Children’s lack of cooperation is almost not surprising if we come to actually think about the way we communicate with children. Here you’ll find strategies to encourage children’s cooperation as well as an explanation to why current practices don’t work.
There are various reasons to fulfilling the needs of others, stemming from two opposite motivations: the first one is the natural need all human beings share for being good to (and for) the ones we love. The second one is coercion: either internal or external for which both parents and children pay a hefty price.
Belonging is the fourth root of connection. Children have the natural need to cooperate, be part and take part in the actions performed by their loved ones, those who they are connected to. Not only that, but children also have the natural need to respond to their parents’ requests out of pure motivation to be good for them, as cooperating meets their need for connection and belonging (you know, that happy smile when they do something you asked them to do and come to you for a hug). These 4 strategies to gain your children’s cooperation will help you see that smile a bit more often 🙂
But first, let’s consider the experience of being a child.
Think of all the dos and don’ts your child wakes up to every morning: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, don’t make noise, don’t make a mess, hurry up, get in the car, go to school; the list is very long and varies from one household to another. But in one sense, this list is always the same: this is the list of expectations we have from our children. If we weren’t connected to our children, if our children weren’t connected to us and actively seeking to cooperate, each item on this list would be a potential explosion. When lacking connection and the sense of belonging, requests might sound like demands and could be perceived as coercion, which is the main gateway for counter-will.
We’re Not Raising Children, We’re Raising Future Adults
One of the first requests I present to parents who join my parent coaching program, is to think of an adult who they appreciate and list that adult’s appreciated qualities. There are hundreds of qualities I’ve heard listed in reply (balance, empathy, determination, self-awareness, generosity, mindfulness and whatnot) but not a single parent answered with obedient, submissive or compliant. So why is it that the only quality we’re not interested in seeing in our children when they’ve become adults, is the main quality we’re so eagerly cultivating during their childhood?
The answer is simple: because it’s easy.
Think about rules. Rules are made for the ones who don’t obey them, while those who naturally obey the rules, don’t really need them. Rules are thus means leading to punishments, carried out against those who disobey the rules. The majority of civilization doesn’t need to be told not to murder; they don’t murder because acts of violence don’t meet their needs – not because there is a rule against it.
Raising obedient and submissive children makes parenting easy. But it’s not what we want for our children. We want them to fight for what they want. We want them to fiercely strive for what they need. We want them to be inherently good and follow their hearts’ purest instincts. How can we achieve that?
Change Our Strategies
Below are some of the most common strategies parents use trying to earn their children’s cooperation, and why these strategies sabotage the connection (and usually don’t work):
Guilt and Shame
“How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Why does it always have to be this way with you?”
Try and think about the last time you cooperated with someone who primarily made you feel bad about yourself. And if you did, how it made you feel towards that person? Not great, right?
Fear, guilt, and shame have been running our society ever since the first days of patriarchy. The is the heaviest cross-generational burden we all carry – the belief that in order to make someone do better, we first have to make them feel worse. Relieving ourselves from this burden, understanding how life can be led, and how life can feel without these feelings – is life changing.
“At the count to three…”
“If you won’t put the toys away, there will be no time for a bedtime story.”
We all know nothing will happen at the count to three. Our children know that too. They also know that putting the toys away has nothing to do with bedtime, time or stories. Just like adults, children also need the consequence to be natural in order for them to consider it as a motivation.
Follow the link for an in depth account on why threats don’t work.
“Why can’t you be more like your brother/friend/nephew?”
Using this strategy we didn’t only make our children feel bad and harmed their self-esteem, but we also managed to damage the relationship between them and the subject of comparison.
“Come!”, “Now!”, “Do the dishes!”, “Go to sleep!”
Do you like to be commanded? Will obeying a command make you feel good about yourself or about the one who commanded you? No. It won’t. And children are no different. If anything they are much more attuned to their needs and feelings since they haven’t yet forgotten how to communicate using their hearts.
There are many other strategies we use, such as lectures (children stop listening after three words), predictions (that never come true), and placing the blame (even though they might really be giving us a headache). They all have the below common denominators:
- THESE STRATEGIES DON’T WORK.
- These strategies must escalate: what might have worked with a two-year-old, won’t work with a four-year-old. At sixteen parents will find themselves buy their child an Audi A3 to get him to dinner.
- These strategies condition our connection to children as they will stop doing for you, and will only do for the promised outcome.
- These strategies lower us, the parents, on the connection hierarchy, since instead of reading the bedtime story because we really want to, we read it because the toys were put away (which is the same as our children doing something for the promised outcome).
With young children, all the above might work (for a while) and won’t cause real damage to connection, because, at young ages, connection is all children seek from us. Even if the connection is undermined, they immediately work to restore it. At fourteen, however, we won’t be able to get them back.
All these strategies are forms of coercion, distancing us from the naturally desired connection which makes everything work. All we need is patience.
4 Strategies to Encourage Children to Cooperate
A working strategy is a strategy that builds connection, regardless of the behavioral outcome (that can be reached in various ways).
- Children will cooperate with their parents’ requests when these meet their current needs. If they need to play more (yes – that’s an actual need children have) – find a playful strategy to get them to cooperate. In other words – the strategy parents use should always strive to meet the child’s needs. This means we need to get creative 🙂
- Children are much more likely to cooperate with us when their needs and feelings are seen and heard, when the connection between us is in place. Always create eye contact or physical proximity before making your request.
- We shouldn’t expect cooperation at the heat of the moment. Children are much more attuned to their needs than us adults, when kids are in a “bad place”, they won’t listen or cooperate as our request will always feel like coercion. When a child is in a bad mood, or going through big and challenging feelings, don’t even go there. It’s a promised failure. Instead, use this strategy to handle tantrums.
- Consider updating your expectation to what actually matters – a happy child and a good relationship. Yes – if you stay longer than planned at the park and have a great time – the strategy worked. When you and your child enjoy a relaxing bedtime story and fall asleep with a smile, even if it’s a bit later than the usual – the strategy worked. When your strategy works to strengthen the connection- it works because there is only one thing that really matters, and that’s the connection, the relationship, between you and your child.
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We want our children to cooperate with us because they want to, because cooperating with us meets their own needs. When the connection is in place, cooperation is a given and positive part of life. Because – everyone enjoys a good relationship 🙂
How are these 4 strategies to gain your children’s cooperation practiced in real life? Or in other words, why are there still dirty dishes in the sink and dirty laundry all over the house? Join my Facebook group and we’ll talk about it 🙂