“Smile!” my wife said, snapping a photo of my daughter and me. Squinting in the afternoon sun, my daughter was dressed in her mortarboard and navy blue gown, long dirty blond hair gently blowing across her face. The click of the shutter marked the finale of a deep and lingering conversation.
Months earlier, my daughter announced she wasn’t attending her college graduation ceremony at the University of Connecticut.
“I’m trying to understand, but I accept your decision,” I responded.
“I’m not going to my ceremony, Dad. You know I get anxious in large crowds,” she told me.
I started thinking how we could celebrate this milestone, keeping her stress low while hailing four years of grueling effort.
Then I remembered the spirited debates we’d had as she’d grown up. During our kids’ early years, my wife and I focused on teaching them the art of negotiation, where everyone felt their opinions were valued. We debated our way through requests for a few extra minutes on the Internet, or one more slice of apple pie for dessert.
“I’ve given it some thought, and here’s the deal,” I said. “I know you don’t want to go to the ceremony on campus. How about if Mom and I pay for your cap and gown, and, that day take photos in the back yard, maybe in front of our arborvitae bushes or under the gazebo – something low key. Afterward, we’ll go out to dinner. You pick where,” I explained.
“Dinner sounds great,” she replied. “But I don’t want you to waste your money on the garb. Maybe I can wear my cap and gown from high school, if I can find them.”
“Let me think about it,” she responded.
According to Scott Brown, author of How to Negotiate With Kids…even when you think you shouldn’t, “The negotiation between parents and kids can actually be a great learning experience for your kids. If you don’t negotiate, your children may not learn how to deal with conflicts constructively. If you don’t teach them how to work with you, they may never learn how to work with others.”
A week later, my daughter sent a text to my wife.
“You can tell Dad I ordered a cap and gown. And he owes me forty bucks.”
While we worked through our impasse, new stories surfaced. One recent graduate, son of a close family friend, struck a deal with his mom and dad. Instead of an invitation to his graduation, he handed them a professionally shot photo in a beautiful oak frame.
And, to our surprise, my daughter gave her ceremony tickets to an immigrant family whose grandparents wanted to witness their grandson be the first to graduate from college.
I realized that as I look at my daughter now, I see her through different eyes. Not the eyes of a father nervously watching her hold her breath before jumping into the deep end of the pool for the first time, but as a father who’s watching her study her surroundings, readying herself to venture into the world on her own, to make her own decisions, shape her own life.
In the end, dialog about the ceremony itself had faded. We were together, had stunning photos, and were seated as a family at my daughter’s favorite vegetarian restaurant. Most important, we all felt like winners. As the waiters delivered plates of steaming pasta, my daughter revealed she’s been thinking of grad school. Looks like there could be yet another graduation ceremony up for negotiation in our future.
Back at home, I heard my daughter in our upstairs office. “Don’t forget, Dad, you still owe me forty dollars,” she said with a laugh as our beloved snapshot inched out of the printer.
I smiled, not because of the deal we’d struck, but because I realized this was my last expense for her four years at UConn.
Today, the photo sits prominently on my desk. It’s more than a picture of a daughter and her proud dad. It represents just one of the vital lessons we’ve passed on to our children.