It’s an odd question to want to ask my 10-year-old, but clearly the best time to change parenting strategies is when you’re more than half way through…
I told Anna I would buy her a new bike yesterday because she’s outgrown the one she has now. Later in the day I discovered if we put air in the tires of the other bike in our garage, got it serviced and painted, it would be perfect for Anna, and I wouldn’t need to buy a new bike. It’s a nice bike, and it has gears, which is at the top of her wish list. So I said what any smart parent would: this is a perfectly good bike – you don’t need a new bike bla bla bla.
She didn’t want that bike; she wanted a new bike. When I asked her why, she said, “I want a bike with gears.” We showed her that the bike had gears. She said they weren’t the same as the ones her friend has, which are the ones she wants. We asked her to point out how they’re different and she couldn’t. Because A) they aren’t different and B) she’s a kid who has exactly four days of experience with one bike.
She politely walked away, parked her bike in the garage, and went to her room.
Normally I would see this behavior as pouting, ignore it, she would get over it, and we would all keep it moving. But today’s drama seemed different to me. It was more than a pout. It was defeat.
I went in her room and asked her why she didn’t want the other bike. She said, “I don’t know.” I asked why she wanted the new bike and she said, “I don’t know.” That confirmed what I thought: she did her best to articulate her reasons when we were outside and it didn’t get through to me. That’s a tough place to be. I’ve been there. I can’t type 9,000 quotations, so here’s the rest of the conversation:
Me: Are you upset that you’re not getting a new bike?
Anna: [shrugs shoulders]
Me: It seems like you feel sad, like you lost today. Is that how you feel?
Anna: I don’t care if I win or lose.
Me: It seems like you care, or you wouldn’t be in your room feeling sad.
Anna: [pause] I never win.
Me: [wow that is some deep shit] That’s a hard feeling to have. If I felt that way, I would want to hide out, too.
Anna: I don’t care if I win.
Me: But if you had won, you’d have a new bike right now huh?
Anna: I guess.
Me: You know what I realize right now?
Me: I haven’t taught you how to hustle.
Anna: What do you mean?
Me: I haven’t taught you how to not take “no” for an answer. How to argue. How to win.
Anna: I don’t want to be that kind of person.
Me: Would you rather be the person who doesn’t get what they want and ends up sad on her bed?
Anna: I don’t know.
Me: I think you do know. What I think you don’t know is how to overcome a “no” because you get a lot of “yes” in this house, and you’ve never been taught to negotiate. Let’s change that. Wanna know what I would say to me if I were in your shoes?
Anna: [half-hearted] Sure.
Me: I would say: you told me you were buying me a new bike today – now you’re not. You’re not keeping your word. You’re breaking our family rule.
Me: Or, I would say: I’ve outgrown my bike and I need a new one. I want you to keep the other bike for yourself so you can ride with me. [This is true by the way.]
Anna: This is stupid. If I just say what you said then the conversation makes no sense.
Me: Totally not stupid and here’s why. It would be unfair for me to expect you to challenge a “no” when you’ve had no practice doing it. When you were little I threw the ball to you over and over again until you could throw it back to me. This is the same thing. Except the ball in this case is a compelling argument that turns a “no” into a “yes.”
Anna: You’re weird.
Me: Totally true. Not what we’re talking about. A compelling argument has two important components: it has to be true (always keep your integrity intact), and it has to be persuasive. That means you’re not trying to get what you want by fighting. The goal is to get the other person to want to give you what you want. For instance, I have a compelling argument to not buy you a new bike: the bike in the garage is a nice bike, and that saves me $300. But your argument is even more compelling because my honor is at stake. Saving money isn’t as important to me as keeping my word and upholding our family values. I want to keep my word, and the way for me to do that is to buy you the new bike. See what I mean?
Anna: Sort of.
Me: I’m going to go take a shower and give you a chance to get your game face on and throw a compelling argument at me. You need to start practicing turning a “no” into a “yes.” When you get out of this house there’s a lot of “no” out there. Let’s make sure you’re ready.
I’d like to tell you she delivered a powerful argument and we ended up at the bike shop, but that’s not what happened. I went back to her room and she did what she’s been taught to do for ten years. She asked nicely. “Mom, may I please have the new bike?” I reminded her about the compelling arguments. She shook her head “no”. It was too foreign to her – she couldn’t fight for it. Even though she really wanted it.
It broke my heart a little bit.
Since Anna was really little it’s always been clear that I’m in charge. Recently my mom referred to me as the Queen of the house, Anna quickly corrected her. “Mom is not the Queen of the house. She is the KING of the house. And I am the Queen.” My mom and I laughed, but she was serious.
I’m proud that Anna respects me – I’ve done a good job of being consistent and strong. I encourage her to share her thoughts, but at the end of the day, my word is the law. “No” means “no,” she doesn’t talk back, and she doesn’t argue. I used to be proud of that, but now I’m not so sure. I want her to be able to debate an issue, argue her case, and not take “no” for an answer. I want her to fight for what she wants, what she believes in, for what’s right.
Maybe her teenage years will take care of all that. Most kids get mouthy and become tiny anarchists who think they know everything – I certainly did. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if she continues to be the nice girl who never makes waves or stands up for herself? Am I teaching her to respect authority at the expense of her own voice? That would be a real shame considering she lives with one the fiercest negotiators of all time.
I wanted her to win yesterday. I wanted her to get that new bike. I wanted her to take off down the street with the wind in her hair, knowing she has the power to change her circumstances whatever they may be.
That didn’t happen yesterday, but it will.
Because I’m not taking “no” for an answer.
Who taught you how to negotiate? How important is it to respect authority figures?