“Compromise, if not the spice of life, is its solidity. It is what makes nations great and marriages happy.” So said children’s author and poet Phyllis McGinley. I would venture to say that it makes more than just those two institutions happy. Compromise is what makes sibling relationships, friendships, families, and society healthy and strong.
Recent national politics—and even local politics, especially when it comes to —have made me think about the art of compromise and its value in our lives. I asked my husband to quickly describe to me what compromise looks like. He responded, “When someone is aware of other’s feelings, understands that compromise makes things in life run smoother, and wants to facilitate problem solving.” Simple!
But thinking deeper about his definition, I would add that one who can compromise shows strength of character and humility, has a sense that to give a little does not mean to “lose,” and desires peace and reconciliation over conflict and a need to “win.” Good compromisers understand that there may be more than one right answer, more than one way of solving a problem, and can work to congeal many disparate ideas into one plan of action that respects the many aspects of an issue. They are mature thinkers who focus on the big picture rather than on immediate gain, and approach a problem from a logical standpoint rather than from an emotional response.
Compromise is a very adult skill, one built out of experience and practice. But many children are rather good at compromising when they need to. They compromise to make playground games run smoothly at , to negotiate lunchtime snack trades at , and to settle conflicts between friends. That is not to say that teachers and parents don’t often need to help facilitate negotiations and serve as mediators. Learning to compromise is a skill that does require practice. Kids need adults to help them remove emotion from a situation so that compromise is possible. Once helped to see both sides, kids are quick to accept mutual concession and then forgive and forget.
But what about when there is no adult around, when no mediator serves as the facilitator of dialogue? Do kids respond with closed fists or open handshakes? It depends on how well they learned the art of compromise and internalized its importance. Parents and teachers are the key determinants in how children resolve conflict. I see with my own students the difference between children who have learned how to negotiate compromises and those who haven’t. It is often the difference between a child who has lots of friends and is the center of many social circles and the child who is isolated, angry, and lonely. People want to be around others who are friendly and kind, and who make getting along easy. Ones who can compromise tend to be those people.
How can you teach the art of compromise at home?
- Provide Situations of Positive Interdependence. When children must work together, they must negotiate their roles in a project, help each other, and make concessions as necessary to get the job done. Creating a joint birthday or holiday present for another family member, opening a lemonade stand, volunteering in the community with a Heal the Bay beach cleanup or even just setting the table present opportunities of positive interdependence.
- Think “Win-Win.” In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Teens, author Sean Covey highlights the value of having a “win-win” attitude rather than a “lose-lose” or “win-lose” attitude. Thinking win-win means seeking solutions where all parties are successful. This begins with the belief that there is enough success to go around. Compromise is impossible if we believe that it is our way or no way. When children learn to see the world as a competition, or begin comparing their own achievements against the achievements of others, room for acceptance of multiple perspectives becomes limited. Encourage a congratulatory attitude when someone else does something well. Practice complementing teammates from the opposing team. Acknowledge times when your child lets someone else get the credit. Help them to negotiate win-win outcomes when dealing with siblings or friends.
- Encourage Face-to-Face Interaction. Limit screen time (TV, computer, video games) and you inevitably force more opportunities for cooperative, imaginative play and for practicing compromise.
- Practice Agreeing to Disagree. We know that sometimes a solution where everyone is happy is not always possible. If your child understands that it is OK to not always agree with someone, they will be more able to find alternative solutions that avoid the more contentious issue at hand.
- Teach Social Skills. Having good social skills is a prerequisite to compromise. An excellent resource providing many activities and games for teaching social skills is available at Parenting Science.
- Encourage Non-Competitive Play. My dad raised us to be very competitive. His motto was, “Winning is fun. Losing is boring,” and “ Losing is not an option.” As an adult, I see how this attitude aided my career and educational attainment, but it also fostered in me feelings of anxiety in competitive settings and a sense, as my friends can attest, that I have to be “right” all of the time. Although competition is a strong motivator, it can also lead to unnecessary conflict and an uncompromising demeanor. Here are some non-competitive and teambuilding games that are fun and focus on cooperation rather than on competition.
- Teach Debate. The ability to debate has many benefits, among them, emotional and intellectual maturity in the face of adversity. In debate, one must understand all sides of an issue and respond to an opponent in a logical, non-emotional way. This takes great self-control and, with practice, can help a child learn to remove the emotional response to a conflict so it can be resolved in a peaceful, calm, and mature way. This link is to one father’s experience with teaching debate in his home and the success he found in teaching his children to make better arguments that led to family harmony.
- Talk about Empathy and Compassion. Compassion is feeling deeply about someone else’s situation, while empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in a similar situation. When children understand how to view a situation from the other party’s position, compromise becomes much more likely.
- Never Compromise Your Values or Principles. Although compromise makes successful communication and cooperation possible, and helps resolve conflict, be sure to emphasize that good compromise should never come at the expense of one’s values. Saying yes to a situation you know is wrong or dangerous just to make things easier is never OK. Talk to your children about times when a compromise might not be the right decision.
The United States Constitution was born out of a great feat in compromise, one that presumably held the fledgling nation together. Our Founding Fathers understood that no one party could possibly get all that it desired and that to compromise was the only option for success. Benjamin Franklin said in response to the Constitution’s completion,
"There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. ... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. ... It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies..."
The good of the foundling nation was more important than the egos and demands of the few, and the compromises of the leaders of this young republic created the longest standing democracy in world history.
For our children, seeing the world through a lens of compromise and optimism is to see a world in which anything is possible and where opponents can be met with grace and composure. But to go even further, wouldn’t it be lovely to reach a point in society where we no longer see others as opponents in the first place, but as partners in building a more civil and functional world? Utopian to be sure, but not entirely out of reach for our children. If our homes and classrooms can be places of civil communication, compromise, and “win-win” attitudes, our children will internalize diplomacy and mutual respect for the opinions and needs of others. Growing and learning in such collaborative environments today can only result in a more peaceful and rewarding world for everyone tomorrow.