Who among us doesn’t wonder what kind of magic vitamins some parents must be giving their children? You know those mysterious moms and dads who ask their kids to turn off the TV, empty the dishwasher or get in the car for school and their kids actually do it…the first time they’re asked? Most of us figure they either won the kid lottery or they’re giving their children happy pills several times a day.
The truth is children—in fact, human beings in general—are not meant to be bossed around. Nature designed us only to follow and do the bidding of people with whom we’re in “right relationship.” We don’t want our children to cooperate with strangers; there’s a natural safeguard embedded in us to resist being told what to do by just anyone.
The parents whose kids are cooperating might not realize it, but they are making use of their child’s strongest and most primitive requirement: the need for closeness, attachment and a reliable compass point. When a child is securely attached to you, relaxing in the awareness that you are their reliable North Star, they will be oriented toward following your direction.
To understand the root of what compels a child to be oppositional, consider it a relationship rather than a behavioral problem. If your spouse is uncooperative and resistant, do you demand a time out? Of course not; you’d suspect there was something off-kilter in the relationship and would focus on revitalizing the connection.
Psychologist Gordon Neufeld uses the phrase, “Connect, then Direct,” and in my experience—both as a family therapist and as the mother of a teenage son—it’s a real gem. If you’re willing to rebuild your child’s sense of connectedness to you while asserting your rightful place as their North Star, you’ll reawaken their desire to please you.
Here are seven approaches to getting kids to cooperate, starting with strengthening the connection between you and them, which lays the foundation for inspiring them to want to follow your lead.
1. Take time to enjoy their company. Whether it’s surprising them with an offer to play UNO, or listening to the music they like, make it obvious that you’re in their space because you want to be around them and you’re in no a hurry to leave. Kids pick up on the artificial and they’ll sense if you’re just logging in “quality time.”
2. Tell them how they’re special to you. Look through baby albums together and share stories of how excited you were for them to be born. Nothing solidifies a relationship more than letting someone know why you consider his or her presence in your life a precious gift.
3. Be in charge. Many parents forget that parenting is, by nature, a hierarchical relationship, meaning you are the captain of the ship. Kids who consistently refuse to cooperate often have parents who are overly concerned with being liked by their children or who are consistently fearful of upsetting them. Reconnect to your inner strength and speak in a loving and friendly way from your authority.
4. Thank them—sincerely and genuinely—when they do something to help you. Let them know, specifically, how their actions made your life easier. “When I got home and found out you’d read my note and walked Skippy, I felt a wave of relief; I’d been concerned about neglecting him this week. Thank you, sweetie, for doing that!” Better yet, let them hear you bragging to someone else about how much they’ve been helping you lately!
5. Create rituals around household tasks. There shouldn’t be any discussion about if, when or whether chores will be done. If you engage in negotiations with your child, you’ve already headed down the road to ruin. Instead, work from the expectation that on Tuesdays Julia empties the dishwasher, and on Thursdays it’s Kyle’s turn. Period. Don’t say too much. Most parents discuss, explain and justify when they should just pleasantly make their request—from their position of strength—and move on.
6. Join them in their world before you make a request. Show some interest in the program they’re watching or the building they’re creating before you ask them to take out the trash. Make eye contact, elicit some indication that they’re ‘with you’ (a smile is always good) and then ask for what you want. It sounds like it takes more effort or time, but in the end, it takes far less energy than hollering from the kitchen 12 times to “Take out the trash!” You’ll save time and energy, and the trash will actually get taken out!
7. Wake up their brains by turning an unpleasant task into a game. “See if you can write all of your spelling words—neatly—in the time it takes us to listen to this song.” Or set the timer and have everyone tidy up one room within seven minutes. For those who are competitive, you can have a contest for cleanest room with a goofy prize.
Getting kids to cooperate can be challenging, but let’s face it, most of us don’t exactly trip over ourselves in our excitement to do our taxes or fold the laundry. Modeling your own willingness to deal with life’s “unpleasant” tasks, coupled with working within a strong connection, should make things go more smoothly for everyone.
If you are looking to deepen your relationships and learn the basics of authentic communication (with yourself and others) take a look at this online course – Transformative Communication – an easy and life-enhancing approach for better relationships.