For Life Skills and a More Peaceful World: A Negotiation-Based Approach to Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers

Someone directly solicited my input on the following conflict between children. This is from a Facebook post from someone else, which was spread as a photo:


As soon as we walked in the park, Carson was approached by at least 6 boys, all at once demanding that he share his transformer, Minecraft figure, and truck. He was visibly overwhelmed and clutched them to his chest as the boys reached for them. He looked at me.

‘You can tell them no, Carson,” I said. ‘Just say no. You don’t have to say anything else.’

Of course, as soon as he said no, the boys ran to tattle to me that he was not sharing. I said, ‘He doesn’t have to share with you. He said no. If he wants to share, he will.’ That got me some dirty looks from other parents. Here is the thing though:

If I, an adult, walked into the park eating a sandwich, am I required to share my sandwich with strangers in the park? No! Would any well-mannered adult, a stranger, reach out to help themselves to my sandwich, and get huffy I pulled it away? No again.

I am a homeschool mom of 3 children. My children, at the time of writing this, are 6, 4, and 2. I have sat in many baseball stands, sidelines at karate, library classes, playdates, and more and seen children together and all of their many conflicts. In particular, I’ve seen my own children operate. I think this behavior of children demanding that other children share and then running off to tattle should be seen as abnormal. These are children who have not had proper conflict resolution skills imparted on to them.

I don’t intend to be judgmental of the woman in the story. I am going to pick apart the story entirely for educative purposes. Please forgive me if I come across as harsh. I <3 her and her son Carson, and I share her belief that Carson should not have to share.

It was difficult for me to answer this question at first, which is how I would respond as this mom, because the behavior of the other boys is not how my children would operate. I don’t see it often. My children, specifically the 6 year old and 4 year old, have largely taken over the conflict resolution process. If there was a toy they were fighting over, they would most likely negotiate it between each other. They very often do this, and come to an ideal solution that works for both of them with little guidance from me. Showing you how I imparted this skill set is what I want to show you in this article.

The main issue in the story, and many conflicts, is that adults have taken over and dictated the solutions to children. How often do you hear, “Jim and Grace: share!” as the children in this story no doubt have heard. The children have learned to run to adults to settle conflicts as evidenced by how the children in the story ran to tattle to their parents–something my children never do. (When they do come to me, it’s because there is an especially difficult problem to solve or one is having an especially hard day; it’s not to tattle on the other with the expectation that I punish the other.)

The mom who told her child it’s OK not to share also dictated a solution. She told her son, “Just say no, Carson. You don’t have to tell them anything else.” This is a specific way to handle this problem, which overrides the child’s thoughts, potential desires, and underestimates his ability to solve the problem. First, his emotions needed to be dealt with first. It is a bit much to even ask him to simply say “no” while he is filled with anxiety. So that’s the first problem. The second problem is that it assumed too much about what may have actually been going on in his brain. It is possible, after he is calm and you talked to him, that Carson may have been OK with sharing with those boys.

In the approach I am going to put forward, she would first untangle big emotions and help raise everyone’s awareness. She might tell him, “I see how shaken you are.” She might tell the other boys, “It looks like he doesn’t want to share right now.” Once you establish this safe environment, calming the boy down and getting the other boys to temporarily back off, then you start in on a solution–without dictating it.  Get his genuine feelings about it, and then what to do will likely become obvious.

Rejecting Punitive Means for a Better World

The following approach to conflict resolution, which I proudly call negotiation-based first and foremost rejects punitive measures to deal with children. It is vitally important if we wish to see a world without the use of force or violence that we use non-punitive models of dealing with behavior at young ages.

Way too often conflicts are settled by force even in adult society. It is clear as day, for instance, that those in leadership positions tend to clamor for power. Whether  it’s a conservative waging a drug war, a leftist penalizing people for hate speech, or many other more mild or more exaggerated examples, politicians in charge primarily enforce their vision of society on others through the use of force. The majority of political debates are not about how people can be more free or how we can find more solutions, but which use of force should be applied and why. For many, it seems to be the only solution they understand.

On a more local level, when I watch teenagers be given leadership roles over others, I often see that they wield their power with glee, being harsh on their subjects for sole reason to be harsh–it is after all what they’ve been taught is leadership. This is true even in respectable organizations that try to teach values, but which still rely on punitive measures for discipline. It is a culture that engenders toxic masculinity and mean girls–yes even at religious organizations, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, sports team, and more. Corporations often default to punitive and blame-oriented solutions to “motivate” employees. These are all illiberal and ineffective ways of dealing with people, which destroy joy, productivity, and many other things.

If people are to grow up loving peace and freedom and with a heart and mind to solve problems, we must let them feel what being left to peace and freedom feels like at early ages.

A Negotiation-Based Approach for the Good of the Child

But more more than creating a better world, this non-punitive, negotiation-based approach will impart an impressive set of life skills to children. It is, no doubt, an approach which requires a higher level of skill on the adults part than any other current approach with children. But I all but passionately plea with you to consider it even in the preschool years when the very skills regarding social conflict are developing. In the not so long run,it will make your job easier when your children take the process over. And even more than that, it will make a deep impression on a child’s character during these sensitive, forming years. Children who were deeply accepted, deeply felt, powerfully guided, and respected simply glow.

But first it means dealing with delicate and even shocking issues in non-punitive ways. Are you ready?

Why “Negotiation-Based”?

I call this approach negotiation-based, because that’s what it is. It applies the central principles of negotiation, which apply also to adults, to young children, focusing on their unique status and problems. This idea of “negotiating” with children is often mocked, and I’d like to address this first.

This article by Janet Lansbury is entitled, “Stop Negotiating with Your Toddler.” This was the “negotiation” that a parent was using and was asking about:

At nap time recently, [her child] pulled my glasses off my face and refused to give them back. I said give them back or I will have to take something of yours. (What are the options here?) After he refused to give them back, I pried them from his hands and put his toy on a shelf. He cried, and I left the room. My husband returned, talked to him, and gave him back his toy.

In the morning, my son and I talked about the glasses and consequences. He hasn’t done it since, but I didn’t feel very good about how I handled the situation. It’s a constant cycle of what feels like threats (if this/ then that) and taking the stuff he loves. What’s left? (Emphasis mine)

This isn’t negotiation. What the mom did was a threat: do something or I’m taking something. Pretend it’s an adult: stop walking across my lawn or I’m taking your [whatever]. The lady who asked the question herself said it was a threat, yet the title of the article is about “negotiation.” Wut. This mom did try to appeal to the idea that a child can understand a “if, then ..” situation, which the child perhaps can’t, certainly not when upset. This is an appeal to cognitive understanding, but this is not negotiation.

Perhaps “negotiation” is given a bad name because people think it’s entirely reason-based. It’s not. It begins with an emotional component. Negotiating with adults starts with an emotional component too. A conflict by definition means both parties are upset. Those emotions must be dealt with first. Yes there is a very strong reason-based component, but it’s an entire package. Let’s stop dichotomizing emotions and reason and throwing one or the other out because we’ve seen only bad versions of them.

Other people think “negotiating” means perhaps pleading with, bribing, or nagging a child. That’s also not what it is. It’s a package with three main components: active listening, boundary setting, and problem solving.

A Negotiation-Based Approach

I learned about what I am about to put forth primarily from Dr. Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. I have read many approaches to preschoolers. I favor this negotiation-based approach as put forth by Dr. Gordon, even though he wrote his book about teenagers. I also round this approach out with what I have read about young children’s emotions and how to handle them. I also insert my own knowledge of the developmental stages that children go through. My point: I’ve evaluated many thinkers, picked the best, blended some together, and added my own observations for what I describe here.

In this approach, all issues are seen as unresolved needs. Let’s say a preschooler won’t get into a car seat. The issue is not that the child is being disrespectful. Let’s say they are crying. The issue is not that their cry is an undesirable behavior that we want to discourage. Their cry and defiance is seen as communication. You have a conflict of needs here. You want them to get into the car seat. They wanted to keep doing the fun activity you took them from. That’s it. That’s the issue that needs dealt with. We are not going to attempt to manipulate the child to be more cooperative in the future. We’re not going to bribe them (though if this works; it works, but I suspect it works mainly because you unintentionally satisfied the underlying need). We are not going to “ignore” their cries in an attempt to “not reward” this behavior either–something I am most opposed to and will go into detail further down. We deal with the issue directly, finding a solution that works for them and you.

In this example, dealing with the issue might mean talking to them about how fun the activity was that they are leaving. Sometimes it means giving something similar in the car. Sometimes it means giving something yet more fun and distracting, perhaps telling them all about their favorite movie: their primary need, after all, is time with you. Sometimes, though this will probably be rare, it means picking them up and just buckling them (this doesn’t usually go well). But we always acknowledge their point of view. With a remarkably high success rate, the result is a comfortable, cooperative child.

The other major principle, and I learned this from Dr. Gordon, is to identify who owns the problem. This is so crucial. Accept this: the fact that you want to get the child in the car seat is your problem. It’s not the child’s problem. When a person decides to “ignore” a child’s cries, for instance, they are attempting to manipulate the child into acting a different way to make the process go smoother. I hate this advice. I hate this advice. I hate this advice. You’ve just made your problem their problem. The problem is on their shoulders: they are too whiny and difficult and need to stop. Who owns the problem will greatly affect your approach.

So here are the three principles.

Boundary Setting

When you’ve established that you own a problem, you employ boundary setting. The main tool with boundary setting are I-statements.

What is so crucial here is you simply state your concern without dictating to the other person that they do anything at all. You keep the problem where it resides: with you. You air your concern and you trust that the other person likely has empathy to respond.

Can I stray just a bit and tell you how much this helped me in my marriage? It was everything I had in me sometimes to not yell at my husband, “Well just go do what you want!” or something similar. (I’ll save details for us.) During especially trying times, and when I was still truly learning this approach, I remember how much I held back, specifically not dictating a solution, during intense times, due to my understanding of healthy negotiation. It is hard. It is so hard. But so worth it.

With preschoolers, this is the exact thing we must desist from. We must not tell them exactly how to solve any given problem. We provide mentorship, guidance, a sounding board, a calm presence–so many things–but not the exact solution. They must learn the language of healthy negotiation.

An I-statement has three parts. (1) The offending behavior (2) How you feel about it (3) Why. Dr. Gordon says it’s the “why” part that people so often miss. If a preschooler is riding their tricycle in the house, it must be, “(1) I don’t like (2) when you ride your tricycle in the house (3) because you might run into walls or hit your sister.” That third part must be there. This I-statement is said as opposed to anything that dictates a solution such as “STOP!” or “GO OUTSIDE AND DO THAT!” In using this approach, the problem of solving it is turned over to the child. They might say something like, “Well what if I’m really careful”–and then they are.

There is a constant hum in our house of I-statements. “I’m sad that … ” I’m disappointed that … ” “I’m worried that … ” This last one is said most often. My children have absolutely picked up on it. They know how to identify their own problem or need and verbalize it exactly like this. It really helps in resolving conflict. Instead of rushing over and pushing their brother or sister, they can say, “I’m worried you will fall off the stairs!” Pushing their brother or sister may have otherwise been their solution to making sure their brother or sister didn’t fall. That they use I-statements so readily really helps to get to what they are thinking. And underneath children’s odd behavior is usually a desire to do something right or compassionate.

Active Listening

If it is the child who owns the problem, you employ active listening.

The first step with this is almost always geared towards emotions. Children, especially preschoolers, may be flooded with emotions. I found these emotions were actually much worse at the ages of 4 – 5 than they were at 3 – 4. When something happens that they are upset about, they are likely to go way off the Richter scale. It is going to come out as very, very, VERY angry emotions. They might become aggressive. They might whine a lot. It’s not pretty. You need to deal with the underlying need.

The first approach is to always identify the emotion. “I see how angry you are.” Try not to make this a “You” statement. If you say something like “You are very angry right now,” they might become argumentative. “No, I’m not!” Try also saying “I see how angry you are right now,” emphasizing for both you and them that the feeling is temporary. It can and likely will dissipate soon. Either way, the emotion they are experiencing should always be met with sincere acceptance. It’s understandable that they think someone just stole their toy and they are angry–and then dug their nails into their brother. They do not have the maturity yet to deal with this in a peaceful manner. It’s our job to make room for that. This will go terribly at first.

For the preschool years especially, I really exaggerate the emotion. My son at 4 was pounding on a calculator once because he couldn’t get “0” to repeat several times. It just said “0” and not “00000000” like he wanted. I said to him, “I see how angry you are. I bet you want to throw the calculator out the window!” He said, stunned, “No, mommy, that would hurt the calculator.” Right. He calmed down after this. Or another time my daughter, 3, had dug her nails into her brother because she thought he was taking her toy. I said to her, “If we need to, we’ll get you 100 toys.” This calmed her down greatly.

Only after all these emotions are dealt with can you get them to communicate their real need. Please do not ask them to “use their words” while emotionally flooded like this. I found children easily give their thoughts. If you practice I-statements as previously described, they already have that language and can communicate to you their problems.

The other thing to do when coming upon a conflict with preschoolers is to just start describing things. “I see a vase spilled over.” “I see this board game spread all over the floor.” “I see how Emily is crying really hard.” In doing this, you might find they start filling in the holes of how it got to be that way. If you are non-punitive in your approach, they are much more likely to fess up to what happened so you can help them through it.

Problem Solving

If you have stated your need and you’ve listened to theirs and nothing is getting resolved, you have a conflict of needs. You need to go to a problem solving stage.

First, I leave open the possibility that children might solve the problem on their own. Unless a child is in extreme pain, during a conflict, I give them at least 30 seconds before I step in. Here is my son at 4 years old arranging with his sister a deal where they each took turns taking a bite of the very last piece of bacon. I’m willing to handle some germs for the sake of problem solving in action.


For tougher issues, in a negotiation-based approach with older children, it means sitting down together and brainstorming. That is not possible with preschoolers, who do not have the long-range planning yet, although which shows up somewhat in the late 4s.

Instead, I favor modeling problem solving over and over for them. You, the adult, come up with a creative solution. This will infuse them with the idea that solutions to problems likely exist, even if not immediately seen.

Doing this might mean providing safety so one child isn’t hitting another. It might mean distracting a young child temporarily. It could mean lots of things. It’s hard to exhaustively cover the possibilities here. On my summaries of the child development milestones, I have ideas attached to each milestone of how to solve typical problems that arise. My ideas often involve doing something to give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality. Or doing something in high alignment with their development, meeting a developmental need in the time of a conflict, which can help. Often times in the preschool years, problem solving means giving a lesson to help them untangle questions they have about how to solve something. See my post The Time my 5-Year-Old Stomped on His Sister in Public for an example.

Now, let’s employ this approach to some examples.

Whose Toy Is It?

Here is an example from a story I read a mother tell on social media.

She and her daughter were at the beach. Another child was playing with sea shells. Her daughter went to join this child. The mother stepped in and told her to wait her turn. Then it was her daughter’s turn and another boy came and took all the sea shells. The daughter was left in tears. On social media, other mothers piled in to tell the mom she should have confronted the “little brat” because “her daughter can’t defend herself yet.”

Let’s rewind this story to the beginning. It would have been fine for her daughter to go up to the first child and attempt to join the first child who was playing with the sea shells. I find children are remarkable at connecting with each other. I’ve watched my children go up to complete strangers and arrange fun games spontaneously. My daughter and two other girls, all about 3 or 4 years old, spontaneously put on a play together once. And this was especially beautiful because the prior time I was at this place, a parent chased her kid away from the play area, in the name of “wait your turn” as my daughter was in there. (It was a small house with a window and puppets in it.) And, yet, when allowed to just be together, the children were not offended or territorial but connected in a fun and tremendously healthy way: putting on a play together. (Yay, imaginative play!) My son often organizes games of tag with random children at the playground. Children around the world are known to spontaneously organize games of pick up. They are wired to connect. Let them!

Back to the story, once the child was told they must wait their turn, they are put in a submissive position. The daughter, the “good” one, is doing as is told–but is also neutered to act. When the boy came running along and took all the sea shells, she can feel nothing but injustice. And now a typical a stereotype has been created and reinforced: the “good” girl and the “bad” boy.

I consider that boy not to be bad but to be that mother’s muse–and he was. She went on to social media to find better answers. I didn’t respond but this is my thought: it is OK to let children work things out on their own at first, assuming no one is in any physical or emotional distress. If, and only if, tension is created, an adult should step in to help them handle it wisely. If the girl had gone up and asked to play with the sea shells, the other child may have been agreeable. And now it’s a mega-win. The key is to not dictate a solution.

When They Become Aggressive

This example really breaks down the steps of negotiation-based conflict resolution and for one of the worst case scenarios: when a child is aggressive.

Let’s say you have two children: One, a boy, is 4 1/2 and another, a girl, is 2. (Confession: These are my kids and this actually happened). The 4 year old is using the chalkboard, doing mathematical equations. The 2 year old, who is always interested in her big brother, comes to the chalkboard, with her own chalk, eager to copy her older brother. The 4-year old shouts at her, then growls, trying to threaten her to go away.

Step One: Manage Your Emotions

I’ll tell you some things that go through my brain when this happens, which, right or wrong, contribute to the situation. First, I’m thinking: I really wish her brother would let her play with him. She no doubt would learn from him. Is it really a big deal that she scribbles next to him while he does equations? Second, I’m thinking: G%$#$&%, my 4-year old is being a jerk.

It is clear the aggressive behavior needs to stop. I admit I used to get so over the top mad at my 4-year old for being aggressive towards his sister, that I didn’t care if he continued his original activity. The following are better steps to handle this situation.

Negotiation has an emotional component and one of those components is your emotions as a parent. The very first thing to do in this situation is manage your own emotions. I cannot deal with the situation if I am angry. I learned from Dr. Tsabary to ask, “what am I really feeling?” in times of emotional outburst. Just by identifying it–I am angry at my son–helps to deal with it better. A deep breath, counting to 4 and back, is not just cliche advice, it’s neurologically proven effective advice. This prevents you from adding to the chaos such as if you were to hit or yell.

Step Two: Provide Safety 

The second thing is safety. I physically restrained my son, to stop the aggression. Notice how proactive this is. This approach is not passive. It is in fact more proactive and more hands on than the parent who tries to control the behavior by yelling at the child (probably about what the rules are) from a distance. Go to the child and be physically present. Notice that physically restraining him is a bit like a hug.

Step Three: Calm the Child Down

This next step focuses on calming the child down. I then asked my son to take a deep breath too. I told him I had to protect his sister, and when he was calm, I could let him go.

Step Four: Find the Solution

In this situation, after my son was calm, I gently lifted his sister up and away from the chalkboard, and got her doing something else. Happily, at 2 years old, she is very easily distracted like this. Per my commitment to indeed make him feel safe and secure to do his activities to his heart’s content, without anyone taking from him what he was doing, I told my son that he had a right to use the chalkboard until he was done.

I didn’t punish him. I didn’t make him stop doing what he was doing. I in fact let him continue using the chalkboard, despite the aggressive behavior. Some would probably disagree with this and say I just rewarded bad behavior. I strongly disagree and this thinking is what erroneously stops this approach from being used. First, punishment is not a teacher. It gains temporary obedience. It does not give a lesson learned. Positive Discipline books argue that people cannot be changed by blame, shame, or pain. Plus, it is nearly impossible. It was difficult for me to restrain my 4 year old as it is, let alone enforce a “punishment,” such as timeout on him.

Let’s look at the situation: He had a legitimate reason to be angry. Did he handle it the best way? No. But he was 4. And knowing how to deal with situations like this is a learned skill.

Step Five: Enjoy the Fruits of this Approach

What happened in the future is that there were a lot less conflicts like this. I find that when a fight breaks out, my children have an extraordinary amount of patience as we work through the situation. It’s as if they think, “A fight is breaking out. I know in time a solution will be found. My needs will be met. I won’t have to be aggressive to get what I want. I can trust that we’ll all move towards better understanding and conflict resolution.”

This approach makes them feel safe and protected. My son knows I will deal with sister when she is positively annoying him. Both children know nothing will be taken from them against their will. I’ve removed his need to wig out when his sister threatens his activity. This is what is needed. Not adults barking at children to “share”–which is not something they really mean, but something they learned from their own youth and a wish for the conflict to just go away.

Now for some erroneous approaches

The “Ignore Them” Approach

So many proudly say they ignore a crying or whiny child with the explicit thought this will eventually discourage this crying, whining behavior. I most passionately disagree with this approach. Here is why I think it “works” to the degree it does and what it misses.

When you consciously decide to “ignore” a child, you’ve at least decided to keep a check on your emotions. This is a good thing. You’ve also decided not to punish them. That’s also a good thing. In that it keeps you moving calmly towards action, it’s a good thing. But look at what it does to the child. It tells them their crying is unwanted. Said another way, that their problems and concerns are not wanted. That their crying is something to preferably hide away rather than express.

I find when I lean in to their cries, very often the real need is something deep. It’s something to do with their development. They always want mommy or daddy in some specific way. Often I can offer them something in high alignment with their development. For instance, as their thinking grows in complexity, they might understand the full plot of their favorite movie. If I talk to them about their favorite movie, not only do they become calm and I can get them down a scary set of stairs in a parking garage, I am also working on reading comprehension with them. Look at what you MISS if you don’t take them seriously!

Most importantly, of course, is that I communicated to them that their problems are important. I untangled the real issue and got to genuine comfort, because they actually are comfortable, not a manipulated seeming comfort because they know that asking mom or dad to meet their needs is futile.

The irony is when you lean in to the cries, eventually you get less cries. You will likely deal with crying, whining, or aggression all the way up to the age of 5. After that though, if you impart this sophisticated set of negotiation-based and problem solving skills, you turn the keys over to your child to manage their own emotions and solve their own problems. Of course, you are still there as an ever-loving presence and sounding board from then on (as any adult even needs).

A Rules-Based Approach

It is common to use a rules-based approach to handle children. How many of us watched Supernanny in the early 2000s and watched her spell out the rules on a white board and dish out “consistent” time outs when children broke them, coming in with cuddles afterwards?

I find rules can be used in context. When we go to the library, I tell my children the rule there is to be quiet. This is such a novel idea to them that they tend to take it very seriously. Occasionally I employ a rule such as “whoever has a toy first can keep it until they are done” if and only if it is becoming a consistent problem.

The thing is rules really were made to be broken. Even highly benevolent principles can be broken. For instance, there may be a general theory of color, such as don’t mix “clean” colors (light pink for example) with “dirty” colors (grayed down colors such as mustard) and yet someone highly skilled can break this rule and make it work. The most skilled of people tend to say that it’s very hard to pin down exact principles and rules; there are typically only guidelines, which no doubt do help. That rules can be broken for understandable reasons is what makes “zero tolerance policy,” as my husband calls them, “zero tolerance idiocy.”

You can try your hardest but it’s very difficult to come up with a rule of any kind, especially that pertaining to children who by nature are immature and need room to wiggle and grow and misbehave, that cannot be broken for what are understandable reasons. For instance, try to employ the rule of “whoever has a toy first can keep it until they are done.” Well what if a child uses it in the morning and leaves it out and three hours later another child wants it? Now what? Well you need more rules. Which rule? Should you make them put it away? You will have to maintain that discipline. As it grows in complexity, the possibility that rules can be broken for understandable reasons grows and grows. At some point, you will find yourself fighting human nature. That’s a fight that cannot be won.

So, rules, in context. But I favor this negotiation-based approach as the main foundation of handling conflict.

The “Alpha” Approach

There is an approach that adults need to be in the “alpha” role and actively encourage children to be dependent on them, so they can trust the adult. I find in this approach the child’s needs are often over-riden. The child is told they must go to sleep, put on a coat, and so on. I find it disrespectful to and unaccepting of the child. I say more here, “Children Do Not Need Boundaries.”

Blame-Oriented, Punitive Means

So this is the real evil approach. It’s plain as day that many people use punitive means to get children to cooperate and blame-oriented ones: laying the responsibility of solving a problem entirely at the child’s feet, stating how very frustrated you are with them and how very bad they are. I want to focus on what kind of people this creates.

Once, my son (6) and daughter (4) were putting on their shoes at karate. There is not a lot of room to do this. My son swung with his book bag and hit my daughter. She screamed bloody murder.

A boy, about 14 or 15, went to help her. He tried to do this for less than one second and when it didn’t help her, he pronounced, “This isn’t my kid. Someone help her. It was his fault she fell not mine.” He quickly walked off, almost like he was trying to avoid consequence. It was not said as a joke. He clearly heard this kind of language and repeated it.

Let me try to break it down
1. An idea that people are *probably* going to be negligent and need to be admonished to go to her (I, her mother, was standing right there and was shocked and even hurt.)
2. An idea that my son was “at fault” and quick to point a finger
3. A quick “this ain’t my problem! hooray! i’m not the jerk *this* time!”
4. A sign of a good intention, to help her, speaking to universal compassion, but giving up on any workable solution almost instantly
5. The fear of punishment driving his action, walking off quickly, to avoid any adult interaction

This is what the culture of blame engenders. Instead of wanting to open up and admit wrong doing, children are quick to deny any wrong doing. They are in fact quick to say, “He did it!” You can work in any office setting and find the type of personality who is quick to start pointing fingers when something goes wrong, in an attempt to get attention away from them. When I am around other children and a fight breaks out, sometimes they instantly start telling me, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” My children don’t do this. They know we’ll work towards a solution, no matter what.

Which brings me to my next more controversial points about this approach in the older years.

Delicate Issues in Older Years: Sexual Assault

The great advantage of this negotiation-based approach is it grows as a child gets older. You can adopt more complex versions of negotiation, adding brainstorming and such. One of the greatest disadvantages with punitive means is it loses its effectiveness as children get older. They have the means and know-how to get around punishment.

I want to apply a negotiation-based approach to an extremely sensitive issue and how it could be solved through non-punitive means: sexual misconduct among teenagers.

First of all, with the work I do, documenting children’s developmental stages, I can tell you that whenever children experience new growth, it goes terribly at first. When they have a spurt of creativity, at first they destroy things. When they grow sexually, you can all but expect weird behavior. They might make a pass at their parent. They might stare at a sibling’s genitals. You just need to be braced that this might happen and deal with it wisely. Children need to know that they are still OK: they are still accepted and loved but certain behaviors, assuming they are hurtful to someone else, then need redirected to other behaviors or thoughts. If we can deal with the subtle behaviors wisely, we might prevent worse behaviors.

Of course the ideal situation is we are educating children about not just sex but relationships. “Sex education” isn’t just the birds and bees. It must anticipate what a child’s burning questions are. Like, how do they ask a girl out? How do they know if boys like them? We must talk to children about such stuff. We must invest in growing the skill set. Otherwise we can expect to be simply dealing with the fallout when it goes terribly. Education is a good thing, people!

Let’s say however that worse comes to worse and a teenager is sexually assaulted by another teenager. Here is my case for dealing with it in a non-punitive way.

This issue occasionally becomes a big national debate for various reasons, which I will refrain from being specific about. During such debates, some people say something like, “Oh boys will be boys!” They might defend their or other’s past behavior and say something like, “Someone said I did something! I don’t remember that at all!” My point is that this is a pretty big issue and people clearly have guilty consciences. One way or the other, if something bad happens, and a child knows they will get punished about it, they are NOT going to go elders about it to figure it out. They hold on to it tight and they are defensive. A child who knows he will get a whooping will have the instinct to cover up what happened.

The same punitive mindset might prevent the victim from speaking up too. Say a girl was drinking alcohol with boys and was raped. She doesn’t want to tell her parents because she fears the repercussion of doing that so much that she is unwilling to go to them. She’d rather stay silent than face this reality.

Many are probably shocked that I say to not use punitive measures when dealing with something as serious as sexual assault. I think it’s the very punitive measures that prevent us from actually healing the problem. Further, they are way out of hand. You see stories of a 10-year-old being handcuffed for perceived sexual misconduct. Deep down, I think most people can see that jail time over most of this is wrong.

I would be so bold to say that most victims do not actually want their aggressor to be punished for what happened. I would be so bold to say that most victims just want acknowledgment about what happened and an apology. Punitive measures prevent such authentic apologies. Punitive measures prevent children from going to elders, who could provide wisdom and guidance about what happened.

The main, #1 thing is that when children come to us with a problem, we don’t give them an eye roll. We take them seriously.


This negotiation-based approach has great results. People tell me they are stunned by how well my children get along. What I outlined here is the heart and soul of what I do. It’s the magic sauce. This approach does take some skill to learn. It is not a terrible amount to learn but it is more to learn than many other approaches. It is different than other approaches, including ones that say to “set loving boundaries” or “be firm but kind.” A negotiation-based approach still absolutely embraces the emotions of all involved and then after all are calm, turns to reason and problem solving. It’s a dynamic skill set for a child to directly learn and more to see modeled for them day after day in a living, breathing way in their own home. I believe this approach encourages the development of intelligence as well: the real kind of intelligence, where you apply it to solve problems. I think ultimately this approach creates better people and a better world. If you are like I am and want to see an end to violence in human relations and want to see more self-confident, more skilled children, please … please share this article. Thank you.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

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