Critical Thinking and Compromise: Sally Strikes a Deal

“Sally, it’s cold outside and we’re about to go out. I would like you to put on some warm clothes.”

“No mommy, I want to wear this.”

Sally was wearing her sarong, a Christmas gift. It was light, colorful, and silky, a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around her body and tied behind her neck. Outside, though, the snow was almost six inches deep and still coming down.

“I know you love your sarong, but we’re going out and it’s winter and it’s cold and there’s snow outside, so you really do need to wear warmer clothes. I’m going to get dressed first, and then I’ll call you to pick out an outfit.”

Sally ran off, clearly not happy with the situation. When I had finished dressing, she returned.

“Mommy, how about I wear warm clothes underneath my sarong!”

If there’s one thing to be said about Sally, it’s that she understands that she and I are on the same team. And, she’s a problem solver. She’s only in preschool, but she already knows how to find ways to balance her needs with others’needs and find a compromise acceptable to all. And in our house, rather than simply stressing obedience, we encourage her to think, empathize, and problem solve. And she does.

Here’s another exchange from earlier in the same day:

“Sally, you got that breakfast all over you! How about we go into the bathroom and…”

“No! I don’t want a bath! I don’t like that plan!”

“Honey, wait, let me finish telling you my plan and then you can tell yours.”

“Okay.” Sally stopped objecting and opted to listen.

“I need a shower anyway, so how about we both head to the bathroom and take a shower together? That’s my plan idea. What plan do you have to suggest?”

“How about go into the bathroom and you wipe off my hands and face,” Sally answered. “I don’t want to take a shower. If you wipe me off I will be clean.”

In the end, Sally ended up taking a bath with her brother Bobby after I showered.

While I do overtly teach Sally about comparing needs and desires and finding compromises, some of this is just stuff she has picked up from watching Sean and I. When we have an evening or a weekend ahead of us, Sean and I will take a moment to discuss “the plan.” We offer suggestions – a trip to the Y, a family supper, a game, a cleaning project, the latest episode of our favorite TV show – and then collaboratively hammer out a plan. We include Sally in this process, and she has taken it very much to heart.

Critical thinking, the art of compromise, and the understanding that everyone has needs to be considered – these are some of the most important things I want to teach Sally. And I don’t think I have to wait some nebulous amount of time for her to be “old enough” to understand these concepts. Kids are quite often smarter and more capable than we give them credit for. And so, even at this early age, Sally has learned that she is a valued member of our family, that her opinions and feelings matter, and that she’s not too little to do her own thinking.

Why Does Lily Work Two Jobs while Carl is Unemployed?
Sorting Out the Good from the Bad
On Coming When You’re Called and Fear-Based Obedience
When We Expect More of Our Children than of Ourselves
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Meyli

    I love this.
    My preschool (not just me) really tries to always include the kids in our decisions and we consider them people first. It gets tricky when we clash with the parents’ wishes.
    “Its time to put snow pants on so we can go play in the snow!”
    “No I don’t want toooooo!!” (Hysterical crying)
    …after 5 minutes of explaining its cold outside and trying to compromise, we have to force them onto said crying child because the parent expects them to be worn (and they should be…)
    Its hard being a little kid sometimes.

  • Cathy W

    Once Daughter hit middle school age, I took the position that dressing inappropriately for the weather is its own punishment – wear what you like, but I don’t want to hear that your knees are cold. Preschool is another matter, though!

    I like the approach you and Sally take to problem-solving – it encourages you both to dig for the actual problem, rather than just enact the solution to what Mom thinks the problem is. It’s a skill that will take Sally far in life.

    • luckyducky

      Our preschool encouraged us to not fight that fight but send the child dressed as they wished (most often in pjs) and send them with weather appropriate clothing for when they realized the error in their ways. I only had to do it once with my older child — it was a very cold January day and she was pulling on fleece pants and socks as soon as she slid her under-dressed bottom into the cold car seat. My younger child went and came home in pjs more than once. It was my mistake: fleece footie pjs, they were comfy enough to want to stay in all day, regardless of the weather. Only problem was negotiating the bathroom all day.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        I don’t get the fight to dress a certain way unless it’s a dress code. Most pre-school and elementary staff understand how children can be as they navigate how to be independent.

  • Eric D Red

    I reached a different compromise with my somewhat older daughters when it comes to cold. They have to at least carry a coat so that they have it when they get cold, and (said loudly for other parents to hear) that I don’t look like an irresponsible parent. That’s half-joking, but they get it.

    And when they’re teens, they can figure it out and deal with the consequences. But I still insist that there’s something available in the car if we’re going somewhere.

    • Elly

      My just five year old son HATES wearing a jacket and can only be persuaded to do so on the rarest (and coldest) of occasions. I do wonder if people look at me, the cruel mother bundled up in her wool coat while her poor little child freezes. I also end up adding a loud verbal warning to him as a hint to everyone else!

      • beccadi

        Elly, my 21 yo son has alwys hated jackets – even in the winter, his preferred coat on the coldest of days is a lined hoodie. He never seems to feel the cold. Maybe your son has a good internal heat source, like my son seems to.

  • Ubi Dubium

    When I had kids, right off I realized that “because I said so” was never a good enough reason for anything. If I did not have a good reason for what I was telling the kids, that means that I needed to rethink it, or be open to negotiation if they have a better idea. And they were generally entitled to know the reasons for things. They are teenagers now, and it’s worked really well. (The one drawback is that they tend to expect the same reasonableness from their teachers, which they don’t always get.)

  • Christine

    I am trying to work on this with my toddler now. I want to teach her that “because I said so” isn’t a good reason, but she’s young enough that it’s difficult to give others (and sometimes the reason is “well because you’re not supposed to” anyhow.)

    • Rosa

      Sometimes the answer is “because it’s important to ME”

      Like: You have to be quieter. Why? Because the noise bothers me. And i’m another person whose needs should be respected.

      At 2 and 3 there’s a lot of practicing being reasonable for when they’re old enough to mirror it, though.

  • Eric D Red

    I still reserve the right to use “because I said so” as a fall-back. It was sometimes needed when they were much younger and the explanation was beyond them (rare), or when they were simply too stubborn and I was too tired (not as rare). Now that they’re teens or nearly so, I reserve it for major emergencies when there isn’t time to argue. Never happened, and I doubt it ever will. I still believe there’s a place for autocratic decrees with kids, but if you teach them to reason it should be very rare.

    The only slight downside to teaching them this reasonable approach is those embarassing times when they catch me in my own faulty logic. Leaves me slightly embarrased at myself, and proud of them.

    • luckyducky

      I agree with you very whole-heartedly with one exception, I wouldn’t characterize those incidents as “autocratic.” I think, if successful, having consistently been reasonable the “because I said so” occasions are a matter of trust for them — they come to understand your reasoning and reasonableness and therefore understand that you have a reason both for your decision and for not explaining it to them (in the moment — I have, with much younger children, on occasion assured them I would explain it to them later). Of course, it is a lot to ask a cognitively immature being to come to that conclusion on their own — it all takes practice.

      • Eric D Red

        I like your clarification. It’s true, if you’ve been reasonable, they’ll trust you when you can’t explain.

  • Lana

    I love this. This goes back to are we teaching our kids a win-win situation, or win-lose, or just lose-lose. Growing up, I was never thought win-win. Dynamics were either parents win, and kids are the losers. Or we all lose out (which could mean people were fighting, or just stayed home altogether).

  • Lucreza Borgia

    “I don’t think I have to wait some nebulous amount of time for her to be “old enough” to understand these concepts. Kids are quite often smarter and more capable than we give them credit for. ”

    Oh my, yes! When I do childcare, I am often dealing with children who are quite capable of rational thought and other capabilities. Yet many people seem to think that their child is incapable of it. This shows even more with children who are not expected to be able to clean up after themselves or do other chores. I was at a friend’s house yesterday and she insisted to me that her 7 year old could not button up his own shirt! She had never let him tho, and after I did the initial button, he did the rest with ease.

    Some of it is due tho to being a single parent who tend to me more harried for time.

    • The_L

      There’s the other side of it, too: it did not occur to me as a young child that I would be allowed to pick out my own clothing if I asked. So I never asked.

      At 2, I was taken to the doctor for a checkup, and my mother was asked how many articles of clothing I could put on by myself. “Well, she’s never really tried. She just sort of lets you dress her.” Again, I didn’t realize it was OK to ask. Mom was dressing me–I was going to end up with clothes on one way or the other, from my perspective. It didn’t occur to me that she was waiting for me to do something.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Many children have been trained by their parents to be dependent on them. It drives me bonkers. Only one friend of mine is constantly showing and expecting her child to do age-appropriate tasks for herself. As it is now, me and the 7 year old are gonna be spending some time together and I’m putting him through independence bootcamp!

  • The_L

    It finally hit me what it is about this article that struck me as deeply weird the first time I read it.

    Your daughter is still in pre-school, and is picking out her own outfits. In my home, that was just about unheard of. I didn’t decide what to wear until I was at least in middle school.

  • Kodie

    I don’t remember my mom letting me compromise or teaching me anything like that, but she didn’t say “because I said so” very often either. And passive-aggressively, she said “do whatever you want” a lot too. I think that might have caused a lot of damage. I’m going to bring that up at therapy next time. Basically it meant no and if you did actually do whatever (the hell) you want, it’s trouble. It wasn’t one of those things where she lets you make a mistake (like not dressing warmly enough) and figure it out for yourself why that’s not a good idea, it was a dare.

  • krwordgazer

    I love the fact that you reason with your child and listen to her reasoning in return.
    One thing that I have found effective in telling the kids when they have to deal with autocratic teachers: “Someday you’re going to have to get a job, and school is practice for that. Sometimes bosses won’t tell you the reason why they want you to do something. Sometimes teachers don’t either. Learning to cooperate anyway is an important thing to learn to make it in the adult world.”

    • Libby Anne

      I’ve thought of it the same way with school, too! I tell Sally that when she’s at preschool she has to follow her teacher’s rules, though she can ask questions respectfully, etc.

  • EEB

    My dad really wanted me to be an independant thinker, and be able to reason out my positions, so from the time I was very little, he encouraged me to argue with him (respectfully, though). In fact, he would often times take the opposite position just to make me come up with a good argument! “Can I go over to Sarah’s house after church?” could become an hour-long conversation, but it did teach me how to reason a position, present a good argument, and, like you said with Sally, consider other people’s feelings and needs to come up with a compromise that suits everyone. Good skills to teach a kid, I think.

    My mom, however, who was the primary childcare provider, didn’t have the time or the energy to argue with me like Dad did. Eventually, we compromised on the “one argument” rule. When she told me to do something, or said no to a request, I was allowed one argument–and I had to make it a good one! She promised to listen with an open mind, but if she still disagreed, then I had to obey. It worked out pretty good, because there were enough times that she would compromise with me that I knew she was really listening to me and considering what I was saying. She so rarely used, “Because I said so,” or “no arguments” that on the few occasions she did, I usually trusted that it was important (especially because she would often explain later what her reasoning was and why she couldn’t discuss it with me at the time).

    From the time I was five or so, my parents would call me “The Ford Child” (because “I always had a better idea”).

  • MrPopularSentiment

    Meanwhile, I let my son go outside wearing just his pants and shirt today – no snow suit. I started playing in the snow and he made his best effort to join me, then hesitated, then ran back to the door. I let him in and we put his snow suit on without any fuss XD

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  • Jessica

    I really love reading your posts about Sally! They make me hopeful that I can be a good parent one day, too, despite the way that my parents have raised me. I don’t know yet whether I’ll have children of my own. I’m mostly planning on adopting and fostering runaway and throwaway kids, especially LGBTQ teenagers, but regardless of how old my possible future kids are when they come into my life, I want them to know that they matter, and to help them become the best version of themselves they can possibly be.

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