Category Archives: Cooperation

Two- and five-year-olds not complying

Q: My 2- and 5-year-old daughters are out of control. They won’t listen. I have tried spanking, timeouts, good behavior charts, taking toys and privileges away and nothing works. When I tell them to stop doing something they act like i’m not even here. They throw tantrums in public and at home. They listen to their dad whenever he tells them something. What else should I try?

A: I’m so sorry you’re going through some tough times with your daughters. I think we’ve all been there! Sometimes it helps to remember that young children are little scientists, biologically designed to experiment with everything in their environment–including our boundaries. While it’s our job to hold boundaries firm, it’s their job to test them. Thus, Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline books, recommends responding with kindness AND firmness at the same time. Kindness shows respect for our children and firmness shows respect for ourselves and/or the needs of the situation. For example, if it’s time for lunch and your children don’t want to leave the park, using kindness and firmness might look like this: “You’re having so much fun building tall towers in the sand AND it’s time to eat lunch and our bodies need food. Would you like to lead the way to the car or hold my hand?”

Nelsen also teaches parents to focus on the future and solutions rather than on the past and mistakes. All misbehavior occurs for a reason–a problem that needs to be solved, lack of a skill that needs to be taught, a misunderstanding about how to feel significant that needs to be addressed, etc. So instead of using punishment in the form of blame, shame, or pain to make children pay for their mistakes, we can work to solve the problem, teach the skill, make amends, etc., keeping in mind that children do better when they feel better.

Instead of telling them what NOT to do, you might try telling them what TO do in the form of a question. For example, instead of, “No throwing blocks in the house, you might try, “Would you like to build with blocks or throw a ball?” With your older daughter, you might try more open-ended questions like, “What might happen if you throw blocks in the house?” After she answers, you could respond with, “So what might be better to throw?”

Connection before correction (or instruction) is another great tool for gaining cooperation. Before asking a child to do a task, try taking an interest in her activity, joining in her play, giving her a hug, or telling her you love her. For example, if it’s bedtime and your daughter is busy drawing, you might start with, “It’s time for bed in five minutes,” then add, “Can you tell me about your drawing?”, then when the five minutes are up, “Okay. It’s been five minutes. Now what’s it time for?” If she still doesn’t comply, you could try the kind and firm approach: “I know you’re really focused on your drawing. I have a hard time stopping when I’m in the middle of something too. AND it’s time for bed. Would you like to be done with this drawing now or finish it up first thing in the morning?”

When a child has a tantrum, it’s important to remember her rational brain is temporarily off-line (just as ours is when we’re very angry or upset). Thus, it’s not a time for teaching. Rather, we can help a child feel better first before attempting to problem-solve. When children feel bad about themselves, they’re too focused on their own feelings of insignificance to absorb any message we give. Sometimes taking deep breaths, reading a book, getting a hug from mom or dad, or simply relaxing in a special spot can help our children feel better so they can do better. When they’re calm and ready, we can then look back at what happened to cause the meltdown and invite them to brainstorm solutions.

Also, never underestimate the power of empathy. You might try this simple formula: “You feel ___ because ___ and you wish ___.” Throwing in a story from your own childhood when you felt similarly can also be pretty powerful.

There are many more wonderful tools for increasing cooperation in both Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and Playful Parenting, both of which I highly recommend. If you have more questions, please feel free to contact me again.

6-year-old challenges mom

Q: My almost 6-year-old challenges me often especially when I want her to brush her teeth or take a shower.  She knows how important that is to me and I believe she uses that as a control mechanism.

A: First of all, I want to assure you that you are not alone! Most children with a healthy sense of self are anxious to exert their independence. Though it can be more than a little trying for us parents who want so much for things to run smoothly and peacefully (not to mention quickly), developing and exerting one’s own will is an important part of child development. Though we can’t prevent this important stage, we can control our response to it, which has significant impact on how our children use their power and how they view themselves.

In Positive Discipline classes, we teach that the needs for significance and belonging drive behavior and that “misbehavior” is often a misguided attempt to fulfill them. For example, a child may believe she only matters when she is either in control or not letting someone else control her. Instead of merely addressing the behavior (e.g., refusal to take bath, refusal to brush hair), we address the belief behind it and help children learn to use their power in more adaptive ways. There are many tools for this, some of which are listed on my website at, and many more of which are listed in Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline books. My favorite of these is often problem-solving. A conversation to address bathing (outside the moment; at a time when you don’t want her to take a bath) may look something like this:

Mom: “I noticed you haven’t enjoyed your baths as much lately.”

Child: “Yeah. You always ask me to take a bath when I’m playing.”

Mom: “Oh I see. It’s hard to stop what you’re doing and start a whole new thing. I understand. When I’m on the computer and daddy calls me down for dinner, it’s hard for me to stop too. Is anything else about baths bothering you?”

Child: “I don’t like it when you wash my hair. Water gets in my eyes.”

Mom: “That doesn’t feel good. I don’t like water in my eyes either.” Pause. “The thing is, I’m worried that if you don’t take baths, your hair will get oily and you might even start to smell… So what could we do differently to make taking a bath better for you?”

Child: “I don’t know.”

Mom: “You said you don’t like to stop playing. Would it help if you got to decide how much time to play first before starting a bath?”

Child: “Yeah.”

Mom: “How could you keep track of time?”

Child: “With the timer?”

Mom: “Great! You could tell me how much time you need and then you could set the timer. Then, when it goes off, you could come right upstairs without me even telling you. Would that work?”

Child: “Yeah.”

Mom: “You also said you don’t like it when I wash your hair because water gets in your eyes. Any ideas for how to make that better?”

Child: “Maybe you could put a washcloth over my eyes?”

Mom: “Sure. I think that might work really well. So do we have a plan?”

Child: “Yep!”

Mom: “Thanks so much for solving this tricky problem with me. I’m excited to try our plan tomorrow.”

Your actual conversation might look very different, but the goal is to understand her concerns, share yours, and come up with ideas to address both. Problem-solving not only encourages cooperation, but develops skills that will serve your daughter in every area of her life for the rest of it.

Releasing a child to take responsibility for herself is another great tool. For example, allowing her to run her own bathwater, wash and brush her own hair, etc., both encourages cooperation and builds confidence. The trick is to release control over her rather than to push her because she’s “old enough.” Pushing leads to resistance, whereas releasing control (though often uncomfortable for parents) leads to empowerment.

Best of luck using this tough challenge to teach her the skills you want for her in life!

Toddler not complying

I know it’s so tough when you do everything right and STILL your children manage to throw you for a loop. My first advice is to remember that no matter how educated we get as a society or skilled as parents, our children always start over again from zero with limited brain develop and no experience, so will struggle with behavior no matter how perfectly we parent. I also like to remind folks that our children are little scientists biologically designed to test boundaries like they test everything in their world. So though we must hold our boundaries firm, we must also expect those boundaries to be tested at every turn.

I think you show good insight recognizing that there’s a bit of a wave to ride while waiting for your son’s development to catch up with societal expectations (a long, slow process). While you’re waiting, I encourage you to continue using kindness and firmness at the same time. You can show kindness by understanding his perspective and that he’s not yet developmentally capable of perspective-taking, impulse control, altruism, etc. and firmness by offering limited choices you can enforce yourself. For example, “Time to go. Would you like to lead the way to the car or for me to carry you?” or, “Your two minutes are up. Would you like to hand Jason the toy or would you like me to hand it to him?” Then, when he gets very upset (as expected), you can empathize and allow him his feelings with kindness without trying to talk him out of them. When he’s ready, you can help him develop early problem-solving skills. For example, “Jason has the toy you really want and it’s so hard to wait. What else could you play with?” You can also turn threats into choices. For example, instead of, “If you keep throwing the toy like that, I’m taking it away,” you can say, “Would you like to play with the toy gently or for me to put it on the shelf for you to try again later?”

Also, when it comes to sharing, recognize that adults rarely share what is valuable to them (e.g., car) or what they really want all of (e.g., single piece of chocolate) or what they’re not yet done with (e.g., book they’re halfway through) because adults would rarely ask each other for such things. We often expect children, however, to hand over prized or desired possessions without even complaining.

Redirection and humor are also great tools while you’re waiting for some of those much-desired skills, such as patience and stopping a desired activity, to develop. The book Playful Parenting is an excellent resource for ideas.

Getting into his head, recognizing that even we want what we want no matter how nicely we’re asked, can also be helpful. For example, if your husband wants to watch a movie genre you hate, you may consider watching it if he’s very respectful and considerate (but probably not very often!)

My suggestion is to continue with your positive parenting. The benefits may not show up today or tomorrow while he’s still learning the ways of this complex world, but I believe that when he’s a teen and an adult, you will be infinitely grateful for the respect you modeled for him and the connection you developed with him as a toddler.

Six-year-old resists homework

Q: My six-year-old son resists doing homework by pretending he’s unable to read at his normal level. How can I get him to cooperate without using punishments and rewards?

A: I’m guessing 90% of parents experience resistance when it comes to homework, so you are not alone! The first step is determining whether there is more to his behavior than a mere dislike for homework. For example, is he wanting to keep you busy with him and needing more adaptive ways to connect with you? Trying to assert control and needing healthier ways to experience autonomy? Getting back at you for a past hurt and needing validation and reconciliation?

If after addressing any unmet need behind his behavior you discover his resistance truly is a dislike for the task, I suggest sitting down with him out of the moment and trying to really understand what specific aspects of homework he dislikes. Once you hear and validate his concerns, you can share your own concerns and ask for ideas to address both.

I also recommend shifting some responsibility to him so he feels more personally vested. Completing homework may be non-negotiable, but  how, when, and where to complete it leave room for input. Once he devises a plan, you can agree to some basic guidelines (e.g.,  the daily homework specified in the plan must be done before TV or dinner) and agree in advance on what will happen if the guidelines aren’t met (e.g., he can warm up some left-overs when his homework is done or explain to his teacher himself why it isn’t).

Allowing his own plan to be the boss invites cooperation and teaches responsibility. If his plan doesn’t appear effective after a reasonable trial, you can always revisit the original problem-solving discussion and devise a new plan, a great opportunity to learn from past experience.

Only children and compromise

Q: My six-year-old daughter is an only child and I worry about her learning to compromise with other children. I provide lots of opportunities for peer interaction, but is there more I should be doing?

A: Ample opportunities to interact with peers can have a tremendous positive influence on an only child’s social skill development. However, adults too can greatly impact a child’s success with peers by proving valuable practice behind the scenes.

Parents of only children often allow their child to have his or her own way in low-stake decisions because they find it more peaceful, want to give the child a sense of power, or simply don’t care much about the decision at stake (such as watching Toy Story 1 instead of 2). But in always taking the road of least resistance, they’re missing golden opportunities to teach problem-solving and compromise in a low-stress environment. Occasionally problem-solving through minor disagreements, such as over which book to read, with adults gives children practice listening to different views, expressing their own views respectfully, and brainstorming solutions without feeling overwhelmed by heightened emotions. Just like actors need to rehearse lines repeatedly off-stage before they can perform them seamlessly in front of an audience, children need to memorize skills “off-stage” before they can call them up in the heat of peer conflict.

Putting your own preferences on the table not only creates great opportunities to problem-solve and compromise, but also demonstrates that the needs and wants of others matter too and should be taken into consideration.