Parenting Solutions: Getting Children to Cooperate

The ability to work well in one’s family and with others is one of the most valuable skills a parent can help a child develop.

“Twice a week, Jerry has baseball practice which lasts until his bedtime. I ask that he complete his homework before practice, but getting this to happen often involves a major battle,” says a frustrated father.

“Our four children are required to take turns unloading the dishwasher after school each day. We have a schedule on the refrigerator, but there always seems to be an argument over whose turn it is,” laments one mother.

When children won’t comply with parent requests or fulfill their family responsibility, reactions can range from irritation and anger to frustration and infuriation. Angry looks and words are exchanged, communication breaks down, and an unpleasant atmosphere settles upon a family. Despite these obstacles, however, parents must teach their children to willingly work with others. As they grow, the characteristic of cooperation will help them become responsible, caring individuals. Here are some effective ways of getting children to comply.

Aim for cooperation, not “obedience.” This is a subtle but important distinction. Rather than ordering and demanding your child to do something, make it a friendly request.

For example: “Would you please clean your room now.” (Not, “Get up and clean your room immediately.”) “This morning is when you agreed to cut the lawn. Can you tell me what time will you be doing it?” (Not, “Get out there and mow the lawn now!”)

These gentle statements convey your respect for your child and the importance to the family of his fulfilling his obligations.

Motivate with reward versus punishment. Like adults, children have negative reactions to threats. Bully tactics usually result with children digging in their heels. Promising a reward for good behavior is more effective than threatening punishment for bad conduct.

Try to avoid anything that can be viewed as a bribe, however. “A reward is not the same as a bribe,” advises John Gray, Ph.D., in his book Children Are From Heaven.

“Don’t offer money or presents to get a child to do what he is actually supposed to do. Instead, offer valuable intangibles. For a younger child, the most valuable reward is time with you. For a teenager, it may be a later curfew, car privileges, or some other symbol of freedom.”

Dr. Gray also advises parents to phrase requests in ways that show positive consequences. For example, instead of “If you don’t brush your teeth, I won’t read you a story,” try saying, “If you brush your teeth now, there will be time for three stories.”

Express praise and appreciation. Parent input should not end when a child fulfills his duties, obligations, and responsibilities. Be sure to offer praise and express appreciation to your children for tasks accomplished, work done, and help rendered. Children who feel appreciated are not only more likely to be cooperative, but will also feel more capable and competent.

“We have a ‘Family Awards Night’ every Sunday,” said parent Marsha Sue Sangster of Decatur, Ill., in a newspaper story on how parents try to set a positive tone in their families. “My husband and I give each of our five children a piece of paper that has the nicest thing he or she did that week written on it. At the bottom it says, ‘Love, Mom and Dad.’ It’s something we all look forward to.”

Exercise patience. If you don’t succeed the first time, try again and again and again with your children. Be guided by this wisdom from the philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“Cooperation, like other difficult things, can be learned only by practice; and to be capable of it in great things, a people must be gradually trained to it in small. Now, the whole course of advancing civilization is a series of such training.”

To facilitate patience, remember to keep expectations realistic. Don’t frustrate yourself and your children by expecting to resolve everything at once or forever. Be flexible and resilient when an issue which appeared to be settled today reemerges tomorrow.

Cultivate cooperation beyond the home. Guiding children into becoming cooperative members of the family has broader implications, because children who work well with others in family settings can utilize the same skills in larger social settings. They’ll use what they learn within the family in their future places of work, educational settings, and within their circle of friendships.

“Children are not casual guests in our home,” once noted child psychologist James Dobson, as quoted by Edythe Draper in Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World. “They have been loaned to us temporarily for the purpose of loving them and instilling a foundation of values on which their future lives will be built.”

Simply put, a willingness and ability to work cooperatively with others is one of the most valuable characteristics you can instill in a child.

Victor Parachin lives in Tulsa, Okla.

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