5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Happily Cooperate
By Katie Morton
Photo: Easa Shamih/Creative Commons
Whether you think it’s important to raise compliant kids, or you would rather your child demonstrated critical thinking skills even when it’s a major inconvenience, every parent enjoys the experience of happy collaboration with their kids.
But how do you foster an environment where happy collaboration is the norm rather than a sporadic accident? In the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish give smart ideas for tapping your child’s natural inclination towards teamwork.
1. Be descriptive.
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When a child makes a mistake, often a parent’s automatic response is to scold or criticize in a scornful tone as if the child purposely screwed up. Can you imagine what it would feel like if every time you made a mistake you were spoken to like that? Your motivation and self-worth would take an awful beating! How likely would you be to want to cooperate with the person who talked to you that way?
When you simply and kindly state the facts as you see it, you give your child a chance to see where she went wrong in order to invite cooperation (without setting up an adversarial tone via shaming). When your child doesn’t know how to fix her mistake simply by your description of what went wrong, then show her how to make amends.
Avoid long lectures; Faber and Mazlish say that if a single word will do, like “Door,” rather than going on and on about leaving the door open and heating the outdoors, your child is more likely to get the point and simply close the door without feeling insulted or oppositional.
2. Share your emotions.
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Kids naturally want to make their parents happy, as long as we avoid the error of acting pejorative towards them. Think of your own parents. Whether your relationship is adversarial or harmonious, generally speaking, you are hardwired to crave parental approval. When we treat our children with kindness and respect, their default attitude will mirror ours and their desire to win our approval feels good to them.
When you are authentic and human about how you’re feeling, you connect with your kids on a deeper level. When they do something that makes you unhappy or angry, go ahead and express your strong emotions about the situation – without attacking character – and it’s highly likely your child will want to correct the situation that caused your dissatisfaction.
3. Offer choices.
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This is my favorite tactic, which I use quite often with my toddler. Her choice might be to leave the playground now, or to play for 15 more minutes before leaving (rather than offering her no transition and just saying, “It’s time to go!” and hauling her kicking and screaming off the playground). Lately I have been saying that we need to leave, and I will ask her how many minutes she wants to stay: she tends to choose a transition period of 5 minutes before we leave.
Here’s an example from the book: Let’s say a child is being a bit unruly or straying too far from the parent in the grocery store. The choices the parent can offer might be to stay next to the cart or ride in the cart. If the child chooses to stay next to the cart, but can’t seem to stick to that promise, then the default choice becomes that the parent places the child into the shopping cart. The child might not like it, but those were the choices. Enough said.
4. Provide natural consequences.
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I think this one makes a lot of sense in terms of teaching kids real world consequences of their behavior. An example given in the book is that a teenage boy wants to borrow his father’s sweater. The first time the father lent the boy his clothing, the father found the sweater dirty and balled up on the floor of the teen’s room a week later.
The father told his son in no uncertain terms how he felt about the incident, and the son apologized. Then the son asked a week later to borrow the sweater again from his father. The father simply said no. No lectures, no explaining. The son knew why. Bam, natural consequences. People get annoyed and don’t lend things to people who don’t take care of their stuff.
A month later, the son asked to borrow his dad’s shirt. This time the father told his son that he wanted a written promise that his shirt would be returned to him in the same condition it was when it was borrowed. The son complied and wrote a very thoughtful and impressive note about his intentions to take care of the borrowed item, so the father relented. The shirt was returned to the father the very next night, clean and hung neatly on a hanger. The responsibility to change was put on the son, and he learned the lesson.
5. Brainstorm solutions together.
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This process is a little more involved, but it’s helpful when there are more complicated issues that need to be unraveled and figured out. Faber and Mazlish recommend a brainstorming process to invite the cooperation of your child when there is a rule that he repeatedly violates and you are at the end of your rope. First, talk about the child's feelings and needs -- find out why he keeps breaking the rule; then, let him know how his behavior affects you (for example, if he keeps missing his curfew, explain that you are worried and anxious when he's not home on time).
Brainstorm to find a mutually agreeable solution. Write down all ideas on paper, no matter how ridiculous, and don’t insult any solutions -- you are simply recording both yours and your child’s suggestions. Decide which suggestions you both like and which you don’t like. And finally, decide which changes you can follow through on together. Come to a mutually agreeable solution, each of you compromising where necessary.
Faber and Mazlish say there's a reason this process works:
We are teaching our children that they needn’t be our victims or our enemies. We are giving them the tools that will enable them to be active participants in solving the problems that confront them – now, while they’re at home, and in the difficult, complex world that awaits them.
Preparing our kids to function in the real world -- now that’s my kind of parenting.