Talk (photo: Tracy Brown Hamilton)

Why You Should Encourage Your Kids to Talk Back

Earlier this summer, when it was finally my daughter’s turn for a carnival ride, she wandered a few steps away from the line. I stepped out to pull her back and was confronted by a 5- or 6-year-old boy who’d been standing behind us.

“Excuse me,” he said, “But it’s my turn now.”

I explained we’d been waiting a good while, but he was adamant that he was next in line. A few feet away, his grandmother looked on and said nothing. After a few more exchanges, he let us go.

It wasn’t bratty or rude—he was very polite. Eventually, we came to an understanding. But I was taken by how very equal the conversation had been: I could not imagine myself being so direct with an adult, nevermind a stranger, at his age.

I live in the Netherlands, where I notice a lot of children have this kind of confidence—again, without being rude. It is similar to something I’ve noticed in the workplace here, that there is typically an atmosphere where anyone, at any level in the company, is free and comfortable to voice an opinion.

Directness is a trait nearly synonymous with being Dutch, and I spoke with Dr. Krista Okma, senior advisor at the Netherlands Youth Institute, about how this comes about.

Okma explained that Dutch parents are often encouraged to negotiate with their children. Negotiation-based parenting, she called it. She said that this approach helps “prepare children for their own autonomy.”

While most books or advice columns I’ve read (mostly from the U.K. or U.S.) are clear that one should never negotiate with his or her child, Okma says there should always be some room, some space, for discussion—unless, of course, it’s a safety issue.

Okma explained that Dutch parents are often encouraged to negotiate with their children.

“Find a way to be flexible,” she suggests, “even with toddlers. Let them choose what they want to wear, whether they want broccoli or beans.” And with older children, permit them to question your rules—to ask why something is important, why it is necessary.

“It builds a moral foundation,” she says, “so that when the person who says, ‘because I said so’ is away, the child still practices certain behaviors, because it becomes part of their framework.”

Doing so, she says, also helps children grow to be more open and respectful to the viewpoints of others. In the Internet age, this also helps them be more critical, to “ask for explanation, to question, to not only believe and accept everything they are told.”

Finding room for negotiation, taking time to explain, considering your child’s viewpoint doesn’t sound terribly unreasonable, and, at least for Dutch parents, Okma says it’s working to achieve their goals for their children.

“We ask parents we work with what are their priorities when raising their children,” she said. “And the most common answers, in this order, are autonomy, assertiveness and respect for others.”

From my point of view, it seems to be working.

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Image by Tracy Brown Hamilton

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