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Stop Trying to Make Your Kids Cooperate

Being told what to do makes many children dig in their heels further.

Key points

  • Children refusing to cooperate is often more about power than it is about the task at hand.
  • The more parents try to get a child to cooperate, the more power there is in the defiance.
  • Tips include being clear about expectations and laying out “two great choices.”

"My child won't listen" ranks as one of the most, if not the most, frequent complaints from parents that drive them to schedule a consult. Typical stories include:

Ben (6) has a breakfast bar every morning before school and refuses to throw away the wrapper. He ignores us or outright refuses. We have tried everything to get him to cooperate with this basic rule. We, of course, end up throwing it away. What else are we supposed to do? How do we make him listen?

Kayla (4) refuses to wash her hands before dinner. We have tried rewards, bribes, you name it. Nothing works. She wins every time—her hands just don't get washed. We are so frustrated but are out of tools. How do you make a kid cooperate?

How to get kids to follow directions and make good choices is a topic I write about frequently. I am revisiting it because it speaks to the bane of most parents' existence: the power struggle, which can be eliminated. And, because I have some new insights to share.

Key Insights

1. It is not that your child isn't "listening." She is not cooperating. Just yesterday, the parents of a 4-year-old told this story about their very feisty, sassy daughter. Every morning they spend way too long trying to get her to put her shoes and socks on. They repeat their request (aka nag) countless times. She finally looks up and shouts: "I heard you! Stop telling me this so many times!" as she harumphs and walks away.

2. The non-cooperation often has less to do with the task/expectation at hand (washing hands, throwing trash away, bringing dishes to the sink, climbing into the car seat when it's time to leave for school) and more to do with a reaction to being told what to do, which results in a defensive/defiant response (as is true for most adults, too). It is human nature to reject others’ efforts to control us in order to maintain our agency and integrity.

3. The defiance is also often about power. For some kids, any demand you make or direction you give is fodder for showing that you are not the boss of them. Their desire for power trumps everything—even to their own detriment. Like Liza, whose dad threatened to take away her lovey (a doll) if she did not stay in her room after lights out. In response, she made a bee line back to her room, retrieved said doll, and handed it to her father as she continued to triumphantly prance around the house.

Or, like Leo, who rejected his parents’ offer to take him to Disney World if he would just agree to poop on the potty. Caving to their agenda, in his mind, would be giving up all the power he was wielding by not doing what they desperately wanted.

Like it or not, and perverse as it may seem, the desire for power can be so intense that kids will go to unbelievable lengths to seize it.

And here is the rub: any demand you make on your child is fodder for control, for them to prove you cannot make them do anything. They know that you are relying on their cooperation and agreement, which leaves all the power in their hands.

How to get kids to cooperate

1. Make an important mind-shift: You can't make your kids cooperate. You can't force them to agree to clean up toys, stay in their rooms after lights out, sit at the dinner table, and so on.

2. Teach your child the difference between "have-to's" and "extras." Explain that in your family, there are "have to's" for health and safety (tooth-brushing, staying in bedrooms at night, getting into car seats), and for being a responsible citizen (putting toys away, bringing their dinner plate to the sink, etc). And there are "extras," like having more playtime, more books at bedtime, and screen time.

Explain that when they cooperate with the have-to's, there is more time for extras. When they don't cooperate with the have-to's, it takes time away from the extras. It can help to explain to kids that it’s the same for you; if you don't cooperate with your work plan, which means, say, starting at 9 a.m., and instead, you play games on your computer for 30 minutes, you may have to work into the evening or on weekends and have less playtime. If they don't cooperate with their "work plan"—which might mean getting shoes and socks on, brushing their teeth at bedtime, or putting their dishes in the sink after dinner—they will also have less time for the extras.

This is very different from using rewards, which often backfire: 1) because children are not swayed by them and just keep on obfuscating or defying; or, 2) they start to "extort" you with the quid pro quo that they will only, for example, clean up, if they get some special treat.

Alternatively, natural consequences actually mirror the way the world works, for us as adults, too.

3. Be clear about what the direction or expectation is: "Ben, in our family we each have a responsibility to take care of our shared spaces and clean up after ourselves. So when you have a breakfast bar, it is your job to put the wrapper in the trash."

4. Be clear about and give voice to what you do and don't control: "We can't make you agree to follow this rule. It's your body and only you can decide what to do with it." Often, just stating this fact, and putting it on the table, reduces the power of the defiance because you are neutralizing it. You are not in for a fight.

5. Lay out the "two-great choices"—the natural consequences of whatever decision your child makes: "So we want to let you know what your two great choices are so you have all the information you need to make the best decision for yourself: Option #1 is you throw the wrapper away. Option #2 is you choose not to throw it away, which means we have to do it. This takes time away from "extras," so there will be 10 fewer minutes of screen time when you choose not to do your job. It's up to you to decide which choice is better for you."

With the “two great choices,” Option #1 is always cooperation—to put pajamas on, throw trash away, clean up toys, and so on. Option #2 is always an end-game that you control to move the situation along, and to avoid getting stuck in the "gray zone" trying to get your child to change her behavior.

6. Don't be dissuaded by your child’s indifference to the natural consequence. Initially, your child (especially if he is fierce and feisty) will act like he couldn't care less about the consequence to show you nothing you do affects him ("knock yourself out"). But if you stay the course, over time I find that children start to make better choices because there is not more currency for them in the defiance. It's the battle and sense of power that was motivating them. Once that is no longer at play—you stop giving them any fodder to react to (i.e., trying to control their behavior and telling them what to do)—they realize it's much better for them to throw the wrapper away, clean up the toys, place the dishes in the sink, or wash their hands ... and get their coveted screen time or whatever "extra" they desire.

Ultimately, you need to ask yourself what the alternative is. Since you really can’t make your child do anything, you need to come up with a way to avoid the power struggle and move the situation along, because it’s the struggle for power they are after.

More from Claire Lerner LCSW-C
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