One of the most important things you can help your kids accomplish while growing up is learning to cooperate. Paul Jenkins notes that this is an important shift in moral development and in the quality of everyone's relationships for the better.

The important thing to remember about cooperation and moral development is that Level 1 Responsibility is focused on self-centered immaturity, fighting and manipulating, and that Level 2 Responsibility is focused on cooperation and minimizing friction or at least not getting in trouble. You can review the Levels of Responsibility with the chart on the last page. (If you missed the video, check out Teaching Kids Responsibility – Positive Parenting in the videos section.)

Since learning to cooperate is so important for life and relationships, we're going to focus on it today. For those of you who don't have kids, much of this also applies to working on difficult adult relationships, too.

Developing Cooperation

There are several things most of us do as parents to start teaching our kids to cooperate. We teach them to, and often insists that they, share with siblings and other peers, take turns, practice waiting and apologize (sometimes with hugs or handshakes after). We often get started with small rewards and extra praise for their first successes.

As kids get older, it seems for many parents that cooperation gets harder to come by, even with the early successes. There can be a variety of reasons for it and fortunately we don't have to know why if we are willing to use some proven strategies to change it.

You need to start by recognizing that your child is misbehaving for a reason. It might not make sense to you, but it does to them. You also need to recognize that you aren't going to talk them, or argue them, out of it. In fact, anything you do that "fits" the current pattern of interaction is going to keep it going. This pattern is often described as a power struggle. All parties are busy frustrating the others with "foot dragging", defiance, sabotage, arguing and other passive aggressive or obviously aggressive behavior. The only way out is to find a way to not play the game.

If you refer back to The Four Causes of Misbehavior chart from last week, you will see the following alternatives for misbehavior that's rooted in power or revenge:

  • Avoid or withdraw from conflict. Help them use power constructively by appealing for help and cooperation. Fighting back increases the desire for power.
  • Avoid feeling hurt or taking it personally. Avoid or minimize punishment as much as possible. Build trust. Convince them they are loved and lovable.

Disagreeing Appropriately
1. Look at the person.
2. Maintain a calm voice, face and body.
3. Show or demonstrate that you understand the other person's position, opinion, point of view, concerns or feelings with respect, empathy and compassion.
4. Express your position, opinion, point of view, concerns or feelings with respect, empathy and compassion.
5. Listen to the response and accept it (drop the subject).

Let's look at some principles and ways to follow those suggestions, starting with Relationship Principle #1: Everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect. This means we will have to "go first" and consistently show respect to someone who is being less than respectful. This likely means we will have to work at not taking their behavior personally, even when it is pointedly meant to get to us. We will have to make a distinction between who the person is and what they are doing. The behavior not the person is "bad."

One way you can practice this is by modeling "Disagreeing Appropriately." (As the adult, you aren't required to simply accept another's response or drop the subject like your child is.) You should not be arguing. As an adult, say what you need to say to enforce your boundaries. You aren't negotiating everyday rules or relationship basics. Also keep in mind that if you can't keep a calm voice, face and body in the moment, you can say that you are going to think things over and will talk about it in so many minutes, an hour or some other specific time that isn't too far into the future. Don't act in anger or haste. If you're not ready, you're not ready. Work on getting ready.

Remember that in this process, that while you need to be clear and consistent about consequences a little bit of flexibility may be strategically necessary. Focus on the more important behaviors first. Address smaller issues later. Be very clear with yourself about what consequences you can consistently deliver.

Smaller consequences are usually pretty good at reducing and eliminating small to medium size problems over time, when they are used consistently. Large consequences need to be reserved for truly large problems, especially when you are struggling with a child's attitude.

It may be more effective to reward positive behavior and attitude while you're rebuilding. The best way to do this is with praise. If you can do this in front of others, it may be even better, public notice is more powerful than private notice. It may help to set a goal for yourself to find and praise at least 3-5 things a day. Your goal needs to be to convince your child of a few things: you really do love them, find value in them, want to have a better relationship with them, value their cooperation and aren't interested in simply controlling them.

In all of this remember what you control and what you don't. You control you. You control consequences. You don't control your child. You don't control their attitude or work ethic. You don't control how they think or feel. Pay attention to what you control. Work on not getting out of balance over the stuff you don't. Expect pushback and have some useful consequences in mind in advance.

Your attitude and behavior under pressure will determine your eventual success. No holding grudges. No delayed payback. No retaliating. Show good faith by sticking to focusing on behavior and being as positive as possible. If there was anything positive in what went wrong, recognize it and praise it while still addressing the problems.

When you are working on "low end" cooperation, you may have to deal with a bit of trading favors in the form of "I will cooperate with you, if you cooperate with me." This means that if your child wants privileges or special activities, their cooperation comes first. You want to spend time with friends, do what you're responsible for, including chores and homework. If school behavior is a problem, privileges are on the line, etc.

You are the parent, so don't accept bullying from your kids. Basic respect, doing simple chores, behaving at school, doing homework and so on are not that hard and are not too much for any kid, so don't let attitude and arguing distract you. Focus on your goals. Praise the good and, in a low key way, handle consequences. The more positive and consistent you can be the faster your relationship will improve.

Reminders for Calming and Self-Control

  • Breathe – Take even, relatively slow, relatively deep breaths.
  • Watch your thoughts and feelings. Label them "neutrally". Imagine them floating by like clouds in the sky or leaves down a river.
  • Rephrase your thoughts more neutrally or objectively. How might a good friend or outside observer say it?
  • Remind yourself of your desires for the relationship. What do you value? What do you want down the road?
  • Look for elements of good or the positive in what is happening or being said to avoid tunnel vision and rumination.
  • Remind yourself that strong feelings will pass in less than 2 minutes if you don't keep adding fuel to the fire. You will be able to think more clearly and helpfully then. Almost nothing needs to be decided in the heat of any moment.

Questions for Journaling

  • What could you do to be a more consistent and effective parent or partner this week?
  • Describe one parenting or relationship habit you currently have? How well is it working? Are you satisfied with it?
  • Describe one area you need to tune up in your parenting or relationship skills?
  • Describe one thing you need to do serious work on in your parenting or relationship?


Live on Purpose TV, What to Do When My Child Argues About Everything

Live on Purpose TV, How to Get Kids to Listen and Respect

Live on Purpose TV, How to Deal with Your Angry Teenager

Live on Purpose TV, Positive Parenting Strategies for the Teenage Years

Live on Purpose TV, How To Deal With A Difficult Teenager

Live on Purpose TV, Teaching Kids Responsibility – Positive Parenting


Nicholeen Peck, A House United: Changing Children's Hearts and Behaviors by Teaching Self-Government (2009)

Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition (2006)

Smarter Parenting, Lessons, videos, blogs, podcasts and some special needs/issues materials.

Verses of the Week

Proverbs 22:6
Train up children in the way they should go then, even when they are old, they will not depart from it.

Proverbs 9:10
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.

Prayer for the Week

Help me this week to begin to see my relationships in a new, more positive and manageable way. Help me remember the tools I've been learning about, especially noticing and praising good behavior, so that I can start making the lives and relationships around me happier and healthier. I really want to make our lives together better. I want more insight into how others think and into what they find important. I want to be a better parent and partner. Amen.