Thursday, April 12, 2012

Getting to Yes

What do union contracts, hostage crises, and prison riots have in common with parenting? Maybe you guessed it. Negotiation!

Experts in negotiation strategy sell books about “Getting to Yes.” I have one on my bookshelf, though I’ve never read it. When it comes to parenting, Raelene and I had a simpler philosophy. We called it, “Starting with Yes.”

Maybe we were wimps, dreading tantrums and fights. But I think we came up with something that really worked. Early on, we decided that if it were at all possible, we would begin with yes.

It went like this: Instead of fighting over whether or not the child would go to school, we asked the question, “Would you rather wear your purple dress or your blue cords to school?”  When discussing chores, we asked, “Would you rather set the table or empty the dishwasher?” For homework, we asked, “Would you rather finish that essay before dinner or after?”

Whenever possible we avoided any question that might end with the child saying, “No.”

A “no” answer leaves no room for negotiation. Instead, “no” forces confrontation, power struggles and bad feelings. When the kids were teenagers, we followed the same philosophy. For instance, when one of our daughters asked me to go “hang out” with a boy, I said yes. She was young, too young to drive, and she needed me to help her do this hanging-out thing.

“Sure,” I said. “You can go hang out. I’ll take you.”

When we arrived at the boy’s home, I parked at the curb. “Okay, you have ten minutes. Go in and hang out. After ten minutes, either you come out, or I’ll be at the door.”

It was my way of starting with yes. You can guess how my daughter felt about it. As it turned out, things didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. She didn’t emerge in ten minutes, and true to my word, I went up to the porch. Surprised, the boy’s mother greeted me, “But she just got here!”

When the kids came to the door, I discovered a boy who turned out to be a fully developed man, with a hairy face and a body that could bench press 250 (okay, at least that’s how I remember it). With some surprise, he shook my hand and said, in a deeply manish voice, “Hello Dr. Sutherland.” I was glad I’d only given her ten minutes!

In the end, my daughter got a yes —as conditional as it might have been —and I got a glimpse into her life, emotions and relationships. As union negotiations go, it was a win-win.

Maybe I should have been a hostage negotiator?

How about you? Do you start with yes? How has it worked for you?

Greg Sutherland, DDS, MS

(With Bette Nordberg)


  1. We have not tried this in our house, but I can see how it can be effective. Some parents think there should be no negotiation with their kids, but I disagree. I think allowing them to make some of their own decisions is a great idea- they're going to have to do it eventually anyway!

  2. So true! Isn't life really about making good choices, one after another, all day long? Get up on time. Exercise. Time with God. Time with family. Study. Finishing your work. Doing your best. All day, every day, we are faced with tough choices. Ice cream or vegetables. Late night TV or a good night's sleep. Guided practice with those decisions and also with the consequences our decisions create are really the essence of parenting! (Oh yes, that and all those late night feedings, diapers, colds, school events, team sports, etc!!!) I guess it's more complicated than that, right?