Encouraging Cooperation

How to get your child to do what you want -- the first time you ask.

Why Is My Preschooler So Uncooperative?

When your child was a baby, he took his bath when you were ready, wore the outfits you selected, and went on errands without a big fuss. But with the preschool years has come a shift -- and now every request is met with objections, bargaining, or infuriating disregard. "From getting out the door in the morning to getting dressed for bed, it can be an around-the-clock challenge to gain a preschooler's cooperation," says parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums, and Tears.

The good news is that 4- and 5-year-olds are at a perfect age for developing cooperative traits, according to clinical psychologist Ray Levy, PhD, coauthor of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. "At this stage, kids are emerging from their 'me'-focused toddler years," he explains. "Because preschoolers are able to grasp that they're part of something bigger than themselves, they're much more open to teamwork." The benefits of this new understanding are endless, he adds: A cooperative attitude helps kids develop stronger friendships, succeed in school, and, ultimately, contribute to society. What's more, encouraging this beneficial trait isn't hard if you follow our five simple strategies.

5 Cooperation Strategies

Make it fun.

"Preschoolers look at life as one big game," says Pantley. "So a playful approach can mean the difference between resistance and compliance." For example, if your child balks at getting ready for bed, set the kitchen timer for five minutes and challenge him to try to beat the clock. If he's dawdling on his way out the door in the morning, adopt a brisk, goofy walk and encourage him to follow in your footsteps. These simple games might seem silly, but they can deliver results.

Share your memories.

Tell your preschooler a couple of stories about when you were a child, suggests Dr. Levy. Make sure you include anecdotes that involve both good and bad behavior. This will help your child realize that you can relate to what he's going through. Plus, kids are more likely to pay attention to the moral of these stories because you're not lecturing them directly.

Steer away from surprises.

"Four- and 5-year-olds are sensitive to the smallest disruptions in their routine, says Pantley. "But with a little warning ahead of time, they can be flexible." She suggests creating a family calendar with your child, where you can map out anything from upcoming doctor's appointments to overnight visits to Grandma's house. You can hang it in her bedroom or in a common area, like the kitchen, so she'll see it frequently. The bottom line: If your child knows what's in store, she's far less likely to create a fuss when the scheduled event arrives.

Make your expectations clear.

In cases where you urgently need cooperation (such as when you're racing to get to preschool on time or to cash a check before the bank closes), resist the impulse to bark commands. "Time-crunched parents have a tendency to shout instructions from the next room," says Pantley. "The problem is that preschoolers might not even fully understand they're being addressed." Instead, take a moment to get eye to eye with your child and issue a brief, actionable request. For example, consider saying, "Please put on your shoes and find your raincoat now," rather than "We're late -- let's hurry!"

Don't overdo the rewards.

You might be tempted to elicit everyday cooperation with treats ("If you behave in the supermarket, I'll give you a cookie"), but try to avoid this strategy. "Ultimately, you want your child to cooperate because she's interested in making others happy -- not because she's getting a prize," points out Dr. Levy. If you've already fallen into this pattern, cut back until you're rewarding a string of good behavior rather than a single situation.

Cooperation Advice from Sports Coaches

Seasoned kids' coaches know more than their fair share about building cooperation -- on and off the field. Steal from their playbook.

1. Review the rules. "I make it a point to outline what kids are supposed to do, how to do it, and why," says Robert Doss, author of How to Coach T-Ball Without Going Insane. The reason: Young children aren't often aware that not cooperating affects others.

2. Widen her circle of playmates. "I encourage kids to play catch with rotating partners," says Chris Downs, a T-ball coach in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. "The more peers a child interacts with, the more practice she gets at building cooperation skills."

3. Applaud a group effort. "It's a natural impulse to praise individual successes," says Chris Branscome, a U.S. Youth Soccer coach in Rowlett, Texas. "But when you acknowledge a team's effort, you reinforce the importance of working together." If your child doesn't play sports, point out the accomplishments of his preschool class or even of your family.

Books That Encourage Cooperation

Encourage a helpful attitude by reading your preschooler these classic books suggested by Rana Henry, a children's librarian at the New York Public Library in Woodlawn Heights.

Stone Soup
By Marcia Brown
Villagers are unwilling to share their meager food supplies with passing soldiers. But they learn that when everyone contributes an ingredient, the result is plenty for all.

By Leo Lionni
In an ingenious act of self-preservation, a school of tiny fish bands together to frighten away undersea predators -- proving that there really is strength in numbers.

The Old Tree
By Ruth Brown
When animals are quarreling about what happened to the trunk of their beloved tree, a crow encourages them to put their heads together. The result: mystery solved.

Farmer Duck
By Martin Waddell
An overworked duck is forced to pick up the slack for a lazy farmer. But the farmer gets his payback when other animals join forces to help the duck with his chores.

The Stray Dog
By Marc Simont
A brother and sister fall in love with a scraggly pup. Together, the siblings convince the dog warden to let them keep their lovable pooch.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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