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Cooperation, Not Obedience as a Goal of Parenting

We all want our children to do what we ask. Life would be simple if they just did what we ask when we ask it, right? But that’s not the goal of parenting, well it shouldn’t be. Our goal is to help our child develop, gain their own values and problem-solve their own difficulties. They can’t do this by mindlessly doing what we say at every moment. We can’t expect children to just do what we want. They are human beings with emotions and opinions all of their own. Our goal is to work towards cooperation not obedience.



How is cooperation different to obedience?

If your expectation is obedience then chances are you often hit a power struggle. Yelling, punishments, manipulation and fear become the ways that you get your child to do what you want. This will lead to children pushing boundaries more as they try to gain control and independence. The power struggles will escalate. Or it will cause blind obedience which I think can be much worse.


If we stop and think, is blind obedience really what we want? Do we want a child who will grow up to be someone who will just do as they are told? Never challenging authority, peer pressure or being mistreated? Of course not. Like it or not, we are our child’s practice space for life. As a safe place we are likely to cop a more intense conflict at times but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is our job to teach them HOW to have their say and question decisions when they need to.


Cooperation on the other hand, means that your expectations are explained and you invite your child to think of ways to meet these. It doesn’t meant that your child does whatever they want. It does mean that they are given choices and some control over what they do. There are still boundaries, but you work things out together rather than a “my way or the highway” attitude.


How to foster Cooperation:


Explain the rules: Of course you need to have rules. We want our kids to grow and be adults that share our values. Make your expectations clear when talking to your child and explain why. A child is more likely to follow a rule if they understand why we have that rule in the first place. Would you say “no” to your partner without explaining why? Or say “because I say so?” We wouldn’t because it is disrespectful and confusing. The same is true for children. We don’t have to give long winded explanations but some explanation is helpful. It could be that they need to unpack the dishwasher. You can explain that in a family we all need to help each other and we all have jobs. The dishwasher is their job. Or you could explain that you are saying “no” because you are tired. Giving your child some context can (but not always) help them understand.



Give them some control: As adults we can forget that children are people too. Just like us children don't like to feel manipulated and powerless. When children are starting to say "no" they are actually developmentally gaining independence and realising that they have some choices. This is a positive stage in development although is certainly doesn't feel like it at times. If we recognise that our children want some control we shouldn't react by taking more control away from them. This doesn't mean giving in to them, but for example, if they don't want to have a shower, give them a choice. Do they want to have a shower before dinner or after? For young children it might be choosing their plate even though they can't choose their dinner. They are still doing what you want but they feel that they have some control over their own life.


You can also acknowledge their perspective. When kids feel understood, they're more able to accept our limits. Understand that it is difficult for all of us to follow the rules sometimes. If possible, give them a choice or a redirection about what the child CAN do to meet their needs or solve their problem. For example "you wish you could play longer. It's hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. Would you like to choose a book for us to read in bed?"



Is it worth the fight?: There are some situations where it really isn't worth the fight. In these situation let your child live with the natural consequence. If your child refuses to wear a jacket, let them go out and experience the cold. This way they learn for themselves and you didn't have to enter into a yelling match. Obviously you can't do this if the consequence is dangerous, but if it is discomfort then let them make the decision.


You need to work out what your core values are and what behaviours you really need them to do and then let some of the smaller things go. Is it wanting your children to be kind? That they are helpful? That they give you some space when you need it? When you realise what is really important to you, then you can let go of other battles like them wanting to wear a superhero cape everywhere or mismatched clothes.



Problem-solve together

If you find that you and your child are butting heads regularly over the same issue, then you need to work through it together. If you don't engage your child in this process you are just setting yourself up for another power struggle. Try and sit down with your child when you are both calm and just simply say things aren't working. Have them try and come up with ideas what else could happen. If the ideas aren't what you think will work, then talk through what would happen if we did that. Offer suggestions but be willing to listen if they have a problem with that. You may have to bend a bit. Remember having them obey you without question is not a win, they will only feel controlled and want to rebel. Having them come up with ideas that you can both agree on means they are more likely to comply, but also they will feel valued.


One of the most effective influence that we have on our child is your relationship with them. If we are trying to teach (discipline) our children we are doing it for them to learn and grow not to harm. When we are disciplining our child, we are sitting with them, explaining what the rules were that were broken, what the consequence is and problem solving with them how they can fix it. By doing this we are working together as a team not an "us and them" type mentality. We show understanding for how they felt and we also talk about how we or others in the situation felt. By acknowledging theirs and our feelings we will connect with them and build understanding.


Obedience has long been the goal of parenting, but I challenge this belief. Obedience can bring more harm than good. Our goal as a parent is to help our children grow and develop their own values, beliefs and convictions. We want them to grow to be independent adults who will make right decisions and not blindly follow. We therefore can’t enforce obedience, we have to develop cooperation.


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