How Do You Spell Cooperation?

Family Matters – May 2008

By Molly Brown Koch
In a recent parent group, two mothers complained they were having trouble getting their 8- and 10-year-old sons to obey them. While we wish we could tell our children the house rules only once and they’d comply forever—and we’d all live happily ever after—the reality is, it’s not going to happen. Not that way.
What we should wish for and work for is cooperation, not obedience. Let’s take a look at the difference.
In my book 27 Secrets to Raising Amazing Children, I raise the following questions for parents to ask themselves about training their children to be obedient: Will demanding obedience train your children to be submissive? How will your submissive children respond to the bad influences outside your home? How will they, at any age, know how to resist the persuasions of a person intent on molesting them? Will they submit without thinking to anyone who makes demands? Will they continue to depend on others to make their decisions for them? Or, once out on their own, will they rebel against all rules of society?
The obedient child does not act out of inner conviction, claims the late psychologist Dr. Bruno Bettelheim in his book A Good Enough Parent (Vintage, 1988). This is the key to understanding the difference between obedience and cooperation. Obedient children comply out of fear of punishment, or fear of losing their parents’ love or approval. Cooperative children willingly share responsibilities when they feel they are respected and valued members of their family.

So, how do you get your children to cooperate?
It begins with respect. Think about how you treat guests in your home. If you want their cooperation, you would not say, “This is my house and these are my rules.”
If you don’t want them to leave bathroom towels on the carpeted floor, you’d probably say, “We have a problem with mold in our house, so we’d appreciate it if you would hang the towels to dry on the rack after you shower.”
You told your guest what is important to you, what you would appreciate him or her doing, and you took the time to explain your reason for hanging up the towel.
Oh, I can hear you saying, “But I’ve explained my reasons a hundred times, and they still don’t listen.”
Does it sound like just another order to them that they can forget? Do they really forget after being told a hundred times? Just having to tell them over and over tells you that something is missing.

Who’s in Charge?
What I find missing in many families are necessary conversations with children. Too much is left unsaid and, as a result, hurt or angry feelings—in both parents and children—remain unresolved.
Here’s the issue the mothers brought to our group: They said that when it’s time for their sons to do their homework, eat their dinner, take a bath, and go to bed, they have difficulty getting them to end their computer games. (It could be any other tug-of-war situation with children of any age.)
To see what’s really going on here, let’s look at it from the children’s standpoint. Playing computer games is not just useless game playing. It is one area where these boys feel they are in control. They say their lives are filled with rules and restrictions, everyday, day in and day out, in school and at home.
Here in cyberspace, the boys are kings—they have control and power. This is the stuff of self-esteem! What they are trying to get and should be getting as frequently as possible is autonomy. Giving your children choices hands them some control in their lives that leads to their developing self-control and decision-making.

Back to the boys at the computer. Mom comes in and says, “It’s time to do your homework, eat dinner, take a bath…”
But the king is not ready to relinquish his power and the battle begins. All Mom can do after a futile exchange of words is to threaten punishment. The king abdicates, gives in, eats his dinner, does his homework, takes a bath, and goes to bed—angry and frustrated—and determined to regain his throne tomorrow. He may not premeditate how he will take control the next day, but it’s pretty certain he’ll find a way. And another battle is inevitable.
It’s bedtime and the little deposed king is lying in bed, feeling powerless. Here’s where the necessary conversation comes in. His frustrated and weary mother knocks on his door, enters his room, sits down at his bedside, and says: “I’ve thought it over and I think it’s time we worked out the computer problem together.”
The little boy sees a chance to gain a new kind of control, and he’s willing to discuss the length of time he plays, whether he does his homework before or after playing, and what the consequences should be if he fails to live up to the agreed-upon time limit. His anger and frustration subside, and he’s eager to cooperate.
As in all parenting matters, it begins with respect and it ends with respect. Long live the queen mother! Long live the little king! BC

Molly Koch Brown is the author of 27 Secrets to Raising Amazing Children, published locally by Sidran Press. Her book recently received the National Mom’s Choice Silver Award. She can be reached at mollybkoch@gmail.com.

@ Baltimore’s Child Inc. May 2008

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