Zen and the Art of Negotiating with Toddlers

A brilliant, Harvard-trained Ph.D. who was teaching a business school class on negotiation that I attended not long ago added intriguing dimension to her lecture with an interesting personal anecdote. This insightful strategist, who consults with multi-national corporations on complex contracts and achieves astonishing compromise in intricate negotiations involving conflicting cultures and millions upon millions of dollars, had this to say about her five-year-old grandson:

“He gets whatever he wants.”

And she added this minor qualifier: “At my house, my only job is to keep him safe from harm. Otherwise, he gets whatever he wants. If he wants a cookie, he gets a cookie.”

She did not elaborate on this fascinating revelation, but I’ve pondered it many times since, and here’s my interpretation: You can train at Harvard on theory and best practice, you may be gifted with an agile intellect that equips you to whip corporate bozos into shape right, left, and center, but you can’t negotiate with toddlers. There is no way to win, so save your dignity and give it a miss.

Not long after I attended this lecture, I was gifted with one of many examples of this Fundamental Truth of Grandparenthood (FTG).

I procured for Brother’s birthday a tiny, intricately accessorized, toddler-scale riding car, a battery-powered version of my own set of wheels. He loves my car (even at life size, it looks rather like a toy), so I hoped this would be a hit, and it seemed just so. Sadly, however, it was pouring rain on the actual birthday, so his parents authorized a road test in the hallway of the house. The technical skills of forward and backward acceleration were quickly and masterfully achieved, but the judgment to check the surroundings first was, like Batteries, Not Included, and the first casualty of this mastery was Small Sister. Hovering behind and hoping for a ride, she got knocked to the floor and partially pinned under the rear fender in the work of a moment. No more, said the parents over the wailing, until we can take it outside.

The sun obligingly appeared the next morning, so the license to drive on the sidewalk was immediately applied for to the appropriate authorities. Better at least try, I admonished myself guiltily, to talk about staying out of harm’s way.

Okay, I said sternly to the miniature Mario Andretti, gathering him close and giving him the old eyeball, it’s time to talk about safe driving. “Okay,” says Mario, unsure where this is going. To drive safely, I roll on with the Darth Vader tone, you mustn’t run into other people. Especially babies. Surprisingly, this prompts an immediate, sorrowful assent.

“We don’t hit babies,” he repeats, with a sad shake of the small head.

And no dogs or cats, his father supplies, watching nearby. This also brings the necessary response, intently spoken. “We don’t hit babies, or dogs, or cats,” he agrees, solemnly.MINIblog.10.15

This exchange occurs near a window overlooking the front yard and framing the intoxicating sight of sunshine and freedom. He checks the view carefully for a moment, then turns back to me for his final salvo. It is delivered with the head cocked slightly, hope blended with just the facts, ma’am, and the keen instinct not to smile in presumed triumph. “There are no babies or cats or dogs out there NOW, Evie.”

Game, set, match. We are off for the open road.               

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