How To Get Kids To Cooperate
This is an excerpt from Susan Stiffelman's new book, Parenting Without Power Struggles.
Newsflash: Kids don't like to be bossed around!
In her infinite wisdom, Mother Nature has designed children to resist being told what to do outside of the context of connection. Kids are wired to Just say no! when an outsider attempts to get them to do something and to only do the bidding of those to whom they are appropriately attached. This makes a lot of sense. Consider what would happen if a child's instincts told her to follow and obey people who weren't part of her village? Imagine the worries you would be saddled with if your little ones didn't instinctively refuse the demands of strangers?
No, Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she wired our children's brains to resist being pushed and pulled outside of the context of attachment.
So, let's start off with the understanding that, as frustrating as it is when your kids refuse to come to the dinner table or clean up their toys after being asked five times, there are powerful-and invaluable-instincts at work that bias our children towards resistance.
PARENT FROM A SECURE AND LOVING ATTACHMENT
There are three primary drives in a human being: fear, frustration, and the need for close and secure attachment. When we apply the understanding of how primal our children's need for close connection is, we make use of our greatest tool in gaining their cooperation. The next time your son or daughter voluntarily does what you request, notice how things have been going between the two of you. Chances are, if you turn the clock backwards, you'll find that in one or more ways of attaching, you have been feeding the roots of your connection.
Maybe you spent some special time with your daughter (Proximity) or watched a show on TV you both like (Sameness). Or maybe you stood up for your son in a difficult moment (Belonging/Loyalty) or had a good laugh at one of his jokes (Significance). Perhaps he caught a glimpse of you watching him quietly with affection (Love), or maybe you simply listened with genuine interest while your daughter told you what she thinks about her math teacher (Being Known). Whatever particular action you took to fortify that loving connection, in all likelihood you had something good going on with your youngster or teen that predisposed her to be more cooperative.
If you start paying attention to the times your kids do cooperate-as rare as those times might be-you'll discover an important element: Kids cooperate when they feel close to you and when you make a request from a sense of connectedness. When your children or teens do what you ask, you've been tapping into one of their strongest and most primitive requirements: the need for closeness, attachment, and a caring ship captain worthy of following.
Now, this doesn't mean that you might have a great relationship with your children because you have problems getting them into the car the first time you call them or convincing them to brush their teeth dutifully. Kids are biased towards maximizing their enjoyment of life; they are fully committed to having as much fun as possible in each and every moment. When you ask a child to do something that's not fun or that requires her to give up the good time she's having, she is likely to resist. It works a whole lot better when we come accept that reality rather than pretend we don't understand why our kids would rather wrestle with each other on the floor than take a bath and get ready for bed.
THE BRAIN MATTERS
A child with slower brain wave activity in the prefrontal cortex is more likely to be forgetful and disorganized. You might ask her to put away her homework, wash her hands, and set the table, and find that your requests didn't register at all or were immediately forgotten. To simply dismiss these kids as being willful and resistant is to miss potentially important factors concerning what gets in the way of them being cooperative. As little as we still know about the brain and its complexities, we are at least beginning to understand that we cannot divorce behavior from neurology.
Regardless of how the brain's wiring contributes to a child's behavior or misbehavior, it remains true that when a child is securely attached to you-meaning he can relax in the awareness that you are his reliable ship captain-he will be more inclined to follow your direction. This is why it's essential that rather than viewing a child's oppositional behavior simply as behavior that needs to be shaped by punishments and consequences, parents need to make sure the relationship between them is in good shape.
THE ILLUSION THAT FORCE WORKS TO IMPROVE A CHILD'S BEHAVIOR
Not long ago I watched a television show in which a nanny was brought in to help a completely befuddled and overwhelmed single father who was in desperate need of learning how to parent his two very out-of-control boys. While there were some sweet moments-primarily with the nanny providing some much-needed words of kindness to this weary father-her approach, in my professional opinion, missed the mark in essential ways.
With the older child-who played about six hours of video games a day, except when he was slugging his brother-the nanny introduced a behavior modification program whereby he lost five minutes of video gaming for each transgression. For the five-year-old (one of the most angry and hurting little boys I'd ever seen), she instituted a "cool down" area where he had to sit if (when) he started a violent outburst with his brother or his father. (Yes, he routinely kicked, hit, and bit his father. The nanny's advice to the father after the child bit him while Dad was trying to restrain his little boy? "Hold him up higher; that way he can't reach your arm to bite it."
The little boy was a hurricane of rage when his dad tried to get him to sit in the "cool down" chair, where the little boy was expected to think about what he'd done (not likely). After being carried back to the "cool down" chair by his Dad about thirty-seven times-kicking and screaming-the child finally remained there out of sheer exhaustion. The nanny and father shared a moment savoring this "success." The father had finally overpowered his son.
This is not how you get a child to cooperate. More importantly, it doesn't come close to addressing the elements that prompt a child to misbehave and feel so out of control. Dad needed to (1) step into the true role of being in charge of his boys; (2) heal the sorely lacking sense of connection with each of his sons and between the two brothers; and, (3) deal with the underlying elements contributing to the older child's need to completely numb out with video games and the younger one's hurricane of rage.
There are times that a child's refusal to cooperate is an indication of unspoken tension in the household, and his resistance is his attempt to exert even a little power within the context of feeling powerless to make life around him better. This may relate to constant bickering between parents, illness in a family member, or a difficult move. In this case, I urge parents to get suppressed problems and hurt out in the open where they can be properly addressed, and/or to seek the help of a trusted professional to help get the family back on track.
EVELYN AND HER ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD TWIN BOYS
Evelyn came to my workshop to get help with her eleven-year-old twin boys. "They won't do a thing I ask, whether it's turning down the TV while I'm on the phone, clearing the table after dinner, or taking their shower. It's impossible to get them to do anything I want unless they already want to do it! I'm at a loss. I've tried bribes, threats, behavior charts . . . the whole shebang. Nothing works, or at least nothing works for more than a couple of days. Then it's back to their old, defiant behavior!"
As the workshop progressed, I noticed Evelyn nodding her head a lot in agreement during the section on attachment and the need for parents to be the captains of the ship. She made a number of remarks suggesting her attachment with the boys had become fractured; I acknowledged how especially challenging it can be to have twins, where issues of jealousy and comparison are so ongoing.
I can see so many ways where my connection to each of the boys has become very weak. With Matthew, he often complains that I take his brother's side (Belonging/Loyalty), and he's probably right. His motto is "It's not fair!" I think, too, that my frustration with his ongoing anger makes it pretty rare that I let him know that I really love him as he is (Significance; Love).
As for Eddie, I put so much energy into managing Matthew's school problems and homework hassles that I don't spend nearly as much time with him (Proximity). And I think I shut both boys down when they start telling me their problems (Being Known) by offering advice or criticism right away. Listening to this new approach, I imagine I'm not encouraging them to "tell me more" nearly as much as I'm talking them out of their feelings. They're probably holding a lot of hurt and anger inside. If I look at what you're saying about kids resisting direction when they don't have a sweet, solid connection with the person making the requests, it makes total sense to me that my boys wouldn't do what I ask."
When I introduced the idea of being the captain of the ship, Evelyn got teary and told the rest of us that she felt she had long ago abandoned the hope of being truly in charge. "My boys really run the show. I try to assume authority by threatening and bribing, but looking at it from this new perspective, I can see now that they're really the ones in charge."
Evelyn was introduced to a number of ways to revive the connection with her boys and to restore her role as the one who is calmly and confidently in charge. In addition, I introduced her to the idea of turning a request into a after first establishing a moment of connection.
CONNECTING, THEN DIRECTING
You tend to get a different response from a child when you holler from the other end of the house instead of having even a brief moment of friendly contact with them. If you sit beside your son or daughter for a minute, showing interest in the model they're building or the program they're watching before you ask them to come to dinner, you'll get a more cooperative response. Connect, then direct. Assuming that you're the calm, confident captain of the ship and your attachment with the child is in good shape, taking a moment to connect before making a request can make an enormous difference in your child's willingness to cooperate.
Another add-on to this is to say, "Eyes on me," before making a request. This ensures the child is actually disengaged from whatever they were focused on, and at least semipresent for what you're about to tell them. Then, nod your head as you say, "It's time to head upstairs for your bath." As you nod, you're sending them a subtle suggestion to cooperate.
In my workshops, I explain that many kids dig in their heels reflexively when we start engaging in power struggles about what they should and shouldn't do. As I mentioned earlier, it's instinctual to push back when force is used against us. When a child refuses to do what we ask and we respond by threatening, her impulse to resist is reinforced. Even if the threat compels her to do what we want, it comes at a price: resentment towards us.
I see a child's behavior as an announcement. When there's a problem, I ask, "What would she have to be feeling to behave this way?" It helps me to come alongside her rather than at her, which as we now know, provokes defensiveness, resistance, and withdrawal.
So often, when we make a request of our kids, we bring the aroma of our agenda spiced with a bit of anxiety about how they'll respond. Because of that, we rush to get to the Bottom Line, stumbling over ourselves as though getting them to agree to do their homework is the touchdown line and the only thing that matters is getting them there. They sense we're now in Power Struggle territory and often respond by digging in their heels, turning on what I call Mom TV to see what kind of drama we're going to create. For many kids, the most attention they get from their parents is when they're in a power struggle with them. Why would a child want to cooperate when he gets 100 percent of Mom or Dad's attention only when he's stubborn and noncompliant?
One of the most popular approaches parents use is sending the errant child to her room for a timeout when she doesn't do what she's asked. The reason timeouts "work" is that they threaten the child's primal need for closeness (Proximity)-the entry point of attachment. The child-and the parent/child relationship-pays for this violation of connectedness with anxiety, clinginess, and other maladaptive behaviors.
While there are times when we need to leave the room because we can tell that we're getting increasingly worked up, it is not in the parent's or the child's best interest to resort to sending a child away when they're disobedient. One of Carl Jung's most important contributions to the field of psychology was to emphasize the importance of accepting the dark or shadow side that each of us invariably has and of learning to work with it rather than pretend it doesn't exist. The angry parent who ignores, shuns, or isolates the problematic child is, in a way, jumping ship, leaving the child without a captain and with the message that the child's shadow side is unacceptable. Timeouts may work well as a short-term solution, but the price a parent pays for using them as their only method of managing their children is unnecessarily high.
If, instead, we acknowledge that she doesn't want to empty the dishwasher/do her homework/walk the dog, and we do so without losing our cool, we hold the position of being the captain of the ship and we let her see that these difficult interactions aren't battles with winners and losers. (By the way, I am not a fan of using war terminology such as "pick your battles" in the context of raising children.)
By managing our own reactions so we aren't depending on our child's behavior to make us feel we're in charge, we position ourselves to prevent the interaction from deteriorating if she doesn't cooperate. By giving her a chance to be heard and to feel understood-"I probably wouldn't want to walk the dog, either, if I was having fun playing a video game"-we sidestep the power struggle. It's sort of the Tai Chi approach. Without giving our youngster something to push against, there simply no power struggle.
There is one other source of authority that parents often underestimate: silence. When we are the role of the one in charge, feeling it to the core, and simply give our child The Look, we are "heard" most profoundly. Instead of using lots of words-which children invariably tune out-I frequently counsel parents to simply send a powerful look in their child's direction that captures the message "Did you really just say that?" This is one of the greatest tools in a parent's repertoire, and it is too often traded in for the far less effective use of long lectures.
"I NEED YOU TO..."
Similarly, be careful about trying to couch a request in polite terms by saying, "Honey, I need you to brush your teeth/do your homework/organize your backpack. . . ." This is one of my personal pet peeves. If you're in charge regardless of what your children do or don't do, then you certainly don't need them to brush their teeth! Instead, "It's time to brush your teeth, sweetie" is fine. Telling your kids you need them to do something undermines your authority.
If I need some help moving a piece of furniture or getting the dog into the bath, I certainly might say to my son, "Ari, I need you to help me get Rosie into the bathtub." If I want him to clean up the mess he made with his buddies, I simply say, "Time to clean up that mess, guys!" For some, this may be splitting hairs or an issue of semantics; but for parents who want to understand how the language they use may be affecting their children's lack of cooperation, this shift could be helpful. Giving a child the power to fulfill your need-or not-can prompt him to turn on Mom TV to see what you'll do if he doesn't comply.
Another useful approach, especially with kids whose oppositional brains are more easily awakened, is to avoid using the word "No" when possible and instead say, "Yes, after . . ." (This comes from Jane Fendelman, author of "Raising Human Beings.")
Child: Can I have another granola bar?
Parent: Sure, after dinner!
Child: Can James spend the night?
Parent: Sounds like a plan! Next weekend should be great!
This may not prevent a child from asking again anyway, but it softens the blow and helps keep his "Inner Lawyer" from waking up-you know, the one who excels in combating any and all explanations and information you might provide in response to that ubiquitous question, "Why can't I?"
"IT'S JUST THE RIGHT THING TO DO . . ."
Now and then I want my son to do something that he has absolutely no interest in doing. At seventeen, I'd like him to assert himself, and I usually try to avoid power struggles with him when he protests so we can sort things out without a lot of drama. But sometimes we hit a stalemate.
Recently I told Ari we had been invited to drop by a very distant relative's house for a little going-away party. We had rarely socialized with this family, and my son felt it wasn't necessary. ("Lame" would more accurately describe his feelings about going.) I knew that their son-a few years younger than mine-had been through some rough times recently and that it might mean something to them if we stopped by.
I said to him, "I'm not going to make you go. I don't want you to resent me for it or have a sulky attitude, and I have no interest in laying a guilt trip on you about why we should go. But here's the thing: It's the right thing to do.I let him sit with it for a while, not forcing the issue, but I stood in my truth about the importance of wishing this family well before they moved away. When it came time to go to the party, I asked Ari if he would please come, and he got in the car without a fuss.
BACK TO EVELYN AND HER TWIN BOYS
About a week or so after the workshop she attended, Evelyn came to see me and offered the following update:
"I was skeptical at first about your idea that behavior problems often indicate problems in the parent/child relationship; but the more you spoke about it, the more sense it intuitively made, so I promised myself I'd try your approach out. I have to tell you that by just implementing a few things, my boys' behavior has gotten a better. I've made a point of carving out just a few minutes of time to listen to music with Eddie, and I'm holding back on giving him advice right away when he starts to vent. It's not like things are perfect, not by a long shot. But I can't deny the difference." Evelyn paused, trying to find the right words. "He seems softer . . . more open to me, and he's not putting up such a battle when I ask him to help out."
Evelyn went on to tell me how things were going with her other son. "I think the thing that's really working with Matthew is coming alongside him instead of coming at him forcefully. I'm trying to avoid giving him anything to push against. I can see how my bossy approach-with things escalating if he resisted-made things deteriorate rapidly. The other thing that is making a huge difference with my boys is when I Request into the Yes.It's amazing how quickly things turned around in our house when I gave up on trying to control my kids' behavior and instead began focusing on my approach and working more from the standpoint of making a connection with them."
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, leaving all of you in happier moods!
AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.