An essay by Noel Janis-Norton
Lately, that’s my son’s frequent answer to my requests. The simplicity of that two letter word coupled with his resolve stop me in my tracks. I admit that too often my reaction creates more conflict. He gets more entrenched, and so do I. In the moment, I see the parenting “Fail” on my end, but feel clueless as to how to wrench us out of our positions. Cue Noel Janis-Norton, child development expert extraordinaire, here to fill us in with practical strategies to get our children to cooperate. Since implementing her plan of action, I’m happy to report I’ve heard the sweet, sweet sound of that very special three letter “Y” word a whole lot more. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC
What are some strategies parents can use to help children cooperate?
One of the most frustrating things for parents is when children don’t do what we ask them to do. Parents end up repeating and reminding, and because that’s so frustrating, parents become impatient or lose their temper. When that happens, children get angry right back, and then they become even less willing to cooperate. This can become a vicious cycle. It’s the parents’ job to break that cycle and to guide children gently but firmly into the habit of cooperating.
In my latest book, “Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting”, I explain that children are capable of doing what they are asked to do, the first time you say it, and without a fuss, 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time, they probably will make some kind of a fuss because they are children, not robots or saints. But by using the strategies that I talk about in my book, that 10% of fuss will become less and less of a fuss.
A lot has been written about the importance of unconditional love. I would say that our children already have our unconditional love. But there is something else that children need just as much. They need to know that we appreciate and approve of what they are doing. This approval is conditional on their behavior.
One of the fundamental tools I teach parents is a skill called Descriptive Praise. I ask parents to start noticing whenever a child cooperates. Even a child who is very impulsive, the child who seems often to be in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, is actually cooperating quite a lot of the time. But what sticks in a parent’s mind are all the times when the child didn’t cooperate.
So we need to change our own habits of what we are noticing and talking about. Descriptive Praise is about describing exactly what your child did right, for example, “When I called your name, you looked up at me right away” or “You did what I said, without any arguing,” or “Even though I could see you didn’t want to put your shoes on, you did it anyway.”
Notice that in my examples, there were no superlatives like “Great job” or “You’re so good at this” or “You’re the best”, etc. One problem with superlatives is that children often don’t believe them. That’s because children know they are not really all that amazing! Also, the superlatives are not specific enough to be useful. Children need to know exactly what they did that you’re pleased about. That way they know what to do again to get more of your approval and appreciation. “Nice work” doesn’t describe anything so it is quite meaningless.
Wanting their parents to be pleased with them is one of the most powerful motivators for children, even the most impulsive. The more we show that we are please-able, the more our children will want to please us. At first children do the right thing because they want please us. What’s wonderful is that after parents have been practicing Descriptive Praise for a while, children internalize the good things they have been hearing about themselves. Then they start noticing for themselves the good things they do. You might hear your child saying, “I didn’t wet my bed” or “I’m being so careful with the baby” or “I’m generous” or “I’m a first-time listener”.
I recommend that you Descriptively Praise each member of the family (that includes your partner) ten times a day. This may seem like a lot, but actually it is quite easy to achieve once you commit to noticing and mentioning the many tiny bits of OK behavior. You can say, “You took your bowl to the sink” or “You brushed your teeth without my even having to ask” or (to your husband) “You washed all the dishes, even the pots; that was so helpful”.
There is no need to keep saying thank you because that makes it sound as if the child has done you a personal favor. But really the child is just doing what he is supposed to do, and it’s a behavior that should be learned and practiced so that ultimately it becomes a habit. When you Descriptively Praise the small OK things your child is doing, make sure to have a smile on your face and a smile in your voice. That will be enough to show your child that he’s done something good. You won’t need to thank him or say that he’s amazing and wonderful.
As children begin to internalize the Descriptive Praise, they feel good when they do the right thing, and they start to feel uncomfortable when they do the wrong thing. This is the birth of conscience. And that is one of our goals as parents, that our children tell themselves the right thing to do. Cooperation is the first step towards developing a strong conscience.
You can make Descriptive Praise even more effective by mentioning a quality, such as helpful, cooperative, self-reliant, kind, generous, friendly, determined. You could say “You brought home a cookie for your sister from the party. That was thoughtful.” It’s better not so say “You’re so thoughtful” because your child will immediately think of all the times when she wasn’t thoughtful!
Here’s a word of warning about Descriptive Praise. If you praise your child for something she mastered a long time ago, she may feel insulted. Instead, you can say, “I used to have to tell you to brush your teeth every day. Now you do it without my asking. That’s self-reliance.”
In my book I talk about another strategy for improving cooperation, which I call preparing for success. It’s about making it easy for children to do the right thing. There are many ways we can do this. One way is to prepare the environment. Let’s say your children tend to kick each other under the table at mealtimes. If you sit them next to each other, they may end up dueling with their elbows. But if you sit them diagonally across from each other, they probably can’t reach so they are much less likely to hassle each other, and that will give you a lot more to Descriptively Praise.
If your child regularly comes down to breakfast dressed for summer in the middle of the winter, you can remove all the summer clothes from her drawers and closet so that she has no choice but to wear something more appropriate.
If your children regularly make a big mess with their toys and then are reluctant to clean up, you can prepare the environment by boxing up most of their toys and putting them away temporarily. Now your kids can’t make such a big mess, and clean up time will feel much less overwhelming. An added bonus is that after a few weeks or months, when you bring out the toys you’ve stored, they will seem new and exciting.
Here’s another preparing for success strategy that will get you more cooperation. You may not be familiar with this because you won’t find it in other parenting books. This strategy is called a “think-through” and it takes the place of a lecture or a reprimand. Generally we’re so busy that we often forget to tell our kids what they should do or how they should do it, and then we get annoyed when they do something wrong so we scold them. A think-through happens at a neutral time, not right after the child has done something wrong. A think-through focuses on what the child should do right in the future, not on what he did wrong in the past. In the think-through you will ask your child questions to lead him to think about the sensible behavior you want from him. Each think-through should last no more than a minute. If it goes on too long, your child may well start to resist answering your questions.
Let’s say your child often plays too roughly with the cat. Here’s how a think-through might go.
Parent: (remembering to smile) Billy, I have a couple of questions to ask you.
Billy looks up.
Parent: (starts by Descriptively Praising) You’re looking me right in the eye so I can tell you’re listening.
Here’s my first question, Billy. When you’re playing with the cat, how should you touch the cat?
Billy: Uh….. gently?
Parent: That’s right, gently. You know how to treat Fluffy. Now pretend my arm is Fluffy and show me how you can stroke her so gently.
Billy does it.
Parent: That’s right. You’re stroking so gently. Fluffy will love that.
As Billy answers you, describing what he should do, he automatically visualizes himself doing it correctly. The more think-throughs parents are willing to do, the sooner this new image of himself, as someone who is gentle with pets, will be transferred into his long-term memory. That makes the new behavior start to feel natural and right. After a while Billy won’t need to be asked about how to treat animals. He will have internalized the new behavior, and it will have become a habit.
Here’s another way to maximize cooperation. Parents need to make a vow not to do things for children that the children can do for themselves. There are several reasons for this. When children do everything for themselves that they are able to, they become more self-reliant and more self-confident. Also, if a parent is acting like an unpaid servant, why would children think they need to pay attention and do what that parent is telling them to do? Children lose respect for a parent who does the things that the child should be doing.
Here’s a typical example. A boy hands his candy wrapper to a parent, as if it’s the parent’s job to dispose of it. Instead of accepting this as part of your job description, and instead of coming out with a mini-lecture about responsibility, I suggest you just keep your hands down and don’t take the trash. Don’t even point to the trash can. Your child can and should look for it and find it himself. And when he does, you can Descriptively Praise, “You found the trash can all by yourself; that’s very grown up”. If this is happening a lot, make sure to do several think-throughs about the new rule, which could be that each person takes care of their own trash.
Noel Janis-Norton is a learning and behavior specialist who divides her time between England and the U.S. Her newest book, Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, is available on Kindle at amazon.com. The paperback version will be in bookstores on April 30, 2013. You can find out more about Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting on her website.
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