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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

From the Mouths of Babes – Ruthless Negotiation & Radical Honesty

Les Amours Enfantines, acrylic and antique book on paper, 7"x6", 2004, Stuart Sheldon

Les Amours Enfantines, acrylic and antique book on paper, 7″x6″, 2004, Stuart Sheldon

The 8-year-old daughter of a friend once paid me an enormous compliment. She told me I was the second least boring adult present at dinner.

Her mother was least boring and her father, with his steady stream of old jokes, won the dubious honor of most boring. This brutally honest “if-it’s-tedious-I’m-outta-here” attitude makes kids highly credible arbiters of how to communicate in our short-form world.

 In other words, your child is smarter than you when it comes to making a concise point.

Years later, and now with kids of my own, I can say with authority that young children are, by far, the most effective negotiators on earth. Their primary asset – they don’t give a sippy cup what you care about nor what you think about them. They care only about their objective. If my 3-year-old wants orange juice but I want him to drink milk, I can explain all I want about calcium and health and tummy aches …  but he will literally say nothing but “orange juice” dozens if not hundreds of times until I want to carve my eye out with a melon-baller. He walks off grinning with his OJ, while I do yoga breaths to try to erase thoughts of round-housing a two-foot tall person.


I’ll grant you that you cannot walk into your boss’s office and negotiate by robotically repeating a phrase over and over until you get your way.

“$20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise. $20,000 Raise.”

But there are profound lessons to be learned by these “infantile” tactics:

  1. Stay On Message – The more words you use the more you lose. Health Shmealth … the words “orange juice” were the crux of his argument. And he friggin won.

  2. Shut Your Mouth – Say ONLY what is necessary and then be silent. Whoever talks first at that point LOSES.

  3. Wear Down the Other Side  – Timing really is everything. Your kid has nowhere else to be. But you have a so-called life thus are willing to succumb. When its time to talk turkey, clear your schedule.

  4. Ask the Person Most Inclined to Say ‘Yes’ – Momma didn’t raise no fool. He knows who the good cop is. Find your ally.

Another thing I admire, make that cherish, in very young kids is their radical honesty. 

I made a super-8 movie back in film school and I needed a young black boy. An elementary teacher friend of mine let me scout his class, where I saw this adorable eight-year-old. Big eyes. Devilish grin. I bent down to his face level and asked, “Do you like movies? Would you like to be in a movie?”

To which he said simply, “Your breath stank!”

That magnificently unfiltered response is one of the reasons I wanted a child so desperately. And no, he did not get the part.

Author Bill Adler Jr. cites fourteen basic skills in his book, How To Negotiate Like a Child. There are some game-changers in there, though I highly suggest you avoid most of them if you don’t want to be loathed or punched. That said, if you are willing to throw a tantrum, solicit a bribe, act irrationally and take your toys and go home, there is a strong chance you’ll walk out victorious. Just ask your congressman.


PS. You’ll appreciate this if you read my post last week about my recent seaplane ride with Kai over the Golden Gate Bridge.

This past Sunday at midnight, right off an airplane after being away two days, I crept into the boys’ room to give kisses. Kai, surprisingly, was sitting up in bed.

“I can’t sleep,” he said. “Lay down and I’ll scratch your back,” I whispered. As he nestled into his sheets, he said in a tired voice, “I saw a seaplane today.”

This simple, pure and unadorned reference to our magical excursion, while it may seem like nothing, melted me. We have few conscious memories before the age of four, and I have often wondered what my kids will remember of these eventful days of their lives. The seaplane ride is apparently on Kai’s hard-drive.

As I raked my nails gently across my son’s soft, tan back, my whole being hummed with contentment. He lay peacefully, shifted once slightly … and then his breath told me he was dreaming.

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