Monday, July 21, 2008

Bargaining on the Front End

Have you ever come home from work after a hard day and had your son asks you to do something with him that you really didn't want to do, but you did it anyway because you wanted to connect with him? After agreeing to the activity the child has in mind, and it is time to wrap up,it is pretty common for the child to say something along the lines of "How come you wont play longer?" in a tone that isn't exactly flowing with gratitude.

Now sometimes, of course, this is because the child is just right. We don't spend enough time with him. In future posts we'll look at some ways to make connecting with our kids more doable in ways that are fun for both of you. But other times it is more important to focus on the process of agreeing to the activity. The vignette described above is just one of multitudes of ways that we end up as parents getting into something and then feeling resentful at our kids when it could have gone much more smoothly with a little bargaining on the front end.

Bargaining on the front end can apply to anything from playing a game, to letting them watch a movie, to having a friend over. Here is an example of a mother using this idea with her daughter. Mom has some work that she needs to wrap up at the computer, but her eight year old daughter wants her to take a break to play some badminton, "Come on Mom" it will be fun." But mom remembers that last time that she played a game with her daughter she ended up getting a lot of attitude when it was time to wrap up. So instead of getting into the game only to feel frustrated and unappreciated when she needs to stop, she says something like this:

"Well let me see. If I can take a bit and put the work I'm doing on hold, what do you think I'm going to hear when I need to stop. Am I going to hear, 'Mom, you never play with me long enough. You're no fun at all'? Or will I hear something more like, 'Thanks for playing Mom. That was fun.'?"

The child will usually agree to the second option that involves using some social skills and expressing some appreciation. When we ask for that on the front end, the child agrees to the "terms" and in answering the question, the more prosocial words actually come "Up and Out" of their nervous system. Making it much more likely that those words will come to her. It also leaves the parent with more dignity. Reprimanding the child after the fact, rather than doing the bargaining on the front end feels mean spirited to the kid and doesn't do much for our parenting self-concept.

Now any kid worth keeping is often going to forget anyway. When she does, and starts off with "But you never play...", you can interrupt in a calm assertive tone, saying, "Ohhh. What did you say that I was going to hear?" For most kids that is enough to cue them and they'll slide right into the groove of expressing appreciation. When they do it is important to circle back and let them know..."Remember when you asked me to play catch with you, and I had to stop and get dinner going, and you said, thanks for playing. That really felt good. When I hear that it really makes me feel like playing more often." On the other hand, when that isn't enough to cue them, then you can wait until the next invite, and express some sadness..."Remember last time we played checkers, and when I had to stop, you scowled at me and kept that up for the next hour. I'm not sure I'm up for that today. But try me tomorrow. If you let me know what your plan is for that, I bet I'll feel more like playing.

So don't get into the activity and end up feeling resentful. Talk about the terms on the front end. Use "Up and Out of the Kid" to prime your child to be successful. And play more often.

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