It’s Cooperation You Want, Instead
My son turned 30 this year. When he was little, we talked a lot about “listening,” by which we meant doing what we told him to do. Complying immediately and without a fuss. Don’t you want that, too?
But there’s a pesky fact that routinely gets in the way of compliance. What adults want (or need) their children to do is often at odds with what children want (or need) to do. Still, in any given situation, you are the adult, and they are the child. Shouldn’t that count for something?
Research doesn’t leave a shred of doubt on this one: it’s important for adults to hold the lion’s share of power in a family. Authoritative parents are kind but firm. They maintain high behavioral standards while remaining responsive to their children’s needs, and their children do best on all sorts of important measures. Interestingly, authoritative parents tend not to focus on obedience. What they aim for, instead, is cooperation.
It turns out that the two are different from one another, and that cooperation matters more. Obedience is based on fear. The underlying thought process is along the lines of, “I’ll do what you tell me to do because otherwise something bad will happen.” That’s a recipe for disaster. It leads children to be sneaky, focused not on what they are doing but instead on whether they’ll get caught. And it puts parents in the awful position of needing to up the ante on punishments to ensure compliance. It’s an ineffective way of parenting that doesn’t feel good to either party.
Cooperation, on the other hand, is based on love. Children cooperate when they feel seen and heard, validated and valued. They cooperate when they are able. Building a strong relationship with your child is the surest way to get them to cooperate. That doesn’t mean capitulating to your child. It doesn’t mean endlessly negotiating with them or changing what you are asking them to do. Building a strong relationship means that you make an attempt to see things from their perspective. It means you remain calm in the face of push-back, resorting to neither threats nor bribes but instead to curiosity and love.
Like all of us, children do the best that they can at any given moment. That means that if your child isn’t cooperating, there is something they need help with. Maybe it’s hunger, or fatigue, or a big feeling they have not yet learned to handle. Jealousy. Frustration. Apprehension. Impatience. There is a need or a skills deficit at the base of your child’s noncompliance. Your child isn’t giving you a hard time; they are having a hard time. Recognizing this changes everything.