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Why Can’t You Just Cooperate?

“Why can’t you just cooperate?”

The dad at the other end of the playground is raising his voice at what I’m guessing is a three- or four-year-old boy. It’s the first nice Saturday of spring and the swings and slides are loaded with kids. The dad has a younger child squirming in his arms and he’s trying to get the older one to follow him to the car. The little one he’s holding starts to cry and kick. The boy is dragging his feet. The frustrated dad is getting angry and tries adding guilt to volume to get compliance. “Now look what you’ve done!” he snaps. “Your sister is crying and you’re spoiling our good time. Just get-in-the-car!”

The rest of the parents aren’t sure how to respond. Most look away and get busy with their own kids until one of the moms goes over and offers to help. She stoops down to eye level with the boy, says something, and off he goes, straight to the car. The dad smiles his thanks, then apparently realizes he’s had an audience. He looks somewhat embarrassed as he leaves. I hope he knows that most of us have been there and done some version of that at least once and have sympathy for his frustration.

I know the mom. “So what did you say to that lttle boy?” I ask. “Only that he had his turn here at the playground and now his dad needs a turn at home. I asked him if he could show his dad that he’s big enough to know how to take turns. I lucked out in guessing how to appeal to the boy. It helped that the dad stopped demanding and started listening.”

What the dad at the playground didn’t seem to understand is that cooperation doesn’t mean “do as I say.” It means “please work with me here.” With a few simple changes, he can both teach his son how to be cooperative and have a better time when they are together. As any preschool or daycare teacher or experienced parent will tell him, he can’t demand cooperation but he can teach it.

Cooperation is a learned skill, not a genetic gift or character trait. The key to having cooperative kids is to model cooperation ourselves and to meet little kids where they are developmentally in how we approach them. When we break the big concept of COOPERATION down into small, doable steps, little children soon become pros.

If you want to teach cooperation:

  • Make sure your child is attending to you and not engrossed in a game or caught up in his own imagination. Get down to eye level and call the child’s name or tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. (“Jon, honey. Look at me, please.”)
  • Provide a warning when activity is going to change. A warning lets the child know what to expect and eases transitions. (“In five minutes we’re going to start putting things away and get ready to go.”)
  • Give reasons. This helps children understand cause and effect and shows them that most requests for cooperation result in benefits for everyone. (“It’s almost lunchtime. We need to have time to stop at the store on the way home so we have enough milk for lunch.”)
  • Be clear about what you want your child to do. Children are better able to comply when they know what we expect. (“We need to put all the toys that belong to us in this bag.”)
  • Work with your child. When we engage with the activity, we provide a model for what cooperation is all about. (“Can you help me find the toys that belong at our house?”)
  • If you’ve fallen into the bad habit of only giving negative attention, put yourself on a positive attention program. Stop rewarding stubbornness or noncompliance with scolding, nagging, and lecturing. Instead, ignore it as much as you can and praise your child when she is behaving. Catch her being good as much as you can so she learns that good behavior pays off with positive attention. (“You’re doing a great job helping us get ready to go home. It makes our fun time last.” “Thank you for helping your sister put her toys in the bag. You’re showing her how to be a big kid.”)
  • Stay calm. If a child refuses to help out or gets angry about being asked to cooperate, the worst thing we can do is add our stubbornness (and noise) to theirs. Instead, find a way to take a step back from the situation and give the child a little space. Remind him why you are asking for cooperation and ask for suggestions. (“I’d like to get our toys put away so we can go for lunch but your sister is cranky and needs someone to watch her. What do you think we should do?”)
  • Of course, in an emergency situation, you may have to pull rank. (“We’re going to have to do this my way right now but we’ll talk about how to do it better later.”) Then do be sure to talk about it later when the situation has settled down or tempers have cooled.

Helping kids learn to cooperate with others takes active teaching, practice, and time. Provide lots of good modeling of cooperative behavior and lots of praise when children do what is needed and it will become more and more routine. Most important, teaching our children to be cooperative with others provides the foundation for healthy relationships throughout their lives.

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Why Can’t You Just Cooperate?

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Why Can’t You Just Cooperate?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.