Non-Negotiable

This article was published in the South China Morning Post on January 15th, 2011.

Five-year old Robert looked at me very seriously as he explained.  “You can discuss some things and change some rules, like getting extra time for t.v., but you can never never pull the cat’s tail.  That is non-negotiable.”  When I asked him what he meant, he explained,  “Non-negotiable means you can’t argue about it.  Like seatbelts are non-negotiable.  School is non-negotiable.  No hitting is non-negotiable.  No bad words is non-negotiable.  And no screaming in the store.  Those things are all non-negotiable.”

Robert’s parents have done a great job of teaching him that some things are beyond discussion.  As a young child, this has allowed him much greater peace as he is not caught in endless unhappy struggles to try to convince parents of what he wants.  It has also taught him to understand boundaries and manage his own disappointment.  And when he is older, as a teenager, Robert will have much more success with turning down temptations and setting his own boundaries than peers who have never learned that “no means no.”

Robert’s mom, Clare, laughed as she explained, “Robert is a born lawyer.  By the time he was three he could argue about anything and usually win.  And if he didn’t win, he would start to cry, then shout, then throw tantrums.  We knew that we had to do something or he would end up ruling the household.  Besides, he was miserable and so were we.”  I asked Clare what she does now if Robert throws a tantrum.  “He almost never does that anymore,” said Clare.  “The rule is that we might be able to discuss something he wants, but as soon as he starts to whine or yell then that topic becomes non-negotiable.  In order to try to convince us, he has to stay polite.”

Although Clare makes it sound easy, we all know that there was a period of adjustment as Robert learned that he could not always make his parents give in to his desires.  Children who are in “the terrible twos” are trying to figure out how much of life – and how much of their parents’ behavior – they can control.  We want them to feel powerful and competent, masters of their own universe, but we also know that they cannot be in control of everything.  By the time they are four, most children have an understanding and acceptance of many limits to their control.  They know that they must obey the teacher, use the bathroom, dress to go outside, stop at the street, and brush their teeth.  Even masters of the universe have to wear seatbelts.

By making some things non-negotiable, Clare has also recognized that the best time to explain limits to control is not during a power struggle.  When someone is upset, he or she is not listening and probably not receptive to teaching.  While a child is crying or angry, it is not very effective to try to explain why eating candy before dinner is not healthy or why it is fair for a sibling to get a turn with the computer.  When a child is upset it does no good to lecture, and in fact quite often a lecture makes the child more upset.  It is much easier for both the child and the parent if a parent waits until a “teachable moment,” a time when the child is calm and receptive to learning about the reasons for a rule.  In the meantime, making the rule “non-negotiable” means that it must be obeyed.  Parents can offer a child help with managing their feelings – with a hug or a story perhaps – but cannot change the rule or argue about it. 

Clare and her husband want to have a household that is as democratic as possible, and they want to allow for discussions and even disagreements with Robert.  But they also understand that democracy requires mutual respect and the acceptance of ground rules.  They know that listening to Robert and being supportive of him does not mean that they should allow themselves to be verbally abused or fail to establish their own reasonable boundaries.  And, as parents and adults, they also understand that some things in life are simply non-negotiable.