What "My Child Won't Cooperate!" Really Means

It's Okay to Want Young Children to Comply with Rules and Requests

Posted Jun 20, 2015

Compliance Isn’t a Four Letter Word

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How often have you heard parents say, “My kid won’t do what I ask him to do!  He just won’t cooperate!”  

People often use the term “cooperate” when they really mean “comply”.   Co-operation means to co-operate: “co” means “together”; “operate” means “act”.  “Co-operate” means to “act together toward a common goal”.  For example, if you and your partner cooperate when setting the table, you work toward the same goal: your partner places the dishes while you lay out the silverware.

Compliance is different.   When you ask me to comply, you ask me to do something that YOU want.   I comply to you; we don’t “comply together”.   When you ask your child to clean up her room, you are asking for compliance, not cooperation.  

And that is not a bad thing.   There is nothing wrong in requiring children to comply with parental requests.  In fact, compliance is a necessary first step to cooperation.   Children typically have to learn to comply before they are able to cooperate.

Parents sometimes feel that demanding compliance is a simply a form of domination or disrespect.  Some parents feel making demands fails to respect their children’s autonomy and need to direct their own actions.   But what happens when a parent does not require compliance?   The parent believes demanding compliance shows disrespect for the child’s autonomy.  However, a child who is allowed to refuse to a parent’s request is being taught that the parent’s interests need not be respected.  

And so, the parent’s respect for the child comes at the expense of the child’s respect for the parent!  This is a formula for disaster.  First, instead of producing cooperate and harmonious parent-child interactions, it brings about chaos.  Children learn to refuse their parent’s requests; parents plead with children, and then, when that fails, become angry.  This is the exact opposite of what parents intend when they seek cooperation rather than compliance.

Second, if cooperation means working together toward a common goal, a child who never learns to comply can never learn to cooperate.  To cooperate, a child must learn to act not only on her own behalf but also for the sake of others.  In this way, compliance is the first step to fostering compliance.  Only after a child learns to comply can a parent begin to teach children how to engage in the give-and-take of genuinely collaborative and cooperative interactions.