A new book about Henry Kissinger points to the idea that the successful practice of diplomacy requires compromise since no nation is powerful enough to get whatever it wants unilaterally. This applies not only to international diplomacy but to human relationships generally as part of everyday living. Yet, reaching compromise as a solution to conflicts between people is often challenging.

In thinking about relationships with children, as parents, we are confronted with many of the questions we have to deal with in our adult relationships as well. Because children are not on our level developmentally we are forced to think through many issues that we might just react to with another adult. But that very difference in development can lead parents to feel they should be powerful enough to get whatever they want unilaterally, which is the road to conflict.

Too often, “compromise” becomes doing what the child wants or asking the child to do what the parent wants. The issue becomes winning or losing, especially if a conflict has begun to escalate. Parents feel defeated if they see themselves as having capitulated to a child’s demands or protests. They also don’t like the feeling of using power — punishments or the like — in order to impose their own way.

Another approach is “reasoning” with a child. Here the developmental difference between parent and child also comes into play. Parents and children differ on what they consider reasonable. Many requests parents make — like bedtime, or leaving play to get dressed — seem unreasonable to a child. Reasoning rarely involves a compromise but instead asking a child to see how reasonable the parent is being.

Given how far apart parents and children are in what they want at various times, how can one compromise with a child? In part, this relates to the age of the child but there are some general ideas that apply. To begin with, are we really hearing what it is a child wants? Sometimes we are misled by the drama of children’s responses. Their protests at our requests can range from loud, tearful “no’s!” to not hearing us at all.

In reality, the translation of the behavior might be, “I want to finish my game,” or “I don’t want to leave yet,” or “I don’t like that lunch.” Children tend to experience things as extremes, black or white, all or nothing, yes or no. Sometimes as parents we tend to fall into the same trap, thinking that compliance or defiance are the only alternatives.

Often it is possible to find a compromise by going part of the way a child wants, agreeing to stay in the park another 15 minutes, or giving time to finish the game before leaving. It helps to acknowledge with a child that you understand his wishes and want to meet him part way. Children see their parents as all powerful, which in fact they are in many ways compared to the child. A parent’s sympathetic verbal acceptance of a child’s wishes is an emotional gift that can compensate for not getting what was wanted.

Compromise means not getting everything you want. It means giving something up in order to accomplish something else you want. It’s the giving something up that often stands in the way of a compromise. Children don’t see why they should have to give anything up. Parents vary about what they are willing to give up. The fact is, no one really likes giving anything up.

Being sympathetic to children about what they have to give up can help them learn how to accept compromise.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.