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Recent Adventures in Negotiations and Optional Values

Posted Jan 18 2010 4:00am

Ryan and I recently had a round of successful negotiations that I thought I’d share here on the blog for a couple of reasons. First, it was a good experience all around (although painful at times). Second, the way I handled this situation was different from how my parents handled similar situations with me.

The issues that needed negotiating was his participation in Taekwondo. Prior to our negotiations, this was our TKD situation: Ryan attended regular class on Mondays and Wednesdays, sparring on Thursdays, and an All-Belts class on Saturday mornings. For several months, this was our schedule and it seemed to be working out just fine all around.

Beginning in mid-December, Ryan began to balk about going. Maybe balk isn’t the best word. Often what he’d do is act all excited about TKD when I reminded him that it was part of our schedule on a particular day, and then when it was time to get ready to go, he’d whine and stall and complain about having to go. Often, I’d have stopped my own work to prepare myself, Morgan, and Sean to go sit at his class, including dressing people, feeding them a quick snack, and packing activities in my Mommy’s Bag of Tricks (aka, the diaper bag) to keep the younger two occupied. (It’s not a drop-off situation for a few different reasons.)

So after I’d gone through a whole bunch of effort to get everyone else ready for his activity, it was really annoying to have to fight to get Ryan into his uniform and out the door. Really. Annoying.

The holidays afforded us with a break from the normal schedule, and I thought that break would be a good time to reset the old focus and return to the previous level of enthusiasm. Also, he had a belt test coming up the first week of January, and I’ve found that he and his fellow students get really pumped when they know a test is near, because everyone wants that next belt. But the week of the test was just as big of a struggle as ever.

We had a problem. I did my best to explain my point of view to him, but he just wasn’t getting it. I asked him a few times if he wanted to drop or take a break from TKD, and made sure he knew that that would be fine with me. His answer was invariably “no.” He told me over and over that he wanted to do TKD, that he wanted to go to every single class, that he still liked this activity. But then he’d fight me going out the door.

I endured this during the week of the belt test, because he and I both wanted to see him reach that goal. But I made it clear that after his test, we’d need to have a big discussion about TKD and the problems we were having.

I’d been worried about burn-out, but he kept on insisting he wanted to continue, and indeed he always seemed to have fun in class and not to regret having gone. So I took him at his word; he wanted to continue. But something Kelly said (thank you!) made me remember that he’s a kid, and doesn’t necessarily understand the feeling of needed to take a break from a beloved activity. He doesn’t get that sometimes you can stop doing something you really like for just a little while and return to it later. That sometimes when you go back to it after a nice break, you love it even more. Or sometimes you don’t and realize you’d rather do something different with your time. Thinking more about it, I realized that he probably WAS on the edge of burn-out, and just didn’t know it because he’s seven and doesn’t even know what burn-out is.

So after the belt test (which he passed, and is now a Blue Belt!), we discussed the matter. It took several discussions over several days, partly because he’d get really upset and want to stop talking about it. But we got it all worked out. I can’t recreate the discussions because of how they occurred, but I can share with you the main points for me and for Ryan, and our agreement.

My Points (in no particular order):

  • It’s okay with me if you want to take a break from TKD, or to drop it all together.
  • It’s okay with me if you want to do TKD all the time and earn your Black Belt one day.
  • It’s not okay with me to expect to go on a given day, and then have you change your mind at the last minute and fight with me. This makes me feel angry, because it’s not fair to me or my other plans.
  • It’s also not fair to your sister and brother, for them to stop what they’re doing in order to get ready to go to your activity, and then have to endure the fighting and stalling (and grumpy Mommy), often while strapped into their carseats. (This mostly applies to Morgan, but sometimes Sean is napping and I have to wake him up to get to TKD.)
  • Mr. H. really only expects you to attend the Monday/Wednesday classes regularly. Sparring and the Saturday classes are optional. (Incidentally, there is no increase in cost to me if he attends the extra classes. I pay a flat fee each month, plus a testing fee when the tests happen.)
  • Mr. H. knows that sometimes a kid needs to take a break from TKD, and kids do that all the time at this school, and I gave examples.
  • I don’t mind paying for TKD, or taking you to your classes, or getting myself and the others ready to go. I love you, and I’m happy to help you pursue activities that you enjoy.

Ryan’s Points

  • Sometimes I don’t want to go.
  • I do feel tired of TKD sometimes, and I also don’t want to stop the things I’m doing at home to go to class sometimes.
  • Maybe I do need a break, but I don’t want to stop it completely.
  • I am happy to be a Blue Belt, and want to earn my High Blue Belt.
  • I want to keep going to class, because I want to earn my Black Belt one day.
  • I like Mr. H. and I have friends in class who I like to see.
  • TKD is fun.

It took, as I said, a few days of discussion, but it was so worth it because he did recognize that he was tired and needed some kind of a break. At this point, I made some suggestions for possible plans. He could:

  • Stop going to TKD for a month or two and pick it back up in the spring.
  • Cut back on the weekly schedule.
  • Drop TKD altogether.
  • Keep going on the regular schedule.

We also discussed pros and cons of each option. I told him that if he took a longer break, that Mr. H. would honor his belt when he returned (he’d been worried about that). If he took a long break or cut back his schedule, it might take a little longer to get the skills necessary to test for High Blue. If he dropped TKD altogether, or cut back, he might have more extra time to pursue something else that he might enjoy.

At first he wanted to keep going on the regular schedule, but I reminded him that I was unhappy with this, and that he also had just told me he needed a break. So that plan was probably not going to be the best one.

He ended up deciding to cut back his schedule—sort of. What we agreed on is that he would attend the Monday/Wednesday classes since those are the “official” ones that Mr. H. likes his students to attend regularly. So unless he’s sick or something, Ryan will be there on Mondays and Wednesdays.

But he didn’t want to drop sparring or the Saturday class entirely. So what we agreed on was that Thursdays and Saturdays would be optional for him, and that he would make his decision on those days about attending those classes in plenty of time for me to make my plans. So, no changing his mind at the last minute.

I needed something a little more than just a new schedule though. Mostly what I need here is some Not Arguing from him when it’s time to head out the door, especially when he has been so insistent that this is an activity he’d like to pursue. So he agreed that he’d stop fighting and stalling when it’s time to go to class. And he knows that if he starts doing that again, we’ll need to revisit our agreement, and quickly.

Last week went swimmingly! No fussing, no arguing, no stalling. It helped that he received his Blue Belt on Monday. We’ll see how it goes over the next few weeks, but the way things went last week was a refreshing change for the better! Ideally, things will stay that way, but if they don’t, we’ll revisit our discussion and come up with a new plan.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I didn’t just say “You’re going to TKD according to whatever schedule because I’m paying for it.” or “Okay, you’re done with TKD for now.” and be done with it. That is how many parents might handle such a situation, including my own.

The simplest answer is that I want him to be in charge of pursuing his own optional values (to the extent possible). He is, through no fault of his own, dependent on us for the money to pay for some of these extracurricular activities, and he needs a ride, too. Those two things simply cannot be helped. When he is old enough to really earn his own money and drive himself places, then I won’t need to be involved at all [insert blissful daydreaming here]. But that can’t happen yet; so he needs my help in pursuing his values.

As a parent, I really want to help him discover his interests and to pursue them—honestly, it’s a fun part of the job!--as long as I do not have to sacrifice a higher value of my own in order to do so. So if he wants to take a class that sounds interesting to him , and we have the money to pay for it, and I have the time, availability, and desire to help him get to the activity, then we’ll do our best to make it happen.

If the activity costs too much money, I would not break our budget (sacrifice) to send him. If attending the class involves undue hardship on me or his siblings, involving a long journey that disrupted Sean’s naps too often only to have us sitting in a terrible waiting room with nothing for Morgan to stay occupied with (for example), we would not make that sacrifice either.

I also think that if the child is free to pursue some of these activities, then he ought to be able to say when he wants to discontinue that pursuit. This was something very difficult or impossible for my parents to do. I continued gymnastics way beyond when I wanted to stop because they told me (in words and actions) that I owed it to them. They’d put so much time and money into helping me learn gymnastics, they wanted to see me compete in meets. “College scholarship” was a phrase I heard more than once (I was in 5th grade at this point). It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to compete. Not once. Not ever. I asked to quit, or skip the competitions, and was refused. It got to the point that I would fail to tell them about upcoming competitions, hiding or “losing” the notices so they wouldn’t know about the extra practices I’d need to attend in order to get ready. I pretended to be sick and injured many, many times, so that I could skip class. Eventually, they caught on and I was allowed to stop, but I always felt so guilty about having lied to them in order to get what I wanted. (I don’t feel guilty about that now, by the way.)

So it really is okay with me if Ryan decides to take a break from TKD, or even quit it entirely. It is his value; his decision. As long as there is no sacrifice on my part to getting him to this activity, and as long as my time and effort is repaid with kindness (no rude arguing) and consideration for my time, then I will take him. One thing I tried to make very clear to him is that he is not obligated to keep up with this activity—and I am not obligated to take him and pay for it either. That I want to do this because I love him and want him to get practice in learning how to value (I didn’t quite phrase it that way to him) and because I could tell he enjoyed it, and that I like seeing the people I love best doing things they enjoy.

When the pursuit of this activity begins to feel like a sacrifice for either of us, then that’s a signal we need to rethink it, and try to work out a plan that’s acceptable to both of us. I don’t want to take the decision-making process completely out of his hands by swooping in and making a Mommy Decree: “You will go!” It’s good practice for him (and me) to work through conflicts of interest in a rational way, to negotiate so that each party gains a benefit and is not sacrificing a higher value.

By the way, not only am I not sacrificing anything to take him to class, I get some benefits, too. What do I get out of watching him in TKD class? I enjoy watching him do all of his moves. I marvel at the sheer number of different things he knows how to do. I’m impressed at his skill. I smile at his pride when he nails a kick or a punch. I also get the benefit of a Ryan-who-has-had-rigorous-physical-activity, who generally is a much nicer person than Ryan-who-has-not-had-enough-rigorous-physical-activity.

But mostly, I get a thrill from watching my kid pursue a value he enjoys, to know that he is learning how to value, that he is learning about himself. And I know that ultimately it may not matter whether he stays in this sport or not. The experience he is getting from being in charge of this value pursuit is the lesson of a lifetime.

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