As the parent of a preschooler, I often notice myself feeling frustrated and asking myself, “Why won’t she cooperate?!” If you have a young child at home, I know you understand. There are times when I’m tired or hungry or in a rush and I just want my daughter to do exactly as I say instantly without questioning, avoiding, or delaying.
What I’ve noticed is that as soon as I get attached to things going a certain way, my daughter has different ideas. I can understand why. Nobody likes to be forced to do anything. Not even young kids. Or maybe especially not young kids. I mean, toddlers and preschoolers are just developing their will and learning to act independently of us. So, of course they’re going to push back when we thrust our will upon them.
As a preschool teacher and now as a mom, I’ve discovered that there are certain things I can do that greatly increase the chances that kids will cooperate with me. Here are six secrets to getting kids to cooperate that have worked like a charm for me:
Invite, Don’t Demand
We all want our children to “ask nicely,” but the truth is, that’s easier said than done. My question is, where do you think they learned to be demanding and inflexible? Oh yeah, from us! If we want our kids to cooperate, then we’ve got to be the bigger, more mature ones and lead by example. Contrary to popular belief, asking nicely, inviting, and working together to find a solution to a problem doesn’t teach children to be more defiant or disobedient, instead, by doing these things you’re laying a foundation of trust and teamwork that your kids will soon learn to rely on.
Use this quick test to figure out whether your request is actually a demand. Ask yourself, “Would it be OK if they answered ‘no’ to this request?” If not, then you’re not actually inviting or asking, you’re demanding or requiring a specific behavior. That’s OK some of the time, especially if safety is an issue, but remember, the more demands you make on your kids, the less true, internally motivated cooperation you’re likely to get.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have expectations of your children. It’s just that when those expectations aren’t met, it’s helpful to see that as an opportunity to problem solve together, rather than an excuse to punish them into submission.
Turn it Into a Game
Kids love to play. When you can make something fun, they’re far more likely to get on board. This does require some creativity and spontaneity on your part. When your child refuses to leave the park, can you find a way to make getting to the car more fun? Maybe you’ll pretend you’re firefighters and you have to jump into the firetruck to go put out the fire. Or perhaps you’ll race, or hop like a bunny, or offer a ride on your shoulders. Making things more fun isn’t just a great way to gain your child’s cooperation, it’s also a way to enjoy your time with them more. I mean, which would you prefer, a power struggle where you force your child kicking and screaming into his care seat or a fun game in which he climbs in willingly?
If you’re not sure what kind of a game will work best, tune in to your child’s interests. If she loves princesses, then you’ll be her knight in shining armor or her trusty steed. If he’s into trucks, you can ask if he wants to be fork-lifted into the car. Or maybe you’ve just read a story about a friendly fish, so try acting it out! If you just can’t seem to come up with an idea, ask your child what to play. Most kids are more than ready with a suggestion for a fun game or activity that you can alter slightly to fit your agenda.
Stop Repeating Yourself
This is a mistake we all make, especially when we’re not getting the results we want. Trust me that repeating yourself is the last thing you want to do if you’re trying to foster cooperation. Your child heard you the first time, and by repeating yourself, you’re simply training her to stop listening and wait for you to get frustrated before she acts.
Children are discovering all sorts of things about the world around them, including vast amounts of information about social/emotional dynamics. When they throw you off your game or induce you to get frustrated or upset, they’re gathering very interesting data about how to get what they want and what might cause you to reconsider your position. Don’t fall prey to their cunning.
When you can keep your cool and maintain clear boundaries, your kids will still test you, but after they’ve tested all their theories about how to get around your rule with no success, they will find other areas far more interesting and emotionally rich.
But what about when you’ve asked once and they’re not responding? Instead of asking again, take a different tack. Be forgetful and invite them to remind you what you said a moment ago. “Wait, I forget, didn’t I just ask you to do something? What was that? I think we were getting ready to go somewhere, but can you please remind me where?”
This allows the kids to be the smarter ones and if there’s one thing children love, it’s being smarter and more capable than adults.
Let Them Be In Charge
That’s why you’ll get a lot more cooperation when you allow them to be in charge. No need to constantly corral them, just put one child in charge of getting everyone ready and out the door and you’ll be surprised how quickly it will happen. This works especially well with my daughter when I underestimate her abilities and she gets to prove how smart and capable she is. “You don’t know how to do that all by yourself, do you?” And then when she has her shoes on and is climbing into her car seat, “Wow, you knew exactly what to do to get ready to go and you didknow how to do it!”
Cooperate With Them
There are times when even the most cooperative child just needs some extra help. This could be because they’re tired, sick, hungry, or just feeling sad and disconnected. So if nothing else seems to work, offer to help. During times like this, we like to play a game in which my daughter pretends to be a baby and I have to do everything for her. After just a few moments of this game, she is far more willing to do what I’ve asked or help me with something. That’s because she knows that when she really needs some extra support, I’m there to willingly and happily provide her with the support she needs.