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January 16th, 2018

3 short steps to cooperation heaven

As a parenting goal cooperation should be the bare minimum we’re aspiring to. And indeed we often have loftier ambitions for our children. I asked my class yesterday what qualities they’d like to see in their children when they were adults and they said they’d like their kids to have the following characteristics:

Hard working
Of course they wanted them to be happy and successful but the traits listed above were those that they thought would contribute to success and happiness.

We can encourage all of those qualities in our children but to do that we need to have a measure of cooperation. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect our children not to have feelings about what they need to do or want them to never express an opinion. (Although some parents have ruefully said they’d settle for some blind compliance.) But sometimes kids (and adults) need to do things they don’t particularly love doing. Of course as adults, with our more mature brains, we have greater perspective and ability to curb our impulses. Our ability to delay gratification and do something less palatable in the short term in the interest of a long term goal is greater than our children’s. (Maybe…)

It’s our job as parents to teach our children good habits that will last a lifetime. They need to do things like tidy their room or put their clothes in the laundry or brush their teeth or go to bed or do their homework or get off the computer or eat healthy food, which they may not see the point of. That’s why it’s our job. We need them to cooperate.

We all know that you can make a child do what they have to do using a stick approach. Maybe when you were a child you were threatened with punishments or withdrawal of privileges (also punishment) or were reprimanded and put down (punishment again) or even smacked (yep, punishment) if you didn’t do what you were told or expected to do. And you turned out alright. I’m sure you did. But you may nonetheless want to bring your children up in a different way.

And there are significant downsides to the stick approach. When a person holding a greater amount of power (the parent) uses that power to instill fear and to control the behaviour of a person with less power (the child) that is bullying. That’s not something we want to model for our children. When they think about it most parents agree that they want their children to grow up to be adults who, when faced with conflict, can use reason to persuade not just bludgeon others into their point of view. (Eg not Donald Trump.)

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating bribing your children to do what’s necessary for their own learning or for the good of the household. I’m talking about motivating your kids to want to do what you ask them to do. (Of course you need to ask them to do reasonable things for their own good not just get you a beer from the fridge when you’re watching TV.) Children have an evolved instinct to want their care-givers’ attention and approval. They want us to be pleased with them; they need it for their survival. I know it doesn’t always look like it but kids start off with a basic imperative to want to get things right and to please their parents. Though this can wane if their parents’ approval is not forthcoming.

So if we want our children’s cooperation one of the first things to work on connecting with them. Do you spend positive, fun time with your kids or is your time with them all about getting from A to B, doing homework, eating meals, doing chores and getting to bed? Do you end up nagging and chivvying or even shouting? If you don’t have a positive relationship there is less incentive for children to curb their own impulses to do what they want to do (difficult for their undeveloped rational brains) and instead do what makes us happy.

So let’s assume you’re prioritising spending positive times with them, playing, in conversation and doing things they like to do, not just ferrying them to enriching adult-directed extra-curricular activities. You’re giving them the message that you really enjoy their company. How else do you give your child the sense that you value them? Well, tell them. But don’t just say “you’re a great kid”. It has to be more descriptive than that to be credible. Instead appreciate them generally like: “I love it when you tell us stories about what happened at Scouts. You do a perfect impersonation of Akela. You really have observed the way he speaks very accurately.” Or “I was thinking of you today when I was walking the dog. I saw some daffodils just poking out of the ground and I was thinking that Spring is coming and how you love it when the flowers come out.” Or with more specific praise: “Thank you for remembering to feed the dog without me reminding you. You’re being very responsible about this dog.” “I know it’s hard for you to stop playing your new computer game when your time is up. It’s very compelling. It takes great self-control so well done.”

Against that backdrop it makes it much easier for you to influence your child. They are listening to you more. So when you have to ask them to do something use these 3 simple steps (simple to understand, not necessarily easy to do):

  1. Stop what you’re doing (put your phone down) and go to your child. (Don’t yell an instruction up the stairs.) Engage with him positively. When he looks at you descriptively praise him.
  2. Give the instruction in clear, simple, authoritative language, only ONCE. You can ask your child to tell you in their own words what it is they have to do but you can’t repeat it or he will get used to you repeating yourself over and over and it will become a nag.
  3. Stay in your child’s space and follow through. Empathise if they don’t want to do it and offer them a meaningful rationale for doing the task. Descriptively praise any small steps (and I mean small) in the right direction.

With these 3 steps you will be on your way to cooperation heaven.



Posted in: Cooperation , Doing as asked





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