The naughty step

Nanny knows best, but how well does she negotiate? Natural ability is a gift
possessed by some deal-doers, but for most it is a skill honed through practice
and experience.

We all start early, winning attention and nurture with newborn cries and
infant smiles, and the nursery is a hothouse for the cultivation of bargaining
expertise. Children quickly learn to modify their behaviour to gain reward or
avoid disapprobation, but there’s a reciprocal benefit. Parents also experience
a crash course in negotiation techniques. It may lack theory modules, but it
runs 24/7 and is a 20-year syllabus!

How many non-parents enjoy such a wealth of continuing professional
development? Asserting that parents negotiate better than others is a sweeping
generalisation, but it is a collateral benefit of the sleepless nights.

My favourite parent-child anecdote is the nine-year-old who downloaded a
bizarre ringtone onto Dad’s phone and demanded £5 to remove it. Dad is holding
out. He may be a technophobe, but he’s an arch-negotiator who knows his
offspring will soon want something else from him. What’s more he’s thick-skinned
enough to put up with the strange noises and he gains emotional reward from
defeating the blackmail.

Although one-off transactions can be rough, too much competitiveness or
aggression often leads to a sub-optimal conclusion when negotiating within a
long-term relationship. Most families can cope with tantrums and the culprit
rarely wins.

So what is it that parents learn? Being firm but flexible ­ knowing which
points not to push ­ can get babies to sleep through and teenagers to go to bed,
and generally it helps counterparties know your boundaries while seeing
opportunities for agreement.

Communication and understanding between the parties is key to a good deal,
however far apart their ideas of the ideal settlement are. Family negotiations
sometimes stumble because children’s logic appears flawed, but understanding why
the toddler likes smearing jam on the furniture (it’s a tactile thing) can avoid
the little darling taking life exploration one stage further and starting to get
a kick out of your reaction after the 7th recurrence. Listening and explaining
(which means making sure they understand, not just that you’ve spelt something
out) is as self-evident a facet of parenting as it is an absent feature of many
failed negotiations.

A small child was sent to sit on the naughty step. Dad never could understand
why, as soon as his back was turned, his toddler would get off the step. Did the
child think that if she couldn’t see dad’s face, dad didn’t know she’d got up?
Then dad had a better idea ­ he put jelly beans on the stair.

The author’s teenage daughters have persuaded him to point out that the
examples are nothing to do with them.

Chris Laughton is a licensed insolvency practitioner and a restructuring
and insolvency partner at Mercer & Hole

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