Low-income Kids Need to Be Taught How to Negotiate Life

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Ruby K. PayneIn under-resourced households, one often has these three choices when it comes to dealing with an issue: flee, fight or flow. But there is a fourth response that is not understood, considered or learned when you come from an under-resourced household. That response is negotiation.

These comments are often heard in under-resourced neighborhoods:

“Yeah, I quit that job. I told the boss where he could put that job.”

“I didn’t even go in. I quit.”

“I ain’t takin’ this ******* crap.”

Negotiating in institutions like school, work and government is a learned skill and requires these things: language, the ability to ask questions and the concept of win-win.

Survival is almost always about win-lose in under-resourced situations because if your life is at stake then it is important to win. A friend of mine had a son who had a black belt in karate. She had always told him do not fight unless you are in a competition.

One day he got lost in a part of the city he did not know, got surrounded by five guys and got badly beaten. When my friend went to the emergency room to be with him, she asked him why he didn’t fight. He told her she had always told him the only time to fight was in competition. She said to him, “You fight if your life is at stake, and don’t forget that.”

Annette Lareau, in her book “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life,” looked at both black and white parents in middle-class and low-income households to see how they raised their children. What she found was that, regardless of race, resourced parents used “concerted cultivation” to raise their children, and under-resourced parents used “accomplishment of natural growth” practices.

Concerted cultivation includes the following: fostering and assessing the child’s talents and skills, orchestrating child leisure activities, teaching a child to reason and negotiate with adults and institutions, teaching the child to advocate for him/herself with adults and providing a growing sense of entitlement on the part of the child.

In contrast, the accomplishment of natural growth includes the following: allowing the child to hang out without parent involvement, giving directives, rarely allowing the child to question or challenge an adult, providing a dependence on and frustration with institutions, and providing a sense of constraint on the part of the child.

In essence, if you come from an under-resourced household, negotiating institutions tends not to be taught.

If you work with youth, particularly foster youth, how do you build this concept of negotiating work, school and other institutions into their understanding and use?

First of all, it is necessary to provide a mental model about why this would be an important skill to develop. A mental model is a story, analogy or drawing that translates between an abstract idea and a concrete reality. If you provide the why of something, learning increases significantly.

The story I told above about the black-belt karate student illustrates why some situations are win-lose and some are not. A discussion of when you negotiate and when you do not is very important, as are the reasons why you would or would not negotiate. Roger Fisher and William L. Ury’s “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” is a fabulous book about negotiating and provides tools to do so.

Secondly, it is important to teach young adults how to ask questions so that negotiation can occur. Often youth will ask questions in a demanding way, usually starting with “why,” or they will make a statement and nonverbally make it a question.

We teach them to stay away from “why” questions because it puts the other person on the defensive, and that is not the purpose of questioning. The purpose is to figure out a way to get to win-win. In other words, how both sides can get their needs met. This is a difficult concept in survival because resources are often very limited, and only one person can truly get what he/she needs.

To help youth with this concept, we draw a picture of a hand. In the middle of the hand, we put the word specifically. On each finger, we put one of these words or phrases: how, when, where, to what extent and who.

We teach youth to ask the following: How, specifically, did that happen? When, specifically, did ______ do this? To what extent was _______ involved? We also teach youth to avoid “why” questions because they create defenses and probe for motivation. We like to ask instead, “How will this help you solve this problem, need or situation?”

For many of us who work with youth, the negotiation skills we have developed quite often determine our level of success. To come to adolescence possessing only a few of these skills makes it very difficult to become a successful adult. It is a gift we can give that costs nothing and makes a huge difference for our youth.

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher and career educator. She is recognized internationally for “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” her foundational book and workshop.