Living with Little Lawyers: Donít Over-negotiate with Your Child

by James Lehman, MSW
Living with Little Lawyers: Donít Over-negotiate with Your Child

If you are a parent who negotiates constantly with your child, you probably feel like you’re living with a little lawyer who “objects” to every rule and request and wears you down with endless questions and challenges. With some kids, everything becomes a negotiation, and it starts from the time they get up in the morning until the time they put off going to bed.

Let me be clear: the more you give in to negotiating with your child, the more youíre training your child not to accept your limits.

Many parents who over-negotiate with their kids mistakenly think it’s somehow improving their child’s sense of self worth. They think they’re letting their child be a little adult and that they’re recognizing them for who they are. Now, all those things are important, but the way for your child to achieve a sense of self worth is not by negotiating limits with you. And by the way, instead of “negotiate” I’d like you to consider the word “bicker,” because that’s what parents are really doing—letting their kids bicker and bicker with them.

So the over-negotiating parent will say, “It’s time to go to bed. It’s 8 o’clock.”

And the child says, “Oh Mom please, this show’s really important, can I just stay up until 8:30 tonight, I just want to watch the end,”

The mom says, “No, you have to go to bed now.”

The child continues to argue: “Oh please, please, you never let me do anything. Just ten more minutes.”

The mother relents: “OK, if you promise not to give me a hard time.”

And the child says, “Thanks, Mom. You’re the best.”

The parent goes back and forth with the child, when really, there’s nothing to negotiate here. Let me be clear: the more you give in to negotiating with your child, the more you’re training your child not to accept your limits.

Now contrast this with another parent in the same situation, who responds to their child’s pleas with, “No, it’s time to go to bed. You know the program around here. On weeknights you have to go to bed because it’s important to get enough rest for school.”

And the child says, “Oh please, please mom, let me stay up. I’ll get up for school in the morning, it’s OK.”

And the parent says “No, I’m sorry, you need to go to bed. Now I’m going to shut off the TV and you need to get going.” You know, that parent has set a limit and followed it and has given a reason why. This child also tries to negotiate her way down, but the parent sticks with the limit. I see that as a good, solid parenting style.

Realize that a lot of the time, there’s nothing to negotiate. Be clear about the structure of how you handle business in your home. “We go to bed at 9 p.m. so we can be ready for school. School means everything to us, much more than TV. If you’re doing well in school, that doesn’t mean you should be able to stay up.” And that is something parents need to realize: if your child’s doing well at school, don’t stop doing the things that promote their good performance, like getting a good night’s sleep. And don’t let them negotiate with you based upon their success.

There’s something called “medication rejection syndrome”. That’s when a patient is taking medication that helps them, but once they’re feeling better, they decide to stop. In a short amount of time they become sick again because they’re not taking their meds. Similarly, people do certain things to be successful, like getting enough sleep to be energetic and alert at school, and then when they are successful, they think they don’t have to do those things anymore. Predictably, you’ll see over time that they become unsuccessful again.

Here’s another way of looking at it: I know people who go to casinos and play slot machines, and they inevitably lose. You know why? Because the machines are fixed to make sure they lose, but they keep playing because they think, “This might be my lucky day!” Here’s the reality: if the machine took their money in an hour, they’d never go back. But what happens is, the machine takes a little of their money, then gives some back, then takes more and gives a little back. Every now and then someone hits the jackpot, which keeps the excitement in the air. So at the end of the day, the person has lost all their money, but they’ve been trained by the machine to sit there and keep playing because they can’t tell if the pay-off is coming.

It’s the same way with kids. Once you let them over-negotiate or wear you down, then your child never knows if this time he’s going to get lucky. He’s like a gambler. He doesn’t know if he’ll get his way this time or not. And since he has very little to lose, he thinks, “Why not take a shot?” The truth is, we are the ones who train our kids to do that.

When Kids Test the Limits
Hear this: kids are going to test limits, that’s their job. What parents forget sometimes is that it’s their job to stand firm. In some ways, parents confuse negotiating with somehow empowering their child. Believe me when I tell you, allowing your child to negotiate for things does not empower them. Instead, what empowers them is understanding the limits.

With all these questions parents have about kids who push the limits, don’t forget, it’s the adults who have the power to change the limit. If you find your child is pushing the limits a lot, that usually means you’ve given them the power to change limits too many times, and now they’re looking to do it whenever they can. And your child doesn’t know the difference. Parents say things like, “Why are you doing this to me? I try to be nice to you and look what happens.” They say those things out of frustration, but the bottom line is that once you start changing the limits, as far as your child is concerned, there are no limits. Remember, kids are very black and white. Once you give them any gray area, don’t blame them for trying to get more. That is their nature; that is their developmental level.

And by the way, if your child asks you for something, let’s say a later bedtime, and you think they have a point, tell them what they have to do to earn it. So if you think your child can handle staying up a half-an-hour later at night, don’t let them back you into a corner by negotiating with you and complaining to you about their situation all the time. Tell them what they have to do to earn that half hour, and tell them for how long. So you can say, “If you do this for a week, I’ll be happy to talk with you about staying up later.” What you’re doing is taking control back by rewarding your child for their good performance, instead of letting them push you into a corner.

For instance, if your child wants to stay up later at night, if it’s a school night, the message should be quite clear that they have to go to bed and get a good amount of sleep. But you can say to your child, “If you go to bed all week without giving me a hard time, I’ll let you stay up a half-an-hour later on Friday and Saturday." That way kids learn to develop the fundamentals of negotiating so each person faces a win-win situation. Learning how to negotiate is an important problem solving skill in life. But don’t confuse that with bickering or wearing down people who are in authority.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


This article really hit home!My son who is ten will argue until the cows come,if I LET him.I have learned,thanks to James,just tell him what I expect and walk away and it really applies to almost everything in every day life.When I walk away he looks kind of dumbfounded.He actually expected me to argue.Now he knows when I say something I mean it.For instance one of his resposibilities in the morning is to make his bed.Every morning he would give me a hard time.He did't want to make it so he would ask me to do it because he did't know how.I showed him numerous times the easy way to do it but he still insisted he did't know how.He had me going for a while.Now if he does't make his bed in the morning that's the way he finds it when he goes to bed at night----This took me a while but he expected to come home after school and find his bed made.I did for alittle while but then I learned.Now ,most of the time, he makes his bed, he knows arguing with me about it doesn't get his bed made.I can't tell you how Total Transformation ha schanged our lives.THANK YOU JAMES!!!!!!

Comment By : kimmy

After listening to the total transformation, we realized we didn't have children; rather, we had three totally trained and barred in 17 states, fully credentialed attorneys. So, we adopted the NO NEGOTIATION RULE in our house. Now, the kids know, when they are told to go to bed, if they plead their case and need to be cross examined three times, they earn a strike (a big red one on the fridge). If they earn three strikes, they know they've lost a privilege. It's a simple analogy, three strikes you're out. Three outs, inningís over. Brilliant!!!

Comment By : live to tell the tale

One more point to add: there are two non-negotiables in our home: things dealing with safety (eg don't cross the street without an adult) and things that deal with morality (no lying, hurting others, etc.). After that, some things are negotiable - white milk or juice, ride your bike or your scooter. My kids love choices and hate absolutes. When a command has to be given, make it a choice to avoid negotiating. For example, after your homework you can watch TV or play on the computer for 30 min. But overall I agree with the article and am still learning how to deal with my little negotiators.

Comment By : not ready to give up

So true---we practiced this approach and holding firm to our original rules has been key to the constant back and forth---we do give week-end privledges BUT only when the complete task has been honored by the child.---They do get the goal and negotiation exercise practice.

Comment By : TinaB

This article really helped me see the light. Now, when my 5 yo son starts to negotiate with me, I say, "This is not something to argue about. This is our rule." So far, it's been working like a charm!

Comment By : Bettina

Mr. Lehman, your analysis is absolutely fantastic talking into my heart! Light bulbs come on to make me see why I parented the ways I did which were ineffective and still couldn't stop doing it. For a year and a half, I've followed reading your articles and bought your programs too. Every info. is accurate and right on with my experiences. I felt like learning effective parenting from grade one to grade 4 going up. I am still having difficulties with putting every technique into the work and now my son is nearly 18. Wearing me down is perfectly describing some of my times with him. Keep up the great work as it will help and save many families out there struggling in raising their kids and teenagers these days. It's worth to mention that it shows in your advise that you love kids, respect them and understand parents without putting either side of them down.

Comment By : jz

What do you do when your 17 year old goes out on a friday night and does not come home? We are worried sick, considering all the possibilities that could have happened. If, God willing, he is okay, what kind of consequences should be given? By the way, he is our grandson and lives with us. Help! Debbie

Comment By : debbie

My 9 year old is a master negotiator. I have tried to make things black and white for him but I noticed that I don't like black and white things either and make everything negotiable in my own life as well. This is actually feeding into his problems. I have seen the light. I am going to work on this. How can I, as a parent, expect him to make good solid decisions in life when I continue to allow these own gray areas in my own? Thanks for the enlightenment.

Comment By : DPB

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Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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