What should we do when our children won’t cooperate? This is an issue all parents deal with, including me. I spoke about this topic on Thursday on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program, More2Life, which is produced by Ave Maria Radio. The topic of the show was “Family Habits” — lots of great tips on what makes for a happy, healthy Catholic family. You can listen to the whole show here (Jan 30 show).
So, here’s the skinny on kids & cooperation. I realized at one point that when I complain that one of my children isn’t cooperating, what I usually mean is “my child won’t listen to me” or “my child won’t do what I tell him”. I can become frustrated and angry when my kids won’t “get with the program” especially if I’m in a rush or distracted. I’ve learned that I need to keep the big picture in mind: what I want for my child is for her to experience life as a gift, and this means I protect her dignity at all costs. I could threaten, scream, or bribe my way to cooperation — eventually these tactics will work and our child will do what we want, but the cost is high. The cost is our child’s sense of security and her sense of connection to us.
Here are a few things I’ve realized about the true nature of a cooperative child:
1. Cooperate Means Co-Operate
This is the most important tip on raising cooperative children. Kids cooperate when they feel a sense of connection to us before we make a request. If I continue to define “cooperating” as my child just obeying my every command, I am missing the opportunity to live in a discipleship relationship with him. A cooperative relationship is one of respect and mutual giving. To foster this kind of relationship, we can create a family atmosphere in which it’s natural for everyone to work together and to respect each other’s boundaries. Having clear routines and expectations, giving your kids a heads up before a transition, and including them in discussions about household chores will go a long way toward fostering a cooperative family atmosphere. This is giving our kids a “we’re in this together” message rather than “do this now or this punishment will result” message.
2. Our Child’s Will Is a Gift
We should never sacrifice our child’s dignity in order to enforce our request or expectations. Especially with toddlers and preschoolers, they are gaining an awareness of their own power and they are also frequently frustrated by their inability to do exactly what they want. This leads to a clash of wills. We want to guide our child in expressing herself politely, but our child’s will isn’t bad; it isn’t something to fear or quash. The Popcaks in fact explain rightly in their book Parenting with Grace that our child’s “No” and “I don’t want to” now when we’re asking her to put away her toys may be the “NO!” she gives later when somebody offers her drugs. We can help her understand and handle her big emotions when she doesn’t want to do something that we expect of her: Help her rephrase her feelings more respectfully; let her tell you what’s on her mind without fear of punishment.
This leads to my last tip. Find out why your child doesn’t want to comply with your request. Really listen. Is she tired, scared, nervous, annoyed? Give her a chance to express her feelings, affirm her feelings, then explain your feelings and needs. After you’ve heard her out, let her know that you get it: repeat back what she’s told you. (“I know you hate to do the laundry. I feel the same way about it, and I know you’re enjoying relaxing on this wonderful Saturday morning listening to the radio.”) Then explain to her that, while it may not be her favorite thing right now, you all need to do X, and Y will result if you don’t. (“We all need to work together to do the laundry or we won’t have anything to wear tomorrow morning.”) I know this sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it’s just about building respect and preserving connection. It’s amazing the difference in a child’s attitude if she just feels heard. So, listen, respond with empathy, and come up with a solution together. (“Would you like to finish listening to your son first? Great. See you in ten minutes.”)
Raising cooperative children happens before we make a request. It happens in the way we choose to live with them; it happens in those small exchanges of love and respect, in the way we respond to their feelings and frustrations, and how we handle our own frustration. If we focus on the larger picture of how we want to exist in relationship to our children, we can find gentle, effective ways to foster a cooperation.
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