as colleagues or fellow travelers. It has two parts:

  1. state the goal we share
  2. invite suggestions for ways to accomplish that goal that all can agree upon.

The immediate solution could change later in a subsequent discussion if experience shows it doesn’t work.

Offering an opportunity for negotiable dialogue is often unfamiliar to people, so I a bit of practice. I have found it best to go through this challenges with others, because there are so many different ways to think about these situtations. I provide the answers to #1 and #5. Your challenge is to create the same kind of statements for #2, #3, and #4.


1. You are shopping with your child at the market. Your child may have been impulsively messing with the merchant’s display. You want to find a way to convey responsibilities for handling the food on display:

–Say it in a non-negotiable way. “No touching.”

–Say it in a negotiable way. “We want to make sure we can choose what we want to buy and keep the display nice. How could we treat it with care, so it stays beautiful for others?”

The negotiable way states the goal and then invites discussion. The discussion goes where it goes until we establish general agreement. 


2. You want to find a way to convey responsibilities for getting out of the house on time in the morning:

–Say it in a non-negotiable way.

–Say it in a negotiable way.

The negotiable way states the goal and then invites discussion.

What if the child still dawdles in pajamas?


3. You want to find a way to convey responsibilities about attending a group meeting time:

–Say it in a non-negotiable way.

–Say it in a negotiable way.

The negotiable way states the goal and then invites discussion.

What if children leave the group?


4. You want to find a way to convey responsibilities about wrestling and chase-and-tackle games:

–Say it in a non-negotiable way.

–Say it in a negotiable way.

The negotiable way states the goal and then invites discussion.

What if children continue to chase, tackle, and pile on?


5. You want to state your policy about riding the city bus and children wish to change seats:

–Say it in a non-negotiable way. “If you want to change seats ask me first.”

–Say it in a negotiable way. “The bus may stop unexpectedly and you may fly into hard things if you are not holding on. How can we decide how to change seats and not have that happen?”

If the children still don’t follow the group-created rules, then the trip is in jeopardy. “Something is really wrong when we don’t follow the ideas we created together, so maybe we should get off at the next stop, unless you have a better solution.”


The Unfinished Food Problem

Here is a recorded example of negotiating rules. Lucy, 5 ½ years, and Mom are working out the issue of screaming possessiveness. Julian, 2 ¼ years, is the younger sibling. In the morning Lucy had a snack of a pear, tea, and honey. She left the table without clearing her place whereupon Julian offered to eat the rest of her pear. Mom cut it up and gave it to him. Lucy attacked, saying the pear was HERS!!!!!!!!! 

  1. Mom: I am confused, Lucy. It seemed like you were finished and left it. Julian wanted it and I cut it up for him. I don’t understand.
  2. Lucy: Don’t take it and cut it up for anyone!
  3. Mom: I still don’t know what you are using and not using, if it’s left on the table.
  4. Lucy: If you see a little bit of bites, then it is not finished. If you see a lot of bites that means it is finished.
  5. Mom: OK. But what about this? Sometimes I give you a glass of milk and you drink some and then leave the rest on the table, like last night. You didn’t want any more milk.
  6. Lucy: I took a sip.
  7. Mom: So, there was just a little bit of milk gone, but you were finished.
  8. Lucy: Well, it’s different for milk.
  9. Mom: Is it?
  10. Lucy: Yeah, because I stay at the table and drink milk.
  11. Mom: And the pear?
  12. Lucy: It’s different for food.
  13. Mom: So, with milk you stay at the table and when you leave, you are done.
  14. Lucy: (nods yes)
  15. Mom: And with food, I’m supposed to look at how many bites have been taken. What if it’s a food that you don’t like, you know, you take a couple of bites and decide that you don’t like it.
  16. Lucy: You can just take it.
  17. Mom: What’s my clue? If I see just one bite I will think Lucy still wants to eat it.
  18. Lucy: But if you see soup that I don’t like and tried and hated it…
  19. Mom: I would still think that you might want it.
  20. Lucy: And I’ll say I don’t like it, don’t worry you can take it.
  21. Mom: So, you’ll let us know if you don’t like it. Is that right?
  22. Lucy: Yeah.
  23. Mom: Yeah, but there’s still those things on the table, the tea and the honey.
  24. Lucy: You can just chuck it or put it in the fridge.
  25. Mom: So you don’t’ want it. If it were mine, I would just take it to the sink.
  26. Lucy: And chuck it?
  27. Mom: Be done with it. What if the stuff you’re done with you put by the sink? Then if I saw it there, I’d know you were done with it. If it were on the table, I’d know you weren’t.
  28. Lucy: What if you forget? What if you get mixed up and the stuff by the sink is still being used?
  29. Mom: I don’t think I’d get mixed up, because I always think that stuff by the sink needs to be washed. What if you forget to take your stuff to the sink?
  30. Lucy: I’ll never forget. I can remember over night.
  31. Mom: Well, I guess we have a deal then.
  32. Lucy: Deal.

In negotiation the adult has to agree, too. No acquiescence to the child is involved. I think you can see the equality of points of view, which is the responsibility of the adult, the one with more privilege, to establish.

Now we can go to the next page to explore communicating non-negotiable rules, when situations are in “my basket.”

Next Acting Assertively