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Getting your kids to cooperate

By Elizabeth Pantley

Getting your kids to cooperate is the number one complaint of parents around the globe. It’s a biggie, purely because there are so many things we must get our kids to do (or not do!).

If you’re waiting for your child to start cooperating of his own free will, you might want to pack a lunch. Things won’t change on their own. It takes consistent, effective parenting skills to change your children’s behavior and to encourage your children to cooperate willingly on a regular basis. It will take practice, patience and persistence on your part. Once you’ve made a few changes in your approach, you’ll find that you’re no longer praying for bedtime but actually enjoying your children.

Be specific Don’t make general comments that hint at what you would like done, such as “It would be nice if somebody helped me clean up.” Don’t make it sound as if compliance is optional by starting sentences with “Will you …?”, “Could you …?” or “Would you …?” or by ending sentences with “ … okay?” Make requests clear, short and specific: “Please put your dishes in the sink and wash the table,” or “It’s 6:00. Gather your homework and come to the table.” Practice making clear statements that clearly identify what you need or that describe the problem without elaboration and lecturing.

Set priorities Use the “when/then” technique, also known as Grandma’s Rule. This method lets your child know the sequence of priorities: work first, play second. “When you have finished your homework, then you may play your new computer game.” “As soon as your pajamas are on, we’ll read a book.” “The minute the dishes are washed, you can go out and ride your bike.”

Give more choices
Offer your child a choice: “Would you like to sweep the floor or dry the dishes?” You can also use a sequence choice such as, “What would you like to do first: put on your pajamas or brush your teeth?” Another way to offer choice is the time-focused choice: “Would you like to start at 8:00 or 8:15?” If a child creates a third option, simply say, “That wasn’t one of the choices” and re-state your original selection. If a child refuses to choose, you choose for him. It’s important when you give your child a choice that he learn to live with the consequences of his decision. So if your little run is running amok in the grocery store, you can say, “You have a choice. You can walk beside me or ride in the cart.” The minutes he takes off you can pick him up, put him in the cart and say, “I see you’ve decided to ride in the cart.”

Lighten up
Use humor to gain cooperation. A bit of silliness can often diffuse the tension and get your child to cooperate willingly. It also helps you feel better about your day.

Stay calm
Avoid letting your emotions take control. Don’t yell, threaten, criticize or belittle. Instead, ask yourself, “What is the problem?” Then make a statement of fact, such as “There are dirty dishes and snack wrappers in the TV room.” Pause. Be silent. And stare at your children. It’s amazing that kids will know exactly what you’re thinking. Most often, they’ll respond by cleaning up. If not, back up your approach with one of the other solutions.

Use knowledge and skills Read parenting books and learn new skills. My book Kid Cooperation (How to Stop Yelling, Nagging and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate) has lots more suggestions and practical ideas.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the author of numerous parenting books, including the widely cited The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. Buy her books at She is a regular radio show guest and is quoted frequently on the web and in national family and women’s publications. Elizabeth lives in Washington state with her husband, their four children and her mother. Visit her at

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