5.3 Cooperation Tools (2)
This is a favorite tool among parents because it is logical, positive, and usually has immediate results.
People learn by hearing, seeing, and doing. When we hear something, we see it in our minds and then try to do what we see. We also do what we see others doing. When children hear “don’t,” “stop,” or “quit” before a description of negative behavior, they picture the negative behavior the parent is trying to prevent or stop. For example, if a parent says “Don’t spill your milk,” the child pictures the milk spilling. For children to obey this command, they must:
They must do all this in about five seconds, or the parent might get impatient, angry, and louder. Older children and adults have had many years to practice this process of taking a negative image and figuring out what to do instead. Younger children, however, simply do what they see. If they see the milk spilling in their minds, they are more likely to spill their milk.
A Graduate’s Story. I was volunteering at my daughter’s preschool Valentine party. I heard the parent at the other table say “Don’t spill your drinks!” I remembered what you said about “Don’t Say Don’t” and told the kids at my table “Keep your drinks in your glass!” Almost immediately, a kid at the other table spilled a drink—and it was like dominoes. Almost every kid at that table spilled a drink and then it spread to the other tables on that side of the room! Not one kid spilled a drink on my side of the room. “Don’t say Don’t” really works!
We all respond better to positive directions. Do good track coaches say to their runners, “Don’t fall over the hurdles”? No! They describe how to run and extend their legs, so the runners will clear the hurdles. This creates a picture of success in the runner’s mind. If we watch athletes on TV, we often see them closing their eyes and moving their bodies. They are picturing what they want to do. In the
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military, a parent once told me, instructors only explain the correct way to do something. They see no value in mentioning the incorrect way.
A Personal Story. When my daughter first played soccer, at age four, she had difficulty understanding the rules. When she played with her team, she’d stand there, confused. But when she practiced with us and my son’s coach, she played better. I finally understood why, when I over-heard her coach reviewing the rules before a game. She said, “Now remember, don’t touch the ball with your hands, don’t run in the wrong direction, and don’t not listen to the coach.”
My husband and I were shocked! No wonder our daughter was confused! How many kids could figure out those rules? Clearer directions would be “Kick the ball with your feet, run toward that goal [pointing], and listen to me if I call you.”
Sometimes, children (and adults) rebel when they hear “stop” or “don’t.” They resist, simply because they don’t like being told what to do. Or they enjoy getting a reaction by misbehaving.
A Graduate’s Story. I was at a barbecue at Carol’s house, my next door neighbor. Her son began shooting us and the grill with his water pistol. Carol kept saying, “stop it” and “don’t do that.” I shared the idea of “Don’t say Don’t” and suggested a different way to say what she meant. Carol scoffed at the idea, “Right! Like he’s going to listen any better to that!” I simply said it had really worked for me and dropped the issue. When her son squirted his father, who was standing at the grill, Carol said to me, “What am I supposed to say, ‘Squirt the water on the grass’?” Although she said the statement to me, her son immediately turned and squirted his water pistol in the grass! Carol’s jaw dropped in amazement and she said, “Wow! That really does work!”
Whenever possible, we want to flip our attitude, thoughts, and words from negative to positive. Instead of telling people what not to do, we describe the behavior we want to see, so they will see it in their minds. Tell children what they can do and let them test what happens when they do it. Here are some examples of flipping negative commands into positive requests:
“Use words, not fists,” or “People aren’t for hurting.”
“Find out what you both need and make an agreement.”
“Don’t play so loudly!”
“Use your inside voices,” or “Play quietly.”
“Talk so I can understand you.”
“Don’t talk back to me.”
“In this family we talk to each other respectfully.” (Then make sure you honor this rule, too!)
“Don’t forget your lunch.”
“Remember your lunch box.”
If you don’t have “healthy paranoia” yet, you are sure to have it after learning this skill! Many parents say “don’t” or “stop” dozens of times a day. One mother insisted, “I can’t stop saying ‘don’t’!” On the other hand, some parents try to completely erase the words “don’t” and “stop” from their vocabulary. They are afraid to say “I want to stop at the store” or “I don’t like broccoli.” Just avoid the words don’t and stop when trying to redirect or prevent unwanted behavior. If you hear yourself saying an unhelpful “don’t” or “stop,” just think about what you want your child to do and describe it.
Using this tool is awkward at first. It’s easier to point out what others shouldn’t be doing than to point out what they should do. If we have trouble flipping a “don’t” around, imagine how difficult it is for children. With practice, you’ll catch yourself before the “don’t.”
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A Personal Story. I have countless success stories from parents and my own life about the effectiveness of “Don’t say Don’t,” but there’s one last story I must share. When Amber was four, she was playing in a small pool with Brian, our neighbor. My son, Chris, who was eight, asked if he could play too, “. . . but don’t splash me” he added. As if on cue, Amber and Brian stopped splashing each other, took a bucket of water and chased him all over the yard. Chris came to me, dripping wet, and said, “I shouldn’t have said ‘don’t’—I gave them the idea!” That’s when I knew “Don’t say Don’t” really makes sense to kids!
Every parent needs to set limits or refuse a request at times. The most common and seemingly simple way is with the word “no.” But this small word often results in dramatic, uncooperative responses from children. If parents can get what they want by saying “no,” children think, “Hmm, ‘no’ equals power.” It’s only natural for them to then imitate this behavior when they want control.
“No” might bring short-term success when setting limits, but more often it starts a power struggle. Now, let me be very clear. I am not saying “don’t set limits” or mean “no.” Parents have the right and the responsibility to set reasonable limits and need to do so. But we can state those limits with positive words, without the word “no,” to prevent a power struggle. This switch, from negative to positive words, actually accomplishes more with less resistance.
Toddlers and preschool children are still developing self-control and learning how to influence the world around them. Therefore, they may say “no” when they really mean “yes.” This is a test to see if they can have control with this word, too. When parents think children are challenging their authority and react by exerting more power, the child learns it is important to have power over other people and “no” is the way to get it. This is one way a toddler’s “no” phase begins.
Most parents believe that every child goes through a “no” stage, that it’s inevitable. Dozens of parents who use this skill, however, can tell you that it is not a certainty. It depends on how the people in his life handle power and control issues and whether they use negative or positive words to set limits.
A Graduate’s Story. I am so glad I learned these skills when my kids were still young. I have a lot of friends who ask, “What do you do when your kids do (this and that)?” I realize I haven’t had a real problem with those behaviors. I know the parenting class is the reason I avoided these common problems. In fact, neither of my boys ever went through a bad “no” phase. This is not to say I never experience resistance or conflicts. They just seem less severe and I know I have the re-sources to respond to them quickly and productively.
Older children, from school-aged to teens, value independence and want more choice about issues involving them. When parents use the word “no” or lay down the law in negative, inflexible ways, these children think the parent is challenging their power and rebel. When parents make a power play, they are practically asking for defiance. Then the cycle starts. As parents exert their authority to say “no,” these children try to show parents they aren’t willing to be controlled. (In Chapter 12, “PO Toolset,” we learn how to stop power struggles once you are in them. Right now, let’s learn how to avoid them!)
Many resources offer suggestions for setting limits in positive words, without the word “no.” Most of these ideas fit within one of the following tool groupings:
GIVE A CONDITIONAL “YES”
When some children hear “no,” they start planning their strategy to change our minds. Their loud protests usually drown out our explanation. If we say, “No, you can’t have a snack, because we are getting ready to eat,” when do they tune us out? After the “no.” If we say, “Yes, when . . .,” they are still listening when we explain the conditions they need to meet.
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This tool does not allow unwanted behavior. It simply tells the child under what circumstances the answer could be a “yes.” For example, instead of saying “No, you can’t go to the movies. You haven’t finished your homework yet,” say “Sure, when your homework’s done.”
Sometimes, there is no way the answer could be a “yes,” such as, “Yes, you can play in the street. . . when you’re twenty years old!” In these cases, a conditional “yes” is not an appropriate tool to select.
A Personal Story. My son and his friend (then ages nine and ten) asked if they could eat a popsicle. I said, “Yes, if you stay in the kitchen or take it outside to eat.” When I checked on them, they were sitting in the living room with their feet propped up on chairs in the kitchen. This was their interpretation of “staying in the kitchen.” This time, I stated more clearly my bottom line, “I want the popsicle to be in the kitchen, over the tile floor and away from the carpet and chairs.” They put down their feet and leaned over in their chairs so any drips would go on the tile. I guess the lesson here is to be clear about what you ask for; they might take you literally.
OFFER AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE
When parents take something dangerous away from a baby, they usually trade it for an acceptable toy. We can use this approach in any situation with children of any age (and adults). In fact, I was using this tool when I promised in the first chapter to “. . . avoid telling you not to do something unless I offer at least one or more positive alternatives.” When we want to redirect children without saying “no,” we can say, “You can do ” or “Well, you can instead,” or “I’d prefer you . . .”
Children can’t read our minds. We often have a good reason for denying a request, but if our children don’t have this same information, they may balk when we say “No.” For example, if a child with a cold asks to play outside, the parent can say, “If you play in the rain, your cold could get worse. When your fever goes away, you can play in the rain again.” This gives children information they can use in the future. Try using the previous suggestions to give information with positive words. For example, if your child asks you to take him to the toy store to get a friend’s gift, avoid saying, “No, I don’t have time.” Instead, say “I need to leave for a meeting in an hour. We could go tomorrow, though.” Long explanations are not necessary, nor is repeating yourself. If we don’t really have a good reason, this skill might not be appropriate.
There may be times when we sense that the child’s request isn’t a good idea, although there is no tangible reason for that opinion. We can actually state this as our reason, “I know you really want to go to Joe’s party but I have this uncomfortable feeling that I can’t explain. Maybe if I knew more about Joe or his party I could figure out if my concern is valid.”
TAKE TIME TO THINK
Children are great at pressuring us for a quick response—and we can get ourselves into agreements we wish we hadn’t made. Tell children you will answer them, after you have a moment to think over their request. Respond in a timely manner, out of respect for the child, instead of using this response to avoid or delay the issue. If we delay too often, children will only pressure us more strongly for a quick answer.
When we acknowledge feelings first, before denying a request, our children know we understand how they feel and are more likely to listen to us. This reduces the chances of an Oscar-winning performance to convince us of their position. (This is also consistent with the PASRR formula: Prevent the problem and Acknowledge feelings, then Set limits and Redirect problem behavior.)
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Remember that children’s priorities are often different from ours. Sometimes, our goal is not to make our children like doing the things we ask them to do or agree with our priorities. Sometimes we simply want them to agree to do a task, even if they don’t really want to do it. If children ask to stay up late, we can say, “I know you might not feel tired now” or “It’s hard to go to bed when you don’t feel like it.” This could be all we say. We don’t even have to say “no” or “you have to go to bed anyway,” because our sentence implies it. We can add choices, “You don’t have to go right to sleep. You can read, work puzzles, or do some other quiet activity. That’s your choice.” Notice how this statement shifts the focus away from the firm limit to what the child can do.
GIVE WISHES IN FANTASY2
While we can use this skill any time we want to recognize feelings, it is particularly effective to use it when children can’t have what they want. When children get in fantasy what they can’t have in reality, it helps them move on. At least they know we understand that they “wish” it could happen. Wishes and fantasy can take many forms, depending on the situation and the age of the child. Here are a few examples:
Don’t be afraid that you will have to grant the wish. Most children understand it is just a wish. The point is that we show we understand their heart’s desire. We can also have fun with this tool, creating exaggerated fantasies that helpfully redirect the conversation. I gave this tool a four-star rating after other parents raved about it and I had the following experience.
A Personal Story. When Chris was three, we went to a shopping mall. I quickly realized I would have to pass a toy store. Fortunately, I had my wits about me that day. As we approached the toy store, Chris said, “I want to play with the train!” I moved to his other side so he couldn’t see the store, locked eyes, smiled and said, “We won’t be able to play with the train today. It sure is a neat train, isn’t it? It’s nice that they let us play with it when we have extra time. What’s your favorite part of the train set?” As he described the train set, I escorted him past the store.
Soon he asked, “Can we buy a toy on the way back?” I was tempted to give my usual prerecorded reply of, “I don’t have the money today, besides, you have too many toys already.” Instead, I said, “That’s a pretty neat toy store isn’t it? What are some of your favorite toys in there?” I listened and responded as he listed them.
By this time we were well past the store, but we were enjoying the fantasy so I said, “If you had all the money in the world, what would you buy?” He named several things and then asked me, “What would you buy?” I pointed to an outfit in a store window and mentioned a car, etc. He asked, “Mom, where would we put all that stuff?” I enthusiastically said, “Well, if we had all the money in the world, we could buy a house as big as a castle, and fill it up with all our toys!” He was quiet for a minute and then said, “Mom, that sounds like too much stuff. We’d never play with it all!” He paused, then added, “Maybe we’re better off with just the toys we have.” I had to watch my step so I wouldn’t trip over my jaw, which was now dragging on the floor! Without giving my prerecorded excuse, my son had figured out on his own that it is sometimes better not to get everything we want!
Several weeks later, he was watching TV and saw an advertisement for a toy. He said, “I wish I could have that.” I didn’t have my wits about me this time and blurted out, “It’s too expensive. Besides, you already have enough toys.” In a matter-of-fact voice, he said “Mom, all I said was, ‘I wish.’” That’s when I knew this “wishes and fantasy” skill really worked. Even a three-year-old could understand the difference between wanting something and having to get it!
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This tool usually brings great satisfaction to both children and parents, but there are a few exceptions. When children are too reality-based or insistent on getting their way, choose a different way to say “no” in positive words. Some wishes can never be granted and may unnecessarily expose deep wounds. If so, avoid using this tool or use F-A-X Listening (Chapters 7 and 8 ) to help children work through their pain.
A Graduate’s Story. Nina attended the parenting class to help her grandson, who was living with his abusive mother. Nina had cancer, so she was unable to take custody of the boy, but he visited with her every weekend. One weekend, he asked why he had to go home. Nina used wishes and fantasy in her response, “You wish you didn’t have to go home, huh?” The boy started sobbing— and so did Nina—for she realized just how hard it was for both she and her grandson to deal with the pain and impending loss of their situation.
SAVE “NO’S” FOR DANGEROUS ISSUES
There will be times when “no” is the first thing that comes out of your mouth, such as, “No! The iron is hot!” There will also be times when a request, such as “Can I stay out all night?” is just too dangerous to grant. When our children’s moral or physical well-being is at stake, it is certainly worth taking a stand, even if we have to say a firm “no.” Whether a “no” accidentally escapes our lips or is quite deliberate, always try to use one of the other skills before or with the “no.” When we use “no” sparingly, our children really take notice and usually respond appropriately.
A Personal Story. I learned “No No’s” when Chris was an infant. With some creativity, I was usually able to come up with a positive way to set limits. One day, I was visiting my parents. I walked into the kitchen and saw Chris, then two, dangling my expensive camera over the tile floor. I squealed, “No!” as I rushed over to grab the camera. As I explained what could happen, my father rushed into the room. He said, “I’ve never heard you say ‘no’ like that so I figured there must have been something really wrong.”
When we first try to flip our negative statements into positive ones, it usually takes longer to think and respond. But it’s well worth our time to choose positive words. We can prevent power struggles, tantrums, or having our children pester us for 15 minutes with negotiations and explanations. If we are willing to make the investment of time and effort, we will start seeing results.
Children usually listen and cooperate more when we make funny, light-hearted requests. This can be difficult, especially when we are tired, but humor can prevent many power struggles. Here are a few suggestions, but I’m sure you can add more.
- Use a funny voice, impersonating a celebrity or robot.
- Use sign language or charades to get your point across.
- Act like a media announcer calling the plays of a game or interviewing your child.
- Sing your request or set your request to a familiar tune. (When my children were young, I made up lyrics to dozens of familiar tunes. It really got my kids moving—and lightened up the moment. Be careful, though, because children may repeat the song. . . .)
A Graduate’s Story. One parent, teasing her husband about his vasectomy pains, changed the name of the body part in the song, “Do your ears hang low.” She sang it once and didn’t think the kids heard her. Six months later, the principal from her child’s school called to say her son had been singing an inappropriate song. The principal had the child call his mother, to tell her what he was singing. In front of the principal, her son said, “You should know the words, Mom! You made them up when you sang it to Dad!”
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Sometimes we only need to make a task or item sound more appealing to a child, by using our creativity. For example, encourage picky eaters to try new foods by making fruit-kabobs, dips, and food shakes, such as fruit smoothies. Use creative packaging such as ice cream cones. Let children create food art, such as faces and animals out of food.
A Personal Story. In my house, plain milk became “Slimer milk” by adding green food coloring. “Snow trees” were much more interesting to eat than cauliflower. To get Amber to sit still while I fixed her hair, I called a French braid a “Barbie braid” after the dolls whose hair I braided to prevent tangles. Pigtails were “Dorothy pigtails,” after the girl in her favorite movie.
Saying “Please” is appropriate when making simple requests like “Will you please get the mail?” It models manners and avoids ordering children around with “Go get the mail.” “Please” can sound like pleading, however, if our request is more important, like “Please don’t hit your sister,” especially if we’ve already asked nicely and the child hasn’t complied. Using “please” politely, once, can be appropriate when there is no problem going on. If we don’t get cooperation using the tools in this toolset, we have a problem (a Parent problem) and need to use more firm, yet respectful, statements from Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset.”
Sometimes our efforts to set rules can backfire on us; we get defiance, are pressed to follow through to the letter by a child who takes everything literally, or realize a child has found the exception to the rule. While our rules may still hit snags, we can reduce these frustrations by incorporating some previous skills when setting rules:
- State the bottom line.
- Present it as a choice.
- Credit a “higher authority” or inanimate object with the rule, if possible.
- Use general terms.
- Use positive words.
A Personal Story. I figured out these rules the hard way (Is there any other way for most parents?) when I had to set rules about climbing the tree in our front yard. This tree invites every neighborhood child to climb it. I didn’t want to wait for a disaster or be a party-pooper by forbidding children from scaling the only decent climbing tree on the block. I invented the “Rules for Setting Rules” while trying to avoid loopholes and vague, negative, discouraging restrictions.
My bottom line for kids climbing our tree was safety and legal liability. I said, “Remember, safety first!” Instead of saying, “You can’t climb my tree” and explaining why, I said, “If you want to climb this tree . . . ,” which made it clear they had a choice. I finished the sentence, “. . . you need to agree to the tree’s rules. The tree doesn’t want anyone to get hurt in its branches!” This made the rule more neutral and you can’t argue with a tree!
Instead of measuring and testing each child for ability, I said, “Only kids who are tall enough to reach the lowest branch can climb the tree.” When the tall, uncoordinated children asked my help to climb the tree, I amended the rule, “Only kids who can get up in the tree by themselves can climb it.” This kept me from standing in the yard giving boosts to the kids and spared children embarrassment if I had to single out the uncoordinated children. I also noticed that the children were more motived to learn tree climbing, instead of feeling discouraged.
When my daughter tried to climb the tree in her tights and patent leather shoes, I realized I needed another rule. I didn’t want to sound negative and sexist, so I used general terms. I said, “Only kids wearing pants and shoes can climb the tree.”
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I’ve seen so much value in flipping a “don’t” into a positive statement, I used the same idea when I set my tree rules. I didn’t want to give the kids any vivid ideas by saying, “Don’t climb too high in the tree, you could get stuck.” Someone said this to me as a kid and I got stuck in a tree for nearly an hour. That’s why I’m not willing to climb a tree to get them down! Instead, I said, “You can only climb as high as you can get yourself down.”
Once, when a child got stuck at the top, I reminded her of the rule and that I don’t climb trees. I told her I knew she could get herself down, since she did such a good job climbing up! I then offered suggestions such as, “That’s it! Now put your foot on that branch down there and grab that branch with your other hand.”
To date, I have never had to rescue anyone from my tree. All have come down in one piece and each child has developed extraordinary tree-climbing abilities.
Parents often comment on the negative words schools, churches, preschools, and other child-focused institutions use in their rules. Several have rewritten them, using the “rules for setting rules.”
A Personal Story. My son’s fifth-grade teacher was wise. She just had one general rule, instead of many rules about everything. To this day, my son remembers this rule: “Respect yourself, others, and your environment.” If you think about it, it covers everything!
In most settings, parents or other adults set the rules and then tell children what they are. The adult’s tone of voice and attitude, however, can turn rules into orders and commands. Teens are especially likely to rebel when adults talk down to them. If teens don’t agree with a rule and adults can’t enforce it, they might sneak to do it anyway. It is far more effective, especially with teens, to use two-party problem solving (Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset”) to negotiate rules.
Children are more cooperative when it’s time to do chores, clean up after themselves, or go to bed if there is a special routine. Younger children adapt especially well to routines. Older children may need time to break poor habits. It’s important to involve children in planning new routines, instead of telling them what they will do. Routines increase parental consistency, eliminate power struggles, and help each family member feel his contribution is important to the family.
Here are some examples of routines to use. Some are more elaborate than others. You can tailor your routines to fit the ages, abilities, structure, and schedules in your family.
Meals. Whoever isn’t cooking can either set the table or help clean up. People can volunteer or make a schedule.
Laundry. Divide laundry duties at family councils—sorting, washer/dryer loading, folding, and ironing. The family can decide whether to rotate these duties or keep regular voluntary assignments. Only wash clothes that are in the hamper by sorting day. Family members put away their own basket of clean clothes.
Bedtime. For many families, bedtime battles are routine. Most parents know about the basic “5 B’s:bath, brush teeth, bathroom, books, and bed” routine. To prevent bedtime struggles and delays, offer choices about these steps. For example, children can choose whether to take a bath at night or in the morning, brush teeth before or after bathroom duties, and how many or which books to read. Invent fun, but not too physical, games as options to bedtime books and tapes. These games can have time limits. Each person gets one turn or you play the game until the time is up. The following games have helped our family turn bedtime into precious, loving memories.
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House Cleaning. Pick a time each week to clean the house together. Besides family members cleaning their own rooms, they can choose one or two rooms to clean or one or two activities, such as dusting, vacuuming, or cleaning sinks. Play music or make a game of it, but not a competitive game, such as racing, which would have a loser. I have catchy names to specify levels of cleaning:
Keeping one’s bedroom clean is a routine many parents wish their children would develop. This especially applies to parents of teens. Teens’ bedrooms are an extension of their identity and a symbol of one area of their life that is theirs to control. It’s very difficult to start this routine once a child has already reached the teen years. If parents start the routine when children are young, they can develop positive habits.
A Graduate’s Story. Jack and I are both very organized. Everything has a place and we always take a few extra seconds to put things away. Ever since our kids were young, we have taught them to pick up after themselves. We’ve never had a problem with them being messy. I guess they have never known any different. I didn’t realize how many other parents had a problem with getting their kids to clean up. I guess our neatness has some advantages.
All the tools in The Parent’s Toolshop are great, but this toolset is a favorite. Many parents and children make a complete change in their attitudes and behavior within weeks of using these tools. If you can honestly look at your power and control issues, focus on cooperation rather than demanding obedience, and consistently use these tools, you will also have fewer power struggles and more teamwork.
What if you consistently use these (or other Prevention) tools and don’t get cooperation? Then you are no longer in the “prevention” zone! It’s a Parent problem and time to move to the next PASRR step.
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