The only cooperation worth having is that which is given freely by a child, not because he has been frightened into obedience, but because he feels loved, respected, and understood, and consequently wants to treat his parents with love and respect in return. ~ Jan Hunt
As parents we put a lot of time and energy into helping our children complete the tasks that need to be achieved, from guiding little children to wash their teeth to supporting our teens through their NCEA achievement standards.
Power struggles. Children can easily get lost in their own world and not manage to shift their attention to their parent’s requests or reminders of tasks to be done. It can feel like the parent is living in the world of endless jobs and the child is living in their world of play. And that can easily feel frustrating and even unfair for parents already stressed and at maximum capacity. When a parent feels ignored, they easily start to anticipate more resistance, and sometimes the parent only has to think about talking to their child about tasks and chores to become highly stressed. Yet when the parent repeats their requests, the child can hear all that tension in their voice, and the child then tends to disconnect even further. The more a child anticipates or experiences criticism or coercion, the more resistant they become. The parent repeats again with increased volume. The child ignores, walks away or fobs their parent off with “I’m busy” or “why don’t you ask my sister”. Then the parent gets really frustrated and raises their voice some more or doles out a punishment or threat, “if you don’t …., then you can’t have ….. “, or exasperation can be expressed as sarcasm like “this isn’t a hotel you know” which can feel shaming and causes the child tune out even more. Sound familiar? Parent and child are now caught in a power struggle where nobody wins.
You might also enjoy Genevieve's article Dissipating Power Struggles with your child.
What does work? Generally if a child resists engaging with their parent’s requests quite a lot, it’s a cue to reconnect. It can help to take a step back from the situation. Slow down. Take a deep breath, get centred, then aim to connect before repeating your request. It isn’t time to force the issue or keep repeating the information that’s already been given, it’s time to reset and come back to the relationship. Are you fixating on making your child do what needs to be done rather than helping them do what needs to be done? Is your stress reflected in your tone of voice? Can you bring in a little self-empathy, reflecting to yourself: “all this pressure is too much, I feel really stretched, what do I need right now to de-stress a little?” Does your child need you to listen to what’s important for them in this moment? Perhaps asking; “hey buddy, I can see you’re finding it hard to pick up your toys, maybe we could do it together and sing our song at the same time.” Do they need some connecting hugs, or you could put on that silly voice or exaggerated facials that they so love to bring in some giggles and dissipate some of that tension.
Instead of repeating, nagging, criticizing or raising your voice, seek eye contact, be warm, even affectionate, aim to be inviting. Invite them to repeat your request or question to seek further engagement and clarity. If resistant, enquire into what they’re feeling, and what would make it easier; “hey love, you seem really frustrated about me mentioning your homework, are you feeling stressed?”
Children lose their motivation to cooperate when they lose the warm connection with their caregiver. A gentle touch or a little humour and fun lets the child know that their parent is being patient and kind. This tends to disarm much of their defensiveness and hence resistance and it also brings the enjoyment of connection, and more energy and motivation to cooperate back into the situation. It’s not necessary to do this every time, but when you do have the extra time, showing genuine interest in their world, whatever they’re currently engaged with, before explaining what needs to be achieved or rectified and then calmly explaining what needs to happen generally fosters a more genuine cooperation and consideration of each other.
Instead of “just do it because I said so”, calmly giving a reason for our request while also showing care of their feelings can help our child engage their will and find the energy for the task: “I know you’re tired my boy and want to relax. The reason I asked if you’d be willing to set the table now is because the food’s nearly ready and I’m keen for us to all sit and eat while the food is hot”. Sometimes problem solving together helps children take more ownership: “hmm this is tricky, you don’t want to get dressed, yet kindy starts soon, what’s the solution I wonder?”
Your child doesn’t have a sense of timing as we adults do, we need to keep encouraging them to move forward and to be reminded that there’s only so much we can fit in to any time frame. Visual checklists can really help children to keep anchoring back to what needs to be achieved. Checklists differ from reward charts in that they’re not based on evaluating progress and hence afford the child more ownership of their tasks.
Each parent needs to decide if they're expressing a request or holding a limit, for more on holding limits while maintaining the connection, read Genevieve's article "Setting Limits with Love".
Requests are more inviting than demands
“I believe it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner.” - Marshall Rosenberg.
Demands invite a child to either submit or rebel, but don’t leave much room for initiative. Demands can feel humiliating for children (just as they do for most adults). Demands can cause children to feel overly pressurized and can lead to resentments especially when they're infused with critical tones. Demands can cause a child to feel coerced and controlled. When a child complies with a demand, they tend to just feel like they’ve done what they were told and experience a temporary relief from the pressure at best. Demands lead to parent and child missing out on the natural joy of willing cooperation and mutual satisfaction of a job well done. Demands generally cause children to lose their natural desire to cooperate and contribute.
Requests on the other hand are more inviting and attractive and help foster a healthy team spirit. When the child cooperates with a request, they tend to enjoy and feel proud of their achievements. Requests give a child more choice, hence more ownership and allow the child to operate from their free will and maintain their sense of autonomy and dignity.
One of the biggest drawbacks with demands is that the child tends to build negative associations with their learning, their self-care, their food or whatever has been demanded of them, especially when followed with negative consequences if they don’t comply.
Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, describes that threats and requests can often sound the same, but can be differentiated by whether the parent becomes intolerant or punitive if the child shows resistance.
Phrases that express a request rather than a demand
“Would you be willing to help with the dinner, and if so, would you prefer to set the table or get some leaves from the garden for the salad?”
“Can you put these toys away before lunch, or would you like my help with it?”
“Do you need me to remind you what needs to be done, or can you tell me?”
“Can I support you to get your room back to being tidy today? What else would you like to achieve today?”
“Let’s all talk about our wants and needs that we want to fit in to this morning”
Or … “We’re all going to do jobs until lunch time, which job would you like to do first?” “Would you like my help in getting started?” or “let’s think about how we can make it more fun”.
“I want to support you to fit in both doing your homework and having some down time and connection time with the family before bed time, so let’s make a plan.”
“Honey I see you’re about to go on the computer, let’s think about what time it is now and what needs to be done this evening so you feel more organized before going to school in the morning.”
Requests are much more likely to be received as an expression of care and support, which is dramatically more motivating and encouraging than demands, threats, lectures or nagging.
By guiding in this way, you’re helping your child focus and expand their thinking without criticizing them.
We want our children to be socially responsible, considerate and generous in their contributions because it feels good to them, because it feels right, because they enjoy being part of a system that works well and enjoy the harmony and mutual appreciation of working together and they genuinely enjoy the positive feelings that contributing brings.
And if they still refuse to cooperate, what then ….
· Be willing to accept their “no” with the less important things, because children need to have enough choice and autonomy, which includes being allowed to express their “no’s” if they’re to genuinely enjoy cooperating much of the time. There are many things that children have to do or can’t do regardless of whether it makes sense to them like brushing teeth and going to bed, so it’s important that we can be flexible in giving them some choices in their world.
- Check your tone of voice. Children get their energy from their connection with us and when that breaks down, it’s like pulling the plug on their power supply. It’s hard for us parents to bring ourselves back to a more calm and level tone again and again, yet the reality is that most kids just can’t operate very well when that connection breaks down.· Empathy and connection can help a child let go and move forward to the next thing: “Sometimes it’s really, really hard to stop doing something we enjoy isn’t it.”
- Sharing our feelings (as long as they’re not expressed with intensity) can help children consider our needs in the situation, and can help them make the adjustment. “I’m feeling worried about whether I’ll get to work on time. Can we work together to leave the house in 15 minutes”.
- Fun and humour makes the next step more inviting: “I can see it’s really hard to stop building. You’ve been working so hard on building your castle, but it’s bath time. Would you like a piggy back?” or “it’s time to leave, let’s skip to the car”.
- If resistance has become a pattern, it can be good to invite them to share their feelings at a neutral time making it clear that you’re caring about why they’re finding it hard or choosing not to cooperate. Is there some repair needed following recent conflicts? Or are they generally feeling a bit distant and maybe there’s a need to carve out some quality one on one time to bring back the closeness.
And if they still don’t… If your child seems unwilling to cooperate a lot of the time, it’s very often indicative of the child having some difficult feelings that they need our help releasing and resolving. In which case, we would come back to the task at hand later (if possible) when they’ve had their emotional needs met. If it’s cleaning their room, putting toys away etc, expand out your time frame on when it needs to happen, and settle in to reconnecting, active listening and making space for the feelings and thoughts that the limit or request has brought up for them.
Whether we stop to consider their feelings and needs as we guide children largely determines whether the interaction will go well or will result in a power struggle or an argument. Even though it can be hard to stop, think and edit what we want to say and imagine how our words and tone will feel for our child on the receiving end, this IS the big work of parenting. Yet the rewards of increased harmony and greater self-discipline for our child as the years go on make it so worth the effort.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine New Zealand (but can be ordered from anywhere in the world)