Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

An excerpt from Positive Parenting in Action by Laura Ling and Rebecca Eanes, available on Amazon.com.

Also on Amazon.com is The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting by Rebecca Eanes. 


Getting young children to listen and cooperate is one of the main concerns we hear from parents. Often, the very tools we use to try to gain cooperation (nagging, lecturing, and demanding) are what cause our children to tune us out. Punishments or threatened punishments may compel a child to act but doesn’t gain their cooperation and may create resentment that lessens the chances of real cooperation later.

The stronger our connection with our children, the more likely they are to want to cooperate with us. Cooperation is not the same as obeying, and it’s important to note that if you want your child to give cooperation freely, they have to have the option to not cooperate. Safety issues are non-negotiable, but keep in mind that forcing compliance erodes your connection, so it’s best used sparingly. Other areas can be examined to see if we’re insisting on things being our way when they don’t really need to be. Perhaps a common goal can be agreed upon but the path there determined by the child. You may have heard the saying “you can tell me what to do or you can tell me how to do it, but not both.”
When your child chooses not to cooperate, you should look first at your relationship. We want to help people when we feel good about them and ourselves. What can you do to repair the connections? If your relationship seems strong, you should look at what you’re requesting. Does your child have a compelling reason to not cooperate? Our agendas are not automatically our children’s agendas and they may not see the value in a clean room, or brushed teeth, or seatbelts. If I can’t think of a good reason to tell my child why to do something, it’s probably a personal preference and not something I should force on my child at the expense of our relationship.
Even highly connected children will not want to cooperate 100% of the time. There are ways to increase chances of cooperation regardless of the level of connection, though. Clearly and concisely state your request, and only phrase it as a question if you will accept “no” as an answer. “It’s time to put on your clothes” as opposed to “can you put on your clothes?”

Use a firm and respectful tone at a conversational distance. Barking commands from across the room is less effective than walking over, getting their attention, and then speaking. Being snide or mocking or condescending will almost certainly cause your child to resist, even if he’d otherwise be willing.
Look for clues to their resistance. This is where you model effective listening. After your child speaks, replay what you have understood him to mean. Don’t worry; if you get it wrong, he’ll correct you. But, if you get it right, you have valuable information, and he may even share more. Use this understanding to negotiate a solution acceptable to both of you.
Be willing to change your mind. It is not a sign of weakness to be convinced by a good argument. Your children will appreciate your flexibility and the practice of negotiating can even help protect them against peer pressure later.
Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile’ mostly describes the behavior of people who have hitherto been given only inches. ” — Alfie Kohn, “Beyond Discipline”10
Scenario #1:
Your 2 year old drew a lovely creation on your wall with a marker (washable, thankfully!) and you want to her wash it off. You direct her to do so, but she continues playing and ignores your request.
Behind the behavior:She’s 2, and playing is more fun than cleaning. She may not have actually heard you, either. Until around 3 years old, the brain may be in a different conscious state than we’re used to as adults. All stimuli are treated roughly equal, and picking out the importantparts is more difficult. If you’ve ever been to a new place where you don’t speak the language, you’re close to what researchers suspect it’s like for babies and toddlers. You may miss cues such as street signs and get lost easily. You may not be able to navigate and hold a conversation at the same time.
ACTION:Make sure you have her attention first. Get down on her level and wait for her to acknowledge you. If you did this, then think about how you originally stated your request. Did you use a kind and assertive tone? Did you phrase it as a question? Asking opens up the possibility of a negative response. Did you angrily demand? Children may tune out anger and yelling as a defense mechanism. A kind and assertive request sounds like this. “Uh-oh, marker is for paper, not walls. Get a wash cloth and clean it off, please.” At 2, she is likely going to need help with this request. Remember to keep in mind what is age-appropriate in your expectations. Hand her a wash cloth and point to the wall. If she turns away, ask her if she needs help. Show her how to wipe the wall with the cloth and hand it back to her, pointing to it again, and say “Wash it off, please.”
Scenario #2:
Your 4 year old starts tugging on you and the baby when you sit down to feed him. You tell her, “It makes it more difficult to feed Bobby when you pull on us and I’m worried he might get hurt,” but she keeps pulling and grabbing. In desperation, you yell “stop!” and she does, for a moment, but now everyone is upset and she goes back to tugging on you.
Behind the behavior:Insecurity. When a child demands our attention, she needs it. Negative attention is still attention, and small children are still learning appropriate ways to get their needs met. It saddens me that parents are sometimes given the advice to not reward a child whojust wants attention. We are social creatures and attention is a valid need, as much as food and sleep.
ACTION:In the moment, you will need to find a way to meet her need for attention. As a preventative measure, give her attention before she asks for it. Think about the difference between a spontaneous hug and “I love you” from someone and one that comes after you express doubts about the relationship. It tends to mean more to us when it doesn’t feel prompted.
When your two children have competing needs, one will have to wait. There is no answer that is always right; you’ll have to evaluate who has the greater or more urgent need at the time. “Sweetie, I know you need some attention from me right now. Bobby is already so hungry he’s crying. I need to feed him and then we can play whatever you want. Would you like to color next to us on the couch while you wait?”
It’s tempting to always put the new baby before the older child, who is better able to wait. But your 4 year old is still only 4 years old. “I know you’re hungry, Bobby. I’ll feed you in just a moment. Hang on for me. Sweetie, I can see you need some attention from me. Would you like a hug? Once I get Bobby settled, we can read a book, if you like.”

Later that day, seek out your 4 year old for some reconnecting. Give her your complete focus and let her determine how you spend your time together. If at all possible, let her be the one to end it, otherwise give her fair warning. “While Bobby is sleeping, I’m all yours. I’ll have to get him when he wakes up, but we can do whatever you want until then.” If that means laundry falls behind or the floors aren’t vacuumed or you have sandwiches for dinner (or all three!), that’s OK. Your child is more important than a clean house and once the crisis passes, you’ll spend less energy proactively giving positive attention than trying to reactively deal with negative attention.
Scenario #3:
Mornings are always a rush, and it seems your 6 year old is always dawdling instead of getting dressed and ready for school.
Behind the behavior:Different agendas. Children don’t run on the same time schedules we do. They have different priorities and may not understand why it is important for you to be on time.
He may also still be having difficulty with multiple step instructions, and it’s just too much for him to be fully responsible for his morning routine alone.
ACTION:It’s time to re-think the morning routine. Set him up for success by ensuring he gets adequate sleep at night and rises early enough in the morning so that you don’t have to be in a hurry. It may be helpful to set up a visual morning routine chart so that he can see exactly what needs to be done. Then, instead of nagging, you can just refer him to his chart to see what needs to be done. You can make a chart with Velcro smiley faces or a pocket to place completed cards in so that he feels a sense of accomplishment when a task is complete. You can offer him reminders, such as, “We are leaving in 15 minutes. What is left on your chart to do?” If he is still having trouble completing his tasks, you can discuss it in a family meeting and brainstorm ways to help him be successful. The goal is to put the responsibility of getting ready on him and off of you, and the more say he has in his routine, the more likely he is to comply.

However, it’s more important that you help him be successful than it is for him to get ready completely on his own. If he is not cognitively ready for the responsibility, no amount of troubleshooting will make it different. There are whole shelves at bookstores devoted to helping adults with time management and organization. You probably know at least one person (maybe it’s you) who is always losing his keys. To shame a child for not being able to do things that seem so effortless to others can impact him the rest of his life, so keep trying solutions until you find something that works for you.
I have read “positive parenting” books that advise letting your child experience the natural consequence of not getting dressed by taking him to school in his pajamas. For my son, this would be a form of public humiliation as he doesn’t even want to wear his pajamas on pajama day. While I believe sometimes it is best to allow your child to experience natural consequences for his actions, I believe you must use discretion. It is better to set your child up for success and then help him succeed.
Listening and cooperation comes through connection, consistency, and capability. Focus on strengthening your relationship so that you are securely connected, be consistent and follow through with your requests, and make sure your child is capable of completing your requests before expecting him to do so. Once the “3 C’s” are met, your child is much more likely to listen and cooperate.


  • Fly Posted 5 July 2013 9:07

    Well, my 4-year-old's agenda seems to be to get as much candy whenever possible.
    I mean, if an older relative in the house has candy, (parents, brother, uncle), he will do anything to get it. Even if we put it out of his reach, he will climb to get it (dangerous!). If we hide it, he will watch carefully until the person goes to retrieve it.
    Sometimes it's impossible to keep out of his reach/sight, like ice cream. I have to try and keep him away from the freezer or candy -at least- 2 times a day.

    He gets a treat after supper if he eats enough first. (I don't force him to finish his plate, I just think he should have nutrition before sweets and most of the time he eats enough.)

    I don't know what to do except constantly remind him that it's wrong, and sometimes why it is, (it's not yours, it's not healthy, ect…), and just tough it out until he's old enough for more self-control.

    Otherwise we have a great relationship and are very connected.

  • Mark Bradley Posted 25 April 2016 10:55

    The obvious answer – though not particularly easy – is for everyone in the house to forego the sweets. Surely if it is a question of preventing your child from hurting himself. And ultimately it will be better for you all, right?

  • Daniela Otero Posted 25 April 2016 10:55

    My 11 year old daughter was and is the same way with ALL sweets. When I noticed it was becoming a problem, I just stopped buying it all-together. Family knew what I was trying to accomplish so they wouldn't have it around either. Instead we started making smoothies with fruits and I always have a fruit bowl on the table. After a few years of this, she prefers fruit instead of candy. She gets candy treats now and then but she doesn't crave it like she used to. The whole family had to participate in this. I'm not saying to deprive him but maybe space it out more and more over time. The less sugar he eats the less he will crave. If he isn't a big fruit lover now, start by using whip cream, yogurt, dipping chocolate, etc. Candy is much sweeter than fruit. But once he is used to it, candy can almost seem too sweet. Try communicating with your family who takes candy to the house so they can jump on board.

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