The Problem with Expecting Children to “Cooperate”

June 29th, 2011 by Dionna | 21 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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This post was written for inclusion in the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted at Parenting Gently. All week, June 27 – July 1, we will be featuring articles and posts about alternatives to punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.

Too busy playing to help clean up!

Here are some common scenes in my house:

  • We’re finishing dinner, and I ask Kieran to take his plate into the kitchen. He prances off, intent on getting back to his trains that he was playing with before dinner. I ask again, nicely; Kieran ignores me. I ask again, not so nicely; Kieran gets frustrated with me and says “just a minute!”

or

  • We are getting ready to leave the house, and I ask Kieran to brush his teeth, or put on his shoes, or go potty, etc. Five minutes later, I ask again. And again. And again. But Kieran is too absorbed doing whatever it was he was doing before I asked to comply, and he says “not right now!”

End result in these two (or similar) situations? We both end up frustrated, because I have expected immediate compliance.

How often do parents expect kids to respond immediately to their demands? We might even say “I am asking you to cooperate with me to get the house clean (or get ready to leave, etc.).” But the error in this sentence is the word “cooperate.” If we expect kids to respond immediately, we are asking for compliance, not cooperation.

And what part of cooperation requires one party to automatically do the bidding of another?

Cooperation literally means “working together.” Parents who cooperate with their children take time to consider problems and solutions from the child’s point of view. We cannot mandate cooperation.1

We can, however, model cooperation.

Here are some more common scenes in my house:

  • I am cooking dinner, and Kieran comes running in: “mama! mama! Come look at the train tracks I made!” My response? “Give me just a minute, I’m in the middle of cooking.” Minutes come and go, and Kieran comes in again with the same request. Again, I put him off. He walks off, dejected.

or

  • I am finishing a blog post, and Kieran asks me to play with him. I tell him “not right now.” Over the next twenty minutes, Kieran and I frustrate each other, because neither of us is willing to budge on what we want to do (I want to finish writing, he wants to play right now).

And Kieran, understandably, gets frustrated with me.

So why should I expect immediate compliance (or perfect cooperation) from Kieran, when I do not model the same for him? And more importantly, how can I model cooperation for him when we have conflicting needs?

Think about times in the past where either you or your child have asked for something, and the two of you did not “cooperate” (work together). Feel free to share examples in the comments, AND also share ideas on how you can work toward cooperation together in the future.

Please visit again for my next post, “Working Toward Cooperation.” I’ll talk about ideas from Respectful Parents Respectful Kids on how families can work together toward true cooperation – and I’ll give some alternative responses to the scenarios I presented above.


Welcome to the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline!

Please join us all week, June 27-July 1, 2011, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. We have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives. Please visit our other writers each day of the Carnival. Click on the links below to see each day’s posts – new articles will be posted on the following theme days:

June 27 – Practical Tips for Getting Started with Gentle Discipline
June 28 – It’s All About Feelings: Respecting Emotions and Consensual Living
June 29 – A Fork in the Road: Turning Points in Gentle Discipline
June 30 – Gentle Discipline Recipe: Love, Patience, and Cooperation
July 1 – Gentle Discipline Resources

  1. For more on cooperation, see Respectful Parents Respectful Kids, and our online discussion of the book.

21 Responses to:
"The Problem with Expecting Children to “Cooperate”"

  1. Mrs Green @ littlegreenblog.com   littlegreenblog

    Oh my, I am SO guilty of this; especially the ‘write the blog post’ example where cyber minutes roll into hours. Thanks for highlighting that expecting my DD to respond immediately is completely unreasonable. Maybe tonight when she comes in I’ll keep this post in mind and behave more appropriately. Better still I hope to see a rye smile on my face as she walks off saying ‘in a minute Mum!’ :D

  2. Oooh, yeah. This is so true. Thank you so much for such a great reminder! I appreciate these examples of rubber meeting the road, and I know that my kidlets will be thankful for me to be more mindful of this. <3

  3. Rosemary   rosemarymjones

    Wow. Such a good perspective! I am so guilty of this, putting my daughter off for “just a minute” while I finish what I want. I will definitely keep this perspective in mind… good stuff to chew on.

  4. Kelly   BecomingCrunchy

    Dionna, this brought tears to my eyes…it’s one of those simple and totally true revelations that make me think, “That’s the parent I want to be”.

    I so appreciate you sharing the wisdom that goes hand in hand with your own learning…you are modeling for more than Kieran.:)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you Kelly – I am continuously inspired by the gentle community we have online, I need the fresh ideas/reminders all the time!

  5. Great reminder. I look forward to reading the follow-up post!

  6. Yes, yes! What a great reminder of a powerful concept.

    When I am mindful of my compliance needs vs. my cooperation intent, I will offer to set a timer and let it count down to the moment when I will play with DS or he will help me do xxx. It takes the pressure off either one of us to “enforce” while allowing for a bit of extra time, and we are allowed to follow through with our promise without “giving in”.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      We use a timer for certain things (when K and papa are playing a video game, for example) – it also helps take the pressure off the parent as the bad guy I think ;)

  7. Alicia C.   amccrenshaw

    This is a revelation that, I swear, I made a couple of days ago. When my little guy was asked to pick up his cars, he said, “I gotta finish typing first. I’ll do it later.” Yeah, that’s my line! In the couple of days that I merely stopped typing immediately to give him the 1-2 minutes he needed, I have seen big changes! We still tell each other to wait a minute, but then there is follow-through not long after! Isn’t it amazing how these little people REALLY ARE little *people*?!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Isn’t it amazing when such a small change creates such a big difference? I’ve also started saying “ok, I’ll play one game/read one book, then I will finish my work while you play in there.” It usually really helps!

  8. Lori Ann   simplyla

    Great reminder. And I also appreciate the stories of how scenes play out in your house as my DD is moving into toddler days and we’re beginning to have similar experiences!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I am so glad I started down the GD path w/Kieran early, otherwise it would be much harder now. Good for you mama, and enjoy the toddler years!

  9. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Thanks for the reminder!

  10. Garden Variety Mama   GardenVarietyMa

    Great post! We’ve been working on this at our house, too; I recently got upset with Dr. Daddy when he asked me to do something and couldn’t wait until I finished what I was doing. And then I realized that I do the same thing to the boys all. the. time. So I’ve been trying to have some patience and talk about what it means to get to a ‘stopping point’, and how we can always return to things. Or just realizing that sometimes I don’t really need things done immediately.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      It’s always such a light bulb moment for me when I find myself doing something that often upsets/frustrates me in Tom/Kieran!

  11. Jan Hunt   janbaronhunt

    Great article!

    I often suggest using the phrase “Let me know when you’re ready,” (to put on your coat / get in the carseat / brush your teeth, get ready for bed) and have had enthusiastic feedback. My clients are always afraid of trying this because they think the child will never comply, but in fact it always speeds up compliance. This phrase takes away the immediate pressure on the child and respects his need for autonomy. If children were born without the need to become more and more self-directed, we would never have survived as a species.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      What a great idea! Thanks for the input Jan, I really appreciate it! We practice the fine art of compromise another way by agreeing on a number of times for something. i.e., I let Kieran know that we’ll need to leave soon, and I ask if he’d like to do whatever he is doing X more times (i.e., read 2 more books; take 3 more turns on the slide, etc.). Usually, he’ll counter with a higher number, but it’s usually not too outrageous, so I usually agree (or counter with something in between the two). He seems to appreciate the input into our leaving arrangements.
      By the way, I *love* The Natural Child Project :)

  12. Amy   Peace4Parents

    Hi Dionna,

    I have seen similar experiences play out in our family at times. Accountability and integrity is important to me. Stopping what I am doing to pay attention to the children when they ask is something I have been working on for a long time. In the beginning I may have been doing it in part to also “get” cooperation from them, but as you illustrate, it is really about creating mutual respect. :)

    Now, I actually do expect cooperation! It is with a completely different basis than the power over compliance model. The following steps all happen simultaneously, but I am writing them as steps to illustrate the process I have grown through.

    I *first* make sure I am calm, centered, and grounded within myself through attention to the breath. I also make sure the request is reasonable and I am asking with positive intent for the well being of all family members (there’s no edge of control, irritation, or frustration inside of me). I release the need for them to comply, and at the same time expect cooperation. I feel and see the task being completed with contentment (the child genuinely feeling good – or at least not feeling forced – about doing what needs to be done). Along with this I do allow time and conversation if necessary. I have worked away from cajoling, but have a playful attitude at times. It is more focused in our capability to complete tasks, work together, and enjoy even the mundane.

    Simply put, I simultaneously let go of controlling the outcome while expecting cooperation – a very inside process. :)

  13. Melissa @ Simple Whimsy   mamawhimsy

    Wow, Dionna. What a wonderful reminder. This was a much needed read for me tonight (a few tears shed). Thanks for taking the time to write about and support others on their gentle parenting path.

  14. Deb @ Living Montessori Now   DebChitwood

    Wonderful reminder, Dionna! Children will most easily show respect for adults who show respect for them. Their feelings are truly as important as ours, and honoring those feelings makes a huge amount of difference.

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