Toddler Negotiation Strategy: The Neutral Third Party

My favorite quote about parenting is by John Wilmot:

Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.

Any time I hear or read about someone espousing the right way to handle a parenting challenge, such as sleep training or discipline, I get pretty skeptical.  Even a large family of four children is a pretty far cry from a statistically significant sample set.  I’m sure that the technique worked extremely well for that person, but if it doesn’t work for me and my kid, it’s not necessarily because I’m doing it wrong.

With my first child, we had a terrible experience with bedtime.  She just wouldn’t go to sleep, and she would be constantly wanting to get out of bed.  We were doing all of the things that parenting books recommended – a well established bedtime routine, rewards, reprimands, the works.  Nothing really worked.  It felt like the model for Go The F— To Sleep.

With my second child, it was completely different.  Bedtime takes about five minutes.  There really is not much of a bedtime routine at all (which is stressed so hard in parenting guides).  Plop him in his crib with his pacifier, sing a little bit, leave the room.  Done.  He’s asleep within minutes.

This isn’t a result of having learned from the first kid – we still have problems with our older child at bedtime periodically.  They are just different kids who are wired differently.  What works with one doesn’t work with the other.

I’ve come to think that parenting advice is like chess moves (at least, so I am told – I don’t really play chess).  The good players build up a library of moves for handling different situations.  As games progress, they look for moves that might suit their current situation.  Some are defensive moves, some are offensive, and they depend on the pieces on the board and the other player.  It’s not one size fits all.

Parenting advice is kind of similar.  A tactic is based on a certain type of parent and a certain type of kid, and while it is useful to pass on, your milage will vary.  For example, I tend to be more of a pushover.  No matter how effective a “because I say so” type of tactic might work for some parents, it will be of limited value for me, because I just don’t have the personality to pull it off convincingly.  My methods will be different.

So with that in mind, I thought I would share a tactic that has worked for me several times with my older child, on the off chance that it is useful for somebody else.  I call it the “Neutral Third Party” strategy of negotiation.  Rather than locking into a battle of wills with your child over some issue, realign the sides so that it is not you against them.

We used to have a problem with our older daughter coming into our bed in the middle of the night and then having a screaming fit when we said “no”.  It became a choice between sleeping poorly because you can’t fall back asleep after having a 30 minute battle over why the child can’t get into bed or sleeping poorly because you say “yes” and have a flip-flopping fish in bed.

Eventually, I hit upon the idea of putting a nightlight on a timer in her room that would turn on the light at 5am, signaling that it was okay for her to come out of her bed.  This is not a new technique of course, but for us, it wasn’t a signal of when it was “okay” to leave her room.  It was a neutral third party.  Now, when she came out at 3 am wanting to get into bed, it was not an issue of me saying “no”; it was me saying, “you can’t – the light’s not on yet”.  There is a subtext here – it’s not my fault that the morning light is not on.  I’m not the bad guy.  You can yell at the morning light, but all of us can agree that it is currently off.  Within a week, the middle of the night wake-ups mostly disappeared, and we stopped using the morning light a few months later.

The same technique has worked well for other situations, like getting ready for bedtime.  It used to take forever, as my daughter would horse around, refuse to cooperate or play with her toothbrush – anything to delay bedtime.  It would take forever, I would get frustrated, she would get frustrated, and bedtime would be very late (her ultimate goal, of course).  She likes reading a book at bedtime, so I would often threaten to take away bedtime book if she didn’t cooperate, but it just led to further battles about why I was “not being nice” by taking the book away.

Then I hit on a way to use the “neutral third party” technique.  I set a timer on my phone and told her that she had 15 minutes to do everything necessary for bedtime.  If the timer went off and she wasn’t done, no bedtime book.  Once again, it wasn’t a question of me being mean.  If the timer was going off, it was going off.  That was her responsibility.  It defused the bedtime situation while eliminating the argument.  It also allowed me to not get frustrated with any delay tactics she might try, since I knew we were locked in for a 15 minute window, maximum.

This technique works well for me and my daughter.  I have no idea yet if it will work well for my son, since he is such a different kid.  When he gets older, I will try it and see, but I am guessing I will have to try something different with him.

But who knows, someone else might find it works for them.

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