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Forget Independence: 3 Ways to Teach Children Cooperation

How to practice the art and science of interdependence.

Key points

  • Interdependence as a skill is often overlooked in favor of teaching independence.
  • As a parent or educator, one way to teach children interdependence is to assign group activities.
  • Addressing envy, fear, shame, and other obstacles to connection can help us more easily rely on one another.
Vanessa Loring/Pexels
Source: Vanessa Loring/Pexels

We spend a lot of time in our culture teaching young people to be independent. But it's becoming increasingly clear that we are overlooking an even greater skill—teaching them to be interdependent. Is it possible to teach that skill?

The answer is yes. Here's how.

When I graduated from college decades ago, I spent a year teaching junior high school in Japan. That experience is chronicled in my book, Learning to Bow. One incident above all others in that year has stayed with me. The occasion was the end-of-year school trip for the middle school where I was teaching. The destination was Tokyo Disneyland, not exactly the most educational of locations, but never mind: The school still used the occasion to teach interdependency. The first two articles of the 62-page (!) instruction manual read:

  1. By working together with teachers and one another in an unfamiliar environment—let’s develop lifelong memories.
  2. By working together within a group with good health and safety—let’s learn about public manners and have a positive experience.

And nothing was left to chance. On the day before the trip, the school set up chairs in the gymnasium in the shape of a school bus to have the students practice getting into and out of their seats in an efficient and cooperative manner. That rehearsal was followed by another in which students practiced running in and out of formation for the class photograph when they heard the sound of a whistle.

But perhaps the most telling trick occurred on the morning of departure: One of the main points of emphasis was that students had to stay in groups during their day in the park. Each group was mandated to be on time for all benchmarks during the day. But here’s the stunt that has made Japanese education so effective at promoting group cooperation: Only one student in every group was allowed to wear a watch.

Want to make students be more mindful of others? Force them to be on time but deny them the ability to have access to a timepiece unless they stick together as a team.

A generation later, the advantages of teaching children cooperative skills have become only more apparent. As Jennifer Wallace, the author of the recently published book Never Enough, wrote in The Washington Post recently:

I have found in my research that children trained in the skills of interdependence better handle setbacks or the uncertainties of the future because they are grounded in their communities. The parents of these healthy achievers openly acknowledged the courage it takes to ask for and accept support. They taught their kids to ‘never worry alone,’ as psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has put it.

So, how can we teach children (and remind their parents of) these skills without sending them to Japanese schools? Here, based on science, are three concrete ideas you can try at home this holiday season:

1. Pair Up

The simplest way to promote interdependence is to put family members in situations that, well, require interdependence. In some ways, schools in the 19th century did a better job of promoting cooperation because siloing children by age had yet to take hold. Every day, children were around peers of different ages and different skill sets, which normalized group work rather than competition because there was no expectation that everyone would be at the same level.

It took schools in the West a century to return to this idea, as they began to do in the 1970s with the philosophy of “collaborative learning” that had its birth in England. The primary point: Children learn more from their peers than they do from their instructors. But, 50 years later, as David and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota have shown, cooperation still lags.

So what can you do? Create situations that force your children to work alongside siblings or friends.

  • Don’t just assign chores; assign collective chores.
  • Don’t just give allowance to one child; give part of the allowance to all children that they have to figure out how to share.
  • Don’t just have older children help out younger children; use "reverse mentoring" and have younger children help out older children, too.

The bottom line: Set aside time this Thanksgiving holiday when members of your family are compelled to help out with the family gathering not just as themselves but as part of a team.

2. Listen Up

A key reason that children are not sensitive to others is that they’re never taught how to listen to others. One look at our current political discourse reveals the consequence of this oversight. Elena Vitalaki and Eleni Katsarou of University of Crete outline the essential steps in becoming a better listener:

  • Start with the eyes. Make sure the listener is at the same eye level as the speaker, with few distractions like open windows, tempting food, or colorful toys.
  • Turn to the mouth. Don’t force the listener to be quiet for long periods. Encourage them to request pauses or ask questions.
  • End with connection. Have the listener repeat back what they heard and rather than criticize or judge and find at least one thing they agree on.

As the authors write, a simple exercise where children are compelled to share with a sibling, a friend, or even an adult relative, can create the “practice of empathy.” Without practice, understanding others becomes a muscle we never flex.

3. Fess Up

In her article in The Washington Post, Jennifer Wallace makes a wonderful and rarely stated point that jumps out of the discourse among adults around politics and world affairs these days. One reason we seem to have lost the instinct toward interdependence is that we almost never state the underlying feelings that prevent us from connecting with others. Wallace’s advice: “Name what often gets in the way of building interdependent relationships: envy and the shame it elicits when we think we don’t measure up.” She continues:

Social comparison is a natural part of being human, but, left unchecked, it can leave us deeply lonely. Instead, parents can normalize this universal feeling by admitting they feel envy from time to time, too, such as when they log on to social media and see an acquaintance’s fabulous vacation or when a colleague gets the promotion they were hoping for.

Maybe one reason we fail to stress interdependence around home is that we feel in some ways that we won’t be able to hold up our end of the bargain.

And, yet, we must. Because like many qualities we fail to teach our children—from restraint on our devices to staying calm in a dispute—the real problem usually begins with us. Only when we overcome our own fear, envy, and shame, can we open ourselves up to those we love—not to mention those we don’t.

Today, when the need for understanding and connection around the world is greater than ever, we must confront our own hesitations and not pass them on to our children. We must once again practice the art of teamwork, of listening, and of vulnerability. It’s the only way to take the world as is and convert it into the world of can be.


A version of this post also appears in Bruce's newsletter, The Nonlinear Life.

Jennifer Wallace. Want Happy Kids? Forget Independence. Teach Them Interdependence. Washington Post. August 14, 2023.

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