Trading Intangibles: The Parenting Strategy We’ve Been Waiting For

by Suzita on September 6, 2012

When my daughter Annie was 8½, she began noticing people’s earrings.  “Mama, did you know so many people had earrings?  I like the dangling kind best,” Annie informed me.  Not long after she made the tentative comment, “Maybe some day I could get my ears pierced.”

Instead of responding with dread, which admittedly I felt a small amount of, I realized Annie was offering me something I’d been waiting for – the opportunity to trade items of unequal value with her so we could each end up with something we wanted.

A Parenting Strategy with Huge Potential

I’d initially read about his concept in Stuart Diamond’s book, Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World.  Diamond gives a number of examples of parents trading “intangibles” with children, for instance, a later bedtime for always cycling on the sidewalk.  The trick is finding something your child wants badly that is not a big deal for you, and something that is very important to you but of lesser value to your child.  Then you trade.

When I first came across this idea it looked like a powerful parenting strategy.  Rather than butt heads forever over some great divide, each of us could walk away with something we truly wanted and give up something of lesser importance.  This was brilliant!  I was going to use this strategy daily, or at least weekly.

How Things Actually Unfolded

But as the days and weeks ticked by, I realized this tactic was harder to use than I expected.  I’m still not quite sure why I couldn’t launch this type of negotiation with my kids (and husband) immediately.  Perhaps this concept took someone infinitely more alert than I was.

I was aware that my kids regularly asked for things, but these things (a pillow pet, a model airplane, a special cereal or dessert) were never the right kind of thing to trade.  It turned out that my kids were filling the airwaves of our home with requests for tangible, concrete items.  Luckily I already had pat responses for these desires:

  • “Find out how much it costs and check your cash supply.”
  • “Save your money for it.”
  • “Put it on your birthday wish list.”

I Finally Got My Chance

I needed to keep my eyes open for more intangible requests from family members.  Annie wanting her ears pierced seemed to fit this category.  I finally had a possibility for trading intangibles!  I needed to think carefully so I wouldn’t waste it.

A key consideration with Annie’s ear piercing request was that I was comfortable with her having it done, as long as she could take care of her ears by herself.

I told my 8½ year-old that if she could take care of her hair for the next 6 months, we would look into having her ears pierced.  Her part of the deal included washing her hair when necessary, brushing it, and generally keeping it out of her eyes. And of course she was to do all of this without parental reminders, approximately 90% of the time.

This was our initial trade.  Over the next 6 months Annie held up her end of the deal, and there were far fewer battles over hair in our home.  You may remember from previous posts that my husband Todd’s biggest girl-child stressors are those involving hair, so I must emphasize we were all happier after this trade.

Soon after Annie turned 9, she asked if we could look into ear piercing. I said yes, and Todd and I began to discuss what intangible we might trade for the actual ear piercing.  Since Annie’s bedtime had been inching later and later, we decided to offer her pierced ears in exchange for an 8:15 bedtime.  That, and she had to care of her ears.  (We watched some YouTube videos so she could visualize the pierced-ear care required.)  Annie quickly agreed to our proposal.

Where We Are Now

Annie had her ears pierced almost 4 weeks ago.  So far she’s been caring for them and we haven’t had to argue with her about an 8:15 bedtime.  By the way, if she stops going to bed at the earlier time, Todd and I decided she won’t get new earrings when that time comes.  Hopefully that will be a strong enough motivator.  We’ll see.

With one negotiation success under my belt, I’m on the lookout for new opportunities!  Annie’s brothers are now 12 and 14.  You’d think I’d have all sorts of independence-related requests to work with.  Not yet.  Or perhaps they’ve learned to make numerous, hardly noticeable micro-requests, another one of Diamond’s negotiation strategies!

I must sit back and be patient.  One of these days when I least expect it another intangible request will pop up.  In the meantime, I’ve been creating a mental list of tradable intangibles:

1.  Practice your instrument (clarinet or saxophone) at least every other day without being asked.

2.  Attend spin class with your dad at the gym without complaint.

3.  Put on sunscreen and/or wear a sun shirt regularly.

4.  Close the garage when you are done in there.

So bring on those intangible requests, I’m ready for another trade!

Since I’m new to this parenting strategy, I’d love to hear about intangible trades you’ve made in your homes (successful or not).   Leave a comment below!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie Poppen September 7, 2012 at 8:12 am

Great post. Our almost 10-year-old just got her ears pierced too (but she still doesn’t brush her hair!..:) ) I was going to say that she often wishes out loud for big things she knows we won’t get her: the $330 American Girl bunk bed, the $200 iPhone, etc. I often just engage in the fantasy and sometimes that’s all she wants. It’s fun to fantasize, then the topic can be dropped. I find this works better than immediately digging in your heels, and saying “There’s no way I’m spending $350 on this American Girl thing…” Of course, there are other – more reasonable requests – which can be handled in the way you suggest. Thanks!

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Janet September 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I sure wish I’d known about this technique years ago! Might it work with adults as well?

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Anne September 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I did something very much like this with my daughter, Elizabeth, when she was about 9. She wanted pierced ears, but I said that she couldn’t have them until she was old enough to clean and take care of them herself. She said that she was old enough, and I pointed out that she didn’t brush her teeth regularly, so I didn’t think she would take responsibility for her ears. Together, we worked out the deal that if she brushed her teeth regularly for 6 months, she could have her ears pierced. It worked out great!

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