7 Approaches That Encourage Kids to Cooperate (Based on the work of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)

7 Approaches That Encourage Kids to Cooperate


Cooperation is a tricky concept. Ideally, it means everyone working together toward a common goal. Sometimes, it means being a responsible member of society by following the rules and being polite. All too often, it means that authority figures make rules according to their interests, and demand that everyone else obey unquestioningly.

When seeking cooperation from the children under your care, it’s tempting to lean toward the third approach on the grounds that “I know better.” However, children are not so inexperienced that they lack ability to make intelligent contributions. If we refuse to listen, we may be missing some wonderful opportunities to learn. We may also be denying our children the chance to develop discernment.

That said, every parent still has moments dealing with kids who refuse to cooperate with legitimate needs “because I don’t feel like it.” Responding with “because I said so” rarely gains more than temporary acquiescence. There are approaches that better help kids develop long-term attitudes of healthy cooperation:

1. Describe the problem. Just because you clearly see what needs doing doesn’t mean the child can; if you go in thinking “he’s just being inconsiderate,” you’re ripe for an angry scene. You’re much more likely to gain willing cooperation by saying, “Your backpack needs to be moved, someone might trip over it” than by snapping, “Get that out of the way; don’t you have any sense of order?”

2. Give clear information. While it may seem obvious to us that “Please clean up the playroom” means “Put away all the toys and move the chairs back against the wall,” it’s not really fair to assume that a three-year-old won’t see it as “clean” after she picks up the most obvious clutter and piles it on the chairs. When a child doesn’t do something “thoroughly,” consider where your instructions might have been unclear, before rushing in with scolding and accusations.

3. Offer a choice whenever possible. Not simply “Get into the bathtub,” but “Do you want to use bubble soap or regular soap tonight?” Trust kids with basic decisions, and they’ll be more willing to accept responsibility later.

4. Keep words to a minimum. You don’t need to deliver a lecture on the dangers of going out in the cold without a jacket; simply say “Your jacket” as you hand it over or point to it. Teach them the habit first; they’ll learn the “why” soon enough.

5. If your feelings are hurt, explain why, without sarcasm or accusations. Use “‘I’ messages”—not “You have absolutely no consideration for my feelings” (it’s not the literal truth anyway), but “I feel like crying when I come home and see papers cluttering the floor, and I think how I’ve already worked hard all day and shouldn’t be expected to clean up here.”

6. Where there’s a long and regular to-do list, put it in writing—paired with pictures if pre-readers are involved. Post a list of chores or school preparations, and the burden of reminding will be off your shoulders.

7. Add some humor. Give instructions in a “robot voice,” or tell everyone the “inspector witch” is coming and will make their noses grow long if she finds anything out of order. A little whimsy will make cooperation more fun. And there’s no motivator like fun!