Zen and the art of child negotiation

Toby tunnel

Yesterday Heather was off with friends enjoying a well-earned day of relaxation and pampering at a local spa called Nirvana. Meanwhile I was home alone in my own little Purgatory with three kids already burnt out from a long week of school/preschool/nursery. It makes me laugh when I think back a few years to how I used to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of looking after just Isaac. That was, literally, child’s play by comparison. Still, at least I’ve learned some valuable lessons over the years as to how to survive when you’re outnumbered three to one for the day.

Here’s the scenario. You’ve taken your kids to the park to while away an hour before lunch and let them burn off some excess energy. Only one of them – that’ll be Toby, the three-year-old Captain Contrary – is refusing to get out of the car, wants to go home and is announcing said opinion to the world at a decibel level which would drown out a low-flying 747, accompanied by extreme tearfulness that suggests that the man attempting to bodily remove him from his car seat (i.e. me) is Mark Bridger, Jimmy Saville and the Child Catcher all rolled into one. Only worse.

I’m not going to lie. For a few minutes things were looking about as promising as the time the Christians took a wrong turn and found themselves in an arena surrounded by lions. I’m fairly sure the old me would have panicked and ended up lying face down in a pool of my own tears as the situation spiralled out of control. However, whether through luck or judgement – and I’m going to bang my own drum here and claim it was the latter – after five minutes of wailing that seemed like an eternity, I eventually got from there to here (Toby’s the one in the stripey shirt):

Basically, I followed the same three-point plan I always try to employ in such situations. I’d be lying if I said I remember to do this every time the situation arises, but when I do follow through on this it usually works.

1. Take a deep breath

What are the old sayings? More haste, less speed? Marry at haste, repent at leisure? Don’t do something now you’ll regret later?

At times like this, I go into a Zen-like trance – or, at the very least, take a deep breath before I say or do something I instantly regret. I’ve learned to my shame in the past that to react to a child’s emotional outburst with one of my own rarely does anything but escalate the situation. And nobody is better at escalating the emotional stakes to the point of all-out thermonuclear warfare than a small child. As an adult, it’s a battle you can never win. So suck it up – easier said than done, I’ll admit – take a deep breath and move on to step two.

2. Don’t cave in

It’s equally important not to cave in. One minute they’re saying, “I don’t want to go to the park. I want to go home.” The next thing you know you’ve agreed to get the paints out – you know, the ones where you spend the rest of the week wiping stray splashes of colour from every wall and floor within a five-mile radius – you’ve purchased the EU sweet mountain and have offered them a five-star weekend in Monaco if they will JUST KEEP QUIET.

It’s a slippery slope. You start off by agreeing to one more story before bed. Then you’re bribing them with the promise of a new toy every time you want to take them into a shop, and before you know it they’ve got you wrapped around their grubby, thieving little fingers. Children have sharp instincts – if they sense a small chink in the armour of your resolve they’ll be on it in an instant and it’s a hell of a long road back from the servitude you suddenly find yourself in.

My kids like to employ what I call the ‘Chinese water torture’ technique. This involves the constant drip-drip-drip – or in this case nag-nag-nag – of asking for the same thing repeatedly until you snap, give in and let them have it just this once. Except, of course, it’s never just this once, is it? Short-term gain for long-term pain – it’s just not worth it.

3. Wait out the storm

The only thing left to do is to wait for the storm to pass. In this case, this involved physically cajoling/dragging Toby from the car to the park. Once inside the playground, I deposited him alongside Isaac, carefully positioned myself between him and the exit gate, patiently told him we weren’t leaving for a while now we were here, and promptly ignored him and started playing with Kara. Three minutes later he was happily whizzing down slides and demanding that I play hide-and-seek with him. Job done.

Of course, you can never really win the never-ending war of negotiating with your children – they’ll get you sooner or later – but it’s reassuring to know that I understand how my kids tick well enough to win the occasional battle. Now if you’ll just excuse me, I have to go and tidy their playroom, fold their clothes and read them 74 stories before bedtime.