8 Tips for Getting Kids to Cooperate

I'm a pediatrician, so getting kids to follow directions is a big part of my job. Here are my top eight strategies. 

Mom Trying to Get Son to Cooperate
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

Parenting is often a battle of the wills. You need your child to do something, but they don't want to do it. What then?

As a pediatrician, I need to ask for kids' cooperation with things they might not prefer to do all day long. Read on for my top eight tips for enlisting a child's cooperation.

Grab Their Attention

Just as kids often demand your undivided attention before they do a handstand in the pool or knock over a tower of blocks, you need to command your child’s focus if you expect them to listen. If your kid doesn’t brush their teeth after you’ve told them to five times, it’s possible they didn’t even realize you were talking to them. (Hey, those toy dinosaurs are pretty engrossing.)

As a pediatrician, before I begin a physical exam, I always make sure that my patient isn’t busy with a toy or a game, make eye contact, and then speak directly to them, no matter how old they are.

You can use the same strategy at bedtime:

  • Look your child in the eye.
  • Give them a warm-up cue: “It’s getting close to bedtime.”
  • Then quickly follow up with instructions: “It’s time to brush your teeth. Let’s head to the bathroom.”

Clown Around

Toddlers always surrender to a parent or their doctor when the adult is acting ridiculous. Karen Carson, M.D., a pediatrician in Roswell, New Mexico turns the physical exam into a silly scavenger hunt: “I tell kids that I see Elmo, Dory, or Spider-Man in their ear. I continue with monkeys in the mouth and elephants in the tummy. When I’m in a hurry, my patients often get mad if I don’t see something!”

You can use Dr. Carson’s trick in all sorts of scenarios, whether you’re changing your 1-year-old’s diaper or putting bug spray on a 5-year-old who is desperate to run off and play. While doing a task that requires their cooperation, try the following:

  • Look for characters
  • Sing
  • Tell a story
  • Make funny noises

Don’t Ask—Tell

Back in medical school, I thought it was respectful to ask preschoolers to hop up onto the exam table—and was genuinely surprised by how many didn’t comply. Eventually, I realized that unlike adults, children simply don’t understand that a polite question actually means “Do this!”

So these days I rely on cheerful statements—“Climb up on the exam table,” “Open your mouth,” “Turn toward me”—and my patients are generally happy to do what I say.

In addition, research shows that kids don’t fully understand sarcasm or irony until they are around age 10, so using those to get good behavior isn’t likely to work either.

Use Words They Understand

You can learn from the way your child communicates as well. Pay attention to the words they use to ask a friend to do something, and compare them to how you might have expressed the same request. Then try using their exact words the next time you want them to clean up their room or put on their coat or sit down and eat dinner.

If that doesn’t work, consider whether you need to dial down your own vocabulary. When I say I’m going to use my otoscope, some kids look shocked as I place it in their ear. On the other hand, if I call it an “ear looker,” they quickly turn their head to the side to assist me. Speak in simple phrases or say the same thing two different ways; your child will understand you better and might even learn a new word!

Be Patient

Kids are most likely to cooperate if they don’t feel rushed, yet parents often don’t give kids enough time to respond to directions. Children don’t switch tasks easily or quickly. If you’re tired of repeating yourself, you may just need to give your child more time to respond. You’ll be surprised by how often most kids will do as you say, eventually.

Going slow is how Kristina Robert, a pediatric E.R. nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, gets kids to take even the foulest medicine. “If a child resists, I’ll administer it one drop at a time,” she says. “A child can’t spit out just one drop.” Plus, it’s more efficient to be slow and successful than to have to start over after a patient rejects a full dose.

As for me, I never dive right in and listen to an apprehensive toddler’s heartbeat or examine their injured knee. I start by using my stethoscope on their foot and work my way up to their chest, or I inspect their good knee first.

Just like any of us, kids want to know what to expect, so if your child is dodging the hairbrush, you could start by using it gently on their arm or belly. Of course, when you’re in a rush, it’s helpful to have another trick up your sleeve. Getting my own kids to walk from the elevator to the dentist’s office used to take an eternity, but now we play “Red light, green light,” a game that gives me total control over their pace.

Offer Your Kid a Choice

Kathleen Romero, M.D., a pediatrician at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, lets her patients decide which ear they want her to look into first. The strategy also works with her 18-month-old son, Carter. “I’ll say, ‘Do you want to walk to the car, or do you want me to carry you?’

Choices work great as long as both options end in what you want your child to do,” she says. And if they refuse to pick, that’s your cue to tell them you'll pick for them.

Offer an Explanation

When you can’t give your child an option, it helps to explain your thinking. For example, if your toddler doesn’t understand why they can’t touch the stove, tell them, “Don’t touch! Ouchy!” rather than simply, “No.”

Your reasoning is most important for older kids to hear because they can actually be swayed by logic. Case in point: My patients and my own children are more willing to put on their sunscreen when I explain that we have to block cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Encourage your kids to share their own thought processes too; it’ll help them learn to negotiate, which is a critical social skill. Let’s say your child wants to skip their piano practicing tonight. Instead of refusing their request outright, let them tell you their rationale.

It’s OK to give them a pass if they provide a good argument, like wanting to spend time with the family and promising to practice extra later in the week. Just don’t relent if they beg and collapse to the floor in tears to get their way—that’s not a negotiation tactic you want to reward.

Find Something to Praise

Even if a child bites my tongue depressor during their throat culture, I’ll finish the appointment by commenting on what a great job they did with, say, the ear exam. Pointing out success gives my patients confidence and pride, especially when they are nervous. When kids feel good about what they’ve done, they want to do more of it.

The key is to keep your praise specific to a task. For example, after dinner you might say, “I noticed you put your dish in the sink right after we finished. I’m proud of you for helping without being asked,” rather than, “You’re such a great helper.”

There’s no doubt that kids enjoy meeting their parents’ expectations. I’ll never forget the giant toothless grin my 7-year-old son used to flash after he picked up his toys. He was beyond proud—even if all he did was shove his stuff under the bed.

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