Negotiate with toddlers? Are you crazy?

Toddlers are not known for being rational creatures. With their bodies and minds developing rapidly on so many fronts, logic as we think about it is just not there. Angry that the color orange exists could be reason enough for an all-out tantrum! As such, you may have heard the admonition, “Don’t negotiate with a toddler!” Compromise is non-existent and understanding “Sweetie, I’ll make you a deal…,” won’t come for several more years.


While it’s true that you can’t negotiate with a toddler in a way we would think reasonable as adults, it doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate and bargain with them at all. You just have to do it on their level. You need to think like a toddler if you are going to bargain like a toddler. Simplify your world view or even get down on the floor with them to see it from their point-of-view. Along the way you need to:

  • Understand what you are teaching
  • Keep the negotiating simple
  • Pick the battles carefully
  • Remember you are the parent, not another toddler

Life is negotiation

When you think about it, much of life is negotiation. And that negotiation starts early. As soon as there is verbal ability — even before actually — you are teaching your child about give and take. Each time you give your pre-verbal child a cracker when she’s doing that cute peek-a-boo thing? That’s negotiation. You do this, you get this in its most basic form.

As you begin to teach your child about negotiation, consider that you are teaching about trust, too. Say what you mean and mean what you say in every negotiation from toddlerhood on up. Your child will learn that he or she can believe you when you say this or that — even if he or she doesn’t always like what is being said.

Keep it simple

If you’re going to negotiate with a toddler, keep it simple and clear and immediate. No multi-step instructions for that cookie two hours from now — yet. If you are trying to do one thing and you want or need your child to do one thing, keep the focus there and in the span of just a few minutes. “Later” is not a concept your child can grasp in these early years.

Pick you battles

Think carefully about what you will and won’t negotiate. You may choose to engage in a little negotiation over toys at playtime — but not at meal time. Maybe you’ll make little bargains with your child on the way to playgroup, but not at naptime. What is open for negotiation?

Who’s the boss

Getting down on your child’s level and trying to understand their point of view in terms of negotiating the world can be lots of fun and help you understand the wonder and challenge of the world opening up to your child. But don’t forget that you are the parent, and not every exchange needs to be or should be negotiating on your toddler’s level. There are times when you must discipline instead of deal and make the decisions instead of bargain.

Sure, it’s “crazy” to bargain with a toddler if you expect them to behave like little adults, toddlers can engage in simple deal-making. Keep it simple, pick your battles, remember who’s boss and you’ll be well on your way to teaching your toddler effective bargaining skills!

More on toddler behavior

Dealing with toddler tantrums
Taming frequent temper tantrums
How to deal with toddler tantrums

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