The ability to compromise is one of the most powerful skills to foster in young children, and they learn it first from parents.
You may remember your first power battle with your child. Maybe it was over bed time, a cluster bomb of mashed carrots that they launched from their high chair or flat-out refusal to wear a green hat because the pink one was in the wash. Whatever it was, a battle of wills begun, and your reaction likely started you on a parenting style that you would unwittingly continue.
Are you the parent who dug their toes in to win, whatever the cost, the parent who capitulated for the sake of peace, or the parent who took a moment to consider whether the battle was an important one in the overall war?
It’s not a perfect analogy, given that setting boundaries for young children is different to parenting an older child, but it may give you an idea about your own approach to compromise.
Your parenting style is likely highly influenced by your own upbringing. Maybe you had authoritarian parents who believed that their primary job was to bend your will to theirs, or perhaps you had permissive parents who provided few guidelines and rules. Maybe you had authoritative parents who had high expectations but provided the emotional support to meet them. Whatever your experience, you’re likely to either unwittingly mirror it or consciously decide to parent differently.
It’s important, every now and then, to think about how you are consciously or unconsciously parenting. If you find yourself digging a trench around an unimportant issue or avoiding confronting your child, you are teaching them about conflict and compromise.
Kids also learn about how to negotiate and compromise in a relationship through their parents’ relationship with each other. The Purdue University Provider-Parent Partnerships Programme advises that if you and your spouse disagree about how to redecorate the house, don’t “start yelling at one another about why wood floors are better than tile and how he just doesn’t get it because he’s closed-minded. Instead, show your children that you can disagree respectfully by calmly discussing the pros and cons of your ideas and your concerns with the other’s view of what you want. Then come up with a compromise. Your kids are much more likely to grow up treating others with respect if they see you doing the same thing.”
What is compromise?
Compromise is the ability to make concessions or adjust your position or opinion to reach a settlement or an agreement.
Some parents don’t compromise with their kids, ever. But The Parenting Place presenter and author John Cowan says that you’ve to be ready to negotiate with kids as they get older.
“As kids move into the school-age years, rules should be negotiable. If your rules are fair, and you are fair, you won’t mind talking about them. The willingness to negotiate comes from being comfortable with your authority, not weakness.”
It is the rule that is being negotiated, not your parental authority, he continued. “It is insecure parents who shout, “Just do it because I said so!” A good response is always, “Convince me”. If they can actually put together some good reasons why your rules could be modified, then why not agree and modify the rule.”
When not to compromise with your kids
This doesn’t mean that everything is up for negotiation. Sure, changing bedtimes, screen time, a chore schedule or when it’s okay to have friends over is okay, but values and principles should be taboo. They may include things such as use of expletives, tell untruths or stealing.
In other words, kids need to learn that compromise and negotiation do not mean surrendering something immeasurably valuable just to obtain peace. The way that you model compromise in your relationship with them will help them to know the value of principles as well as their own value.
Kids first learn about compromise and negotiation through play, and it’s often sibling rivalry that starts the ball rolling.
Your kids both want the same toy at the same time. They cannot agree on which movie to watch. You would like your daughter to dress nicely for a fancy restaurant, but she insists on her jeans. Your son wants to go to the beach, despite the family’s plan for a bike ride. When you get to the car, both want the front seat.
These are very common struggles, but knowing that doesn’t reduce the stress you feel. More importantly, you would like your kids to be able to traverse such situations on their own.
Personality has a big part to play in how your kids react to conflicting demands. Perhaps your son is confident and forthright and will argue ‘til the cows come home, and your daughter will give up her toy completely because conflict is uncomfortable for her. Or maybe your daughter is bossy and will tell her brother what game they are going to play and how, and he goes along with it because he’s happy on the path of least resistance.
But kids become adults, and adults need to know how, and when, to compromise. Just think of all the obligatory things you do because you “should,” or how hard you find it to say “no” to someone else’s demands. Or think of the pushy people you despise because they are unbending in their demands. That’s why teaching a healthy approach to compromise is essential.
1) It’s healthy to argue
We often shut kids down from arguing. Teach kids to argue in a productive way by learning to negotiate their position. They want to stay up late to watch a show? Let them formulate a solid argument as to why they should be allowed. They need to identify what they want, why they should receive it and what they are willing to give in return. If it’s convincing, be negotiable.
This means that both sides need to be prepared to give something up in order to achieve what they each want. Two kids who want the same toy can split the time or play together with the toy, or the child who chooses the movie today has to sit through their sibling’s movie tomorrow. If only one party sacrifices, there will be ongoing hard feelings.
Kids grow up very self-aware, but developing an awareness of the wants and needs of others takes time. When your kids are in an argument, encourage them to stop and think about the other person’s point of view: how does what they want affect the other? How might the other be feeling?
Learning to compromise is a skill that does require practice. Kids need adults to help them remove emotion from a situation so that compromise is possible. Once helped to see both sides, kids are quick to accept mutual concession and then forgive and forget.
But what about when there is no adult around, when no mediator serves as the facilitator of dialogue? Do kids respond with closed fists or open handshakes? It depends on how well they learned the art of compromise and internalised its importance. It is often the difference between a child who has lots of friends and is the centre of many social circles and the child who is isolated, angry, and lonely. People want to be around others who are friendly and kind, and who make getting along easy. Ones who can compromise tend to be those people.
1) Provide situations of positive interdependence
Children have to negotiate roles, help each other, and make concessions to work together. Creating a joint birthday or holiday present for another family member, opening a lemonade stand, volunteering in the community with a beach cleanup or even just setting the table present opportunities of positive interdependence.
2) Think “Win-Win.”
In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Teens, author Sean Covey highlights the value of having a “win-win” attitude rather than a “lose-lose” or “win-lose” attitude. Thinking win-win means seeking solutions where all parties are successful. After all, compromise is impossible if we believe that it is our way or no way.
3) Practice agreeing to disagree
We know that sometimes a solution where everyone is happy is not always possible. If your child understands that it is okay to not always agree with someone, they will be more able to find alternative solutions that avoid the more contentious issue at hand.
4) Teach debate
The ability to debate has many benefits, among them, emotional and intellectual maturity in the face of adversity. In debate, one must understand all sides of an issue and respond to an opponent in a logical, non-emotional way. This takes great self-control and, with practice, can help a child learn to remove the emotional response to a conflict so it can be resolved in a peaceful, calm, and mature way.
5) Talk about empathy and compassion
Compassion is feeling deeply about someone else’s situation, while empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in a similar situation. When children understand how to view a situation from the other party’s position, compromise becomes much more likely.
6) Never compromise your values or principles
Emphasise to your kids that good compromise should never come at the expense of one’s values. Saying yes to a situation you know is wrong or dangerous just to make things easier is never okay. Talk to your children about times when a compromise might not be the right decision.