Saturday, July 7, 2012

Seven Steps to Help Children Cooperate Joyfully: Guest Post by Shelly Phillips

Over the last few weeks I have been sharing some guest posts from a few writers whose work I admire. Shelly Phillips of is among those people. I "met" Shelly originally through Twitter and I love the passion with which she writes about parenting. Every time I read one of Shelly's posts I feel her happiness radiating through. When she offered to write a guest post about joyful cooperation, I was honored to be able to share her work with my readers. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do.

Seven Steps to Help Children Cooperate Joyfully
Guest Post by Shelly Phillips

I’ve worked with children and parents for the past thirteen years and one of the biggest challenges I hear from most parents is that they’re not sure how to encourage internally driven and consistent cooperation from their young children. 

About two years ago my daughter was born and I got an opportunity to put my education and experience with child development and parenting strategies to the test with my own daughter. I’m not afraid to tell you, some of the strategies I used in my preschool classes or as a nanny just don’t work with my own child. Luckily, it wasn’t all for naught. I do still have some tricks up my sleeve and they’re working wonderfully with my little one. I hope they help you to experience more joy, cooperation, and ease with your young children. 

So, here are my seven steps to help children cooperate joyfully:

1. Observe and narrate. Before you jump in, interrupt his play, and ask your child for his attention, take a moment to observe the situation and narrate what you see or hear. “I see that you’re playing with your animals right now and the clock says it’s 8:30am. That means we need to leave in ten minutes.” Or “I can hear your voices from all the way in the garage!”

But be aware, sharing observations is easier said than done. We often put our evaluations and judgments into our observations without even noticing it. One good rule of thumb is that if it can be argued, it’s not a pure observation. I like to imagine I’m a video camera and I can only reflect back the sights and sounds I’m noticing. For instance, in the above example, you’ll see that I didn’t say, “You are yelling so loudly!” because a child could simply retort, “No we weren’t! We were just talking.”

2. Get Curious. By asking a child what’s happening inside her or what her preferences are, you can gather more information about how receptive to cooperation she might be. “Are you guys having SO much fun playing in the water?!” or “What would you like to do after we’ve cleaned up the puzzle?”
Children are very sensitive to our energy and if we’re trying to force them to see things our way, they will resist. However, if we can take the time to see things from their perspective, they really appreciate it and are often much more willing to do as we ask.

You want your child to be motivated to do things
because it's the right thing to do, not to get a reward.
3)Direct, invite, and request. Stop forcing, coercing, and bribing & direct, Invite, and request instead. If you’re in the habit of forcing your child to do things against his will you might have some work to do to repair your connection before cooperation will really be voluntary. 

Children, like the rest of us, are wary of a big change in the status quo, so if you’re ready to encourage an internally driven desire to help out, you first have to acknowledge and repair any damage from your former tactics. 

You could say something like, “I know that in the past I’ve forced you to get into your car seat, but I don’t want to do that any more, so I’ll need your help to get places on time. But if you decide you’re not ready to go, I won’t make you do it, instead I’ll ask nicely and hope you’re willing to climb in all by yourself.”

Eliminating bribes is one of the biggest challenges to encouraging true cooperation. When children learn that they can get something they want by putting up a fuss, they’ll choose resistance every time. On the other hand, if you have never used bribes, often your joy and gratitude are incentive enough for a child to choose to cooperate. If you occasionally resort to bribery, cut it out quickly! You’re undermining your own efforts to encourage teamwork.

This doesn’t mean you can’t encourage your child to jump into her car seat by reminding her of the fun books and toys you keep in the car for her. Just don’t use it as a, “If you get in your car seat, then I’ll give you a toy.”

Directing, inviting, and requesting are far different from bribing, coercing, and forcing a child. When we direct a child to do something, we’re clear and concise and yes, we are telling them what to do, but we’re the parent and ultimately, young children sometimes do need help deciding what to do next. When I direct my daughter I usually say something like, “It’s time to clean up now.” Using the phrase, “It’s time” is really useful because it’s completely clear to a child that you mean right now. On the other hand, if you were to say, “I think it might be time to clean up soon, OK?” A child has no sense of when to act, and it seems like you’re asking for their permission. 

I usually direct and then follow up with an invitation and request, “Would you like to clean up this book or that animal first?” And, “Will you please put this book back now?” If the answer is “No.” I completely respect that. I don’t want my child to do something she doesn’t want to do. I want her to clean up because she wants to! But that doesn’t mean I stop directing, inviting, and requesting what I want. I might come right back with, “OK, well would you be willing to put the giraffe away instead?”

Recognizing that children's games are their
"work" will help you understand their
reticence to just clean up because you say so!
4. Give a warning, wait patiently and then play a game. Giving children a head’s up about what’s about to happen can reduce melt downs to a minimum. Much of the time tantrums ensue when children are caught off guard by a transition they’re unprepared for. So, get into the habit of giving your child a ten, five, two and one minute warning before a major transition, like leaving the park or museum. I will often extend the time in one-minute increments until my daughter is ready or until we really do need to leave. “Are you ready to go or do you need one more minute?” She will often ask for one more minute, but amazingly, most of the children I’ve worked with will be willing to go after a couple of “one more minutes.” 

There have been times when I was sure a tantrum was inevitable as we left the park, but when young people decide they are ready, they can transition really quickly. “One minute is up, are you ready now?” You’ll be shocked how often the answer is yes.

Waiting patiently for a child to do something is an under used skill that can produce amazing results if you’re willing to try it out. Sometimes when Julia refuses to clean up her “work” (toys or activities if you prefer), I’ll say something like, “OK, well it’s time to clean this up, so I’ll just wait right here until you’re ready to put this back on the shelf.” And then I’ll put my attention on a book or look out the window. 

Children don’t like to be scrutinized any more than we adults do, so hovering over your child as you pester them to do something usually doesn’t produce cooperation.  But if instead, you stay nearby and let them know that you expect cooperation, but won’t force them to do anything, you’re giving them the space they need to be able to choose to cooperate and retain their sense of autonomy and dignity.

If giving warnings and waiting patiently aren’t working, I usually kick things up a notch and turn it into a game. I might pretend to be the giraffe and talk to my daughter in a silly voice saying “Oh, Julia, I sure do hope you’ll put me back into the basket with my friends. I’m so lonely here on the carpet and my buddies are all snuggled up in the basket. Please won’t you put me in the basket with my friends?” Or with the car-seat example I might invite a child to race to the car, or I could talk in a southern accent and we could pretend we’re cowboys and cowgirls out on the range and we need to saddle up the horses and go for a ride. Using imaginative play is a great way to encourage cooperation!

5. Anticipate and appreciate cooperation. When children know what’s expected of them, it becomes much easier for them to fall into line willingly. And when they receive your gratitude for their team spirit, they’re encouraged to continue to work together with family members. Now I’m not suggesting excessive, over the top praise for every tiny little hint of cooperation. Instead try sharing your heartfelt gratitude at the end of a great day together. “I felt so happy when you jumped into your car-seat and buckled yourself in today. And I loved your idea about pretending to be firefighters rushing to a fire, that was really fun!”

Yes, even getting kids to brush
their teeth without a fuss is possible! 
6. Get excited about what’s next. “Come on, let’s ___ so we can ___” Kids are so funny, they don’t always seem to understand that step A comes before step B. My daughter loves her bath but she gets really frustrated with trying to undress. So if I just ask her to take her clothes off, she’ll refuse. But if I include the reason I want her to take her clothes off, she’s happy to cooperate! “Come on! Let’s take off clothes so that we can get into the bath!” 

This phrasing is very specific and useful. Beginning with “Come on!” lets a child know that you’re in this together and that it will be fun. You can’t fake this one though, you really have to be able to enjoy the bath or else your invitation comes across as insincere. Adding the word “let’s” reinforces the fact that you’ll be doing it together as opposed to “You need to take your clothes off” which can leave children feeling overwhelmed and alone. 

7. Help them out. Modeling cooperative living is a huge key to encouraging an internally motivated desire to cooperate. When the culture of your home is one in which everyone helps everyone else out, a child can easily get on board and join in. Children like to do things by themselves, but sometimes they do need our help. Rather than pointing out the fact that they were able to tie their shoes yesterday, just lean down and give them a hand. 

This doesn’t mean you’re doing everything for your child. It just means that if they are frustrated with a task or asking for help, you’ll make yourself available. And hopefully they’ll be willing to help you straighten up, put away the groceries, or whatever else you want help with. “In our house, we help each other,” can be a great mantra for the whole family!

Shelly Phillips of
Wow, this turned into a LONG article! I hope you’ve found it useful and I would be happy to share more if you have any questions. Helping children cooperate is something I feel so passionate about. Please leave a comment or question below so we can support one another further! And have a fantastic day!

Warmly, Shelly

Shelly Birger Phillips is passionate about being absolutely the best mom she can be and supporting other parents to do the same. With an extensive knowledge of child development and parenting theory as well as tons of hands-on experience as a preschool teacher, nanny and now as a mother herself, she offers Skype video parent coaching to parents all over the world using a connection-based conscious parenting approach. Shelly also has a free weekly blog about conscious parenting at, A Facebook page at, she’s on Twitter at @AwakeShelly and she loves Pinterest (maybe a little bit too much) at

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