Keep calm and negotiate: five tips for a successful return to school

Returning to school can be a testing time for families.
Returning to school can be a testing time for families. Photo: Erin Jonasson

It is that time of year again. After a long summer holiday, teachers and students are getting ready to go back to school, and I know parents will be preparing themselves too. We go back to routine and structure, purposeful hard work, and to things that often seem less enjoyable than holidays.

Some families may worry that tensions will rise again – battles over household chores, homework, getting up in the morning or going to bed on time.

Here are some tips to make things easier for you, and that might lessen the chances of a screaming match.

SCEGGS Darlinghurst head Jenny Allum.
SCEGGS Darlinghurst head Jenny Allum.  Photo: Tomasz Machnik

Tip #1: You don't have to answer "yes" or "no" to a child's request right away. You can ask a few more questions, listening to them about what they want, why it is important, what is the context for the request. It shows you respect them and their views. It also demonstrates that you are considered in your decision making, wanting all the facts first, then taking time to think it over.

Saying "Let me think about it" is a great complementary strategy, which gives you time to talk to your partner or another adult. If they want a decision straight away, I would recommend you say "no"! So it's either "no", or "Let me think about it". Explain you need time to consider the matter, and that you will get back to them (and give a timeframe if you can).

Tip #2: Know why you are saying "no". Be able to explain why – to justify your position. If you can't say why, in a quiet, calm and rational fashion, then perhaps you need to rethink your position. Practice on a friend or your partner.

Tip #3: Always try to speak quietly and calmly with your child. I see many parents who can't say "no" quietly, firmly, but amicably. The only "no" they know is adversarial and angry. Don't automatically assume that your "no" will result in a battle. And even if it does, keep your voice friendly, quiet, and loving.

If you start angrily, anticipating an adversarial response, you will definitely get one. If you start quiet and supportively (even if your answer is "no"), you might get a less hostile response, or at least you won't escalate the negative response into a full-blown war.

Tip #4: Be prepared to negotiate, if you can. Sometimes the answer has to be "no". But where is there some room to negotiate, try to find it. Perhaps there is common ground. You might not let them go to a sleep-over, but you might let them visit for an hour or so.

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You might not let them stay out till midnight, but you might bend your usual curfew for an hour on a special occasion. This shows your willingness understand their point of view, keeps the relationship on a more co-operative footing, and buys you some brownie points for when you have to say no.

Having said that, one firm rule should be no negotiation while they are being rude or unreasonable. Negotiation involves listening to the other person, being co-operative and helpful, and trying to move towards some common ground with good will.

So you should never tolerate rudeness, tantrums or insults. State calmly that you will not talk to them while they are being rude, and walk away. Never reward bad behaviour by finally giving in – it will just make it worse the next time, and the time after that. And always keep your cool yourself!

Tip #5: Negotiation is important, but so too is sticking to your guns. There will be rules, things you know to be important in your family – no drinking, no drugs, no smoking, for example. There will also be rules about how to live in the home together, about everyone doing chores and helping in the household jobs, and about polite and respectful behaviour.

Being clear about these things is imperative, and articulating the family values and your expectations is helpful so that your child knows the rules long before they become an issue.

If you have listened to your son's or daughter's request, understand the issue from their point of view, made a good, considered decision and communicated the decision and your reasons in a clear, quiet and good-humoured way, you should feel well-satisfied.

You may still have a battle with him or her, but you will have modelled good, thoughtful decision making – a lesson they may will learn over time, even if the evidence in the short-term appears to the contrary.

Have a good year – and good luck!

Jenny Allum has been principal of SCEGGS Darlinghurst for 23 years.