Parents often believe that demanding obedience from their child is the only way to get them to do what the parents expect of them, like doing homework, brushing teeth, cleaning up and so on. The problem is, obedience implies that a child is doing something without any choice, simply complying with a command. Demanding obedience thus comes at a high cost of squashing a child’s self-esteem and abilitiy to learn self-discipline. ( Read more on that here)
So, if not obedience, then what? What can a parent do, what should a parent do when they wonder:How do I get my child to do his homework? How do I get my child to take her medicine? How do I get my toddler to pick up her toys? How do I get my child to help around the house?
Well, first we can stop focusing on GETTING and instead focus on inviting and welcoming cooperation to create a relationship with our children in which they WANT to do these things, yes, even take medicine and do homework.
See, unlike obedience, with cooperation a child is choosing to do something, participating in the decision making process and learning how and what such choices can lead to. This way, everyone feels in command of their own body, mind, choices and actions and then things just tend to run much smoother.
So, how can a parent create a relationship with their child that invites cooperation?
While there are many positive parenting tools that foster cooperation these are five of them to get started:
When we give our children choices, we are restoring to them some control over their own world and body. When given choices a child also starts to form a concept of self-discipline and capability. Choices can be limited to help the process and provide safety. For example, for a child climbing on furniture, skip yelling NO and demanding that they get down. Try instead: “I see you feel like climbing, but, the countertop is for preparing meals. Would you like to go to the yard and climb the slide or to the play room and jump on the trampoline?” Another instance is crossing the street. Holding a hand is non negotiable, but which hand or even which finger for a little one, well that could be a choice!
Just like adults have preferences over what they enjoy eating, what music they enjoy listening to, what store they want to shop at, children have preferences. What’s more, as they are growing and learning about themselves these preferences change, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. Respecting a child’s desire to wear a side-ways pony tail or to have pants on backwards or to play with the same puzzle forty times in a row is really ok. It may not be your taste or your personal choice but it is what your child needs/wants at that moment, if it is not harming or threating anyone then why not try to respect it?
Know what your child is able to do at each age and stage and adjust accordingly. For example, you would like for the toys in the playroom to be cleaned up, but there are hundreds of small Legos everywhere. If it looks overwhelming to you, you can bet that even though a five year old may have happily dumped the Legos out and played for hours, it’s just too much to envision cleaning it all up on their own. Skip the demands and or nagging and instead offer to help clean up, and even better, try to make it fun! Similarly, a teenager cannot do homework if a television is taunting their attention and a toddler cannot be expected to sit quietly, empty handed in a waiting room.
Hold yourself accountable to the NOTs
Obedience often centers on wanting children NOT to do certain things. Not jump on furniture, not eat too much candy, not to poke their younger brother. What part do you play in all these NOTs? Do you leave candy where it can be reached? Do you leave two young children unattended? Sometimes looking at what we as parents need to do to prevent a situation is much more effective than demanding compliance in impossible situations.
Acknowledge & Follow Through
As parents, as hard as it may be when we are pressed for time, stressed and tired, we need to honor and welcome the thoughts that our children are having. At least acknowledging the thought is a good step, for example If your child wants to know why you have decided to do something. “I hear you have questions, I want to answer you. Let’s talk about that at home before story time when I have time to really explain myself.” Later, when you do have time, DO follow through, answer those questions, welcome more questions and you will ultimately build a relationship of trust and true cooperation.
You can find more ideas and examples on compliance versus cooperation here.
Parenting is a daily learning experience and sure there are moments when we absolutely believe we NEED our children to do certain things, but approaching the vast majority of the situations in a positive and cooperative fashion can only lead to stronger and more connected relationships, ones that lead our children to feel empowered, confident and ultimately WANT to do that which we believe they NEED to do! So will you give it a try? Next time you want your child to obey you, will you try one of these alternatives instead?
Are you struggling with cooperation at home? What is your biggest struggle when it comes to inviting cooperation? Tell me in comments – I’m always happy to share more resources and ideas.
Do you want more ideas, tools, inspiration and guidance to bring more positive into your parenting? Join me and the growing community over at Positive Parenting Connection on Facebook!
Peace & Be Well,
Help! I try my best to follow the guidelines in the article and for the most part, my son and I have an amazing relationship. My issue is that he is sooooo slow! He is five, and does not yet grasp the concept of time, and being on time. I have adjusted bedtime, waking up time, trying to make things quicker with morning routine etc. We have tried to find solutions together. I don’t want to be rushing him all the time, but we can barely make it out of the house on time and this is a daily occurrence. It gets very frustrating for both of us. Do you have any tips?
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Lisa, I have a 5-year-old son and the *exact same issue*. But not really any useful advice. Does it give you any comfort to know that this is at least a typical occurrence with this age? 😉
My 2y/o is constantly harasing my brothers puppy when they sleep over once a week (were staying at my dads). I’m afraid she’s going to bite her one day. She also throws things (not angry, just for fun) & bites/hits & says “so funny “. I think that one is b/c I smack my husband or sisterinlaw on the but sometimes & we all laugh.
I have a hard time trying to get our almost 3 year old to open his mouth to brush his teeth. He also has been in a hitting, kicking and biting phase. He’ll hit me when he’s angry. He doesn’t bite me anymore when he’s angry, but he’ll bite things around him, the couch and chairs, his crib, dresser, anything.
The only thing that we’ve found that works is taking a toy away for a time, but we hate to do that. When we do that, we’ll warn him that if he doesn’t stop we’re going to take away a toy, then he’ll hit one more time, we take the toy away, then he cries and says “I won’t hit anymore.” (and he doesn’t) It makes me feel so awful. I try to tell him that everybody gets angry, but there’s some things we can’t do when we are angry, we can’t hurt other people or things.
My 2.5yo son is very strong and determined and craves independence. I try to create many opportunities for him to do things himself, but when it comes to safety like crossing streets, walking through parking lots, stores, being by water or in large crowds, he doesn’t understand that holding a hand or staying close to mom and dad is non-negotiable. He loves to run toward busy streets, race through store aisles, play in water and explore crowds of people, but he is so young and it is just not safe for him to do these on his own. He screams and pulls away when I tell him it’s time to hold my hand, and when it’s at least safe enough for him to simply walk next to me, he runs ahead, which is so dangerous! We’ve practiced crossing the street safely and played “slow, fast, stop” games enough that he understands the instructions that I offer, but more often than not, I end up carrying him, kicking and screaming, because he is so determined to do it “his way,” which is so dangerous! He doesn’t understand. I am a nervous wreck and afraid to go anywhere alone with him because he is so strong and quick it is overwhelming for me. I have a “baby leash” which I realize is controversial, but there are times I’ve really needed it. He can’t be in a stroller or carrier all the time.
I am a single mom to four children.
Two of them are teenagers, and two of them have ADD.
Thanks for this article, it is really helpful!
Lisa – It sounds like you have already done quite some work to adjust your expectations meet your sons’ needs for extra time! a post addressing your concerns will be posted this week with some ideas and tips on dealing with dawdling as it is a concern shared by many parents. thank you for sharing your questions!
My 3 1/2 yr old is constantly trying to wake his infant brother. It’s getting to be a real problem because the baby isn’t getting to take many proper naps!
Is it possible your 3 1/2 year old is seeking some attention during baby’s naps? Do you spend some special time with your son while baby is sleeping? It can be as little as 20 minutes of some kind of special activity that he chooses to do with you, a puzzle, baking together, something that will make him feel really connected to you and not really focus on baby. You can see this list The transition for tots and preschoolers with the birth of a baby is tough. Having daily special time with mom can help a great deal for them to feel connected, happy and cooperative. Aside from that, supervision, lots of play possibilities, a routine and re-directing his attention can also help.
Children model what they see, so you need to stop smacking other people as a joke.
And teach her how to be gentle to the puppy.
Teach him to be gentle and help him express himself when you see the anger rising. “Your body is doing this” model it, “you seem angry when your body does that.”
Consequences don’t teach him how to deal with the feelings he’s experiencing that are driving him to lash out.
[…] then she offers practical advice in another article: If Not Obedience, Then What? Ariadne suggests 5 ways we can use cooperation and mutual respect to ensure our children follow […]