If you’ve been raising your child to delight in making her own decisions, by now you probably have a highly opinionated preschooler. This is good-up to a point. You’ll know you’ve reached that point if your child is ready to conclude that everything is negotiable. You tell him he may have one piece of his Halloween candy-either a lollipop or a marshmallow. “Four!” he counters-holding up two lollipops and two marshmallows. You say only two. He holds out for three. You give in. Then he announces that, since the marshmallow is so small, it’s really okay for him to have another one, right? Congratulations. Your child has begun to master one of the hallmarks of civilization-the fine art of haggling. In the long run this is not a bad thing. By the time he is grown, you want him to be an expert in gracefully getting what he wants-or at least what he can live with-from you, his teachers, friends, and future loved ones, not to mention all of those “customer service representatives.” You can’t teach him this skill if you’re unilateral in your dealings with him. “My way or no way” pretty much sums up the typical four-year-old’s approach to life. But it is not the motto of a discerning parent.
For children to grow, you have to let them make choices. Over time, they are supposed to gradually erode your power base. You know all of this, which is why you respond with a chuckle of pride when Celeste starts to use her smarts to get more out of you than you were prepared to give. But soon things are getting out of hand. Little Celeste seems to be in training for a career in congress. She wants to dicker over what time you’ll be home from work, how much TV she can watch, when to leave the playground, etc. If your days are punctuated by your child’s wrangling with you over everything from what to wear to which book to read first, one of two things is true. Either you’re a softy who gives in to her so much that she’s losing respect for your rules. If so, frequent negotiations are sapping your parental power. Or you’re a hard-ass with too many trivial rules to begin with. In this case, you’re forcing your child to bargain with you over requests you should simply say yes to. You’ll know this is true if you find yourself drawn into ridiculous arguments with your four- year-old over whether she will wear the pajamas she took out of her drawer or the ones you chose for her. Remember that in order to remain powerful in your child’s eyes, you don’t have to make her feel powerless.
If you’re not sure how you feel about your child’s request, you don’t have to give an immediate answer. You can say, “Let me think about it,” rather than yes or no.
Not all parents are classic softies or hard-asses. Many of us fluctuate between these two extremes. We get disgusted with ourselves for lazily indulging our children, so we suddenly come down hard on a reasonable request-like getting to play a few extra minutes in the tub-which we otherwise would readily agree to. Or, we worry that we’ve been coming down too hard lately so we bend over backwards to be accommodating-in the form of allowing apple pie to serve as breakfast food or buying some ridiculous toy. Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, the way to move the power gauge between parent and child back to its rightful setting (in which you have most, but she gets enough) is simple: stop negotiating.