Cooperation and Compliance are Not the Same Thing

When people talk about a child being “uncooperative” it can often be helpful to consider that cooperation and compliance aren’t the same thing.

Cooperation is working together towards a mutual goal. If one person does not share your goal it’s not being “uncooperative”, it’s being non-compliant. Thinking about things in this way helps me shift my thoughts onto a different path.

Compliance is “you do what I say” instead of “working together on a shared goal”. We often mis-label cooperation and compliance when it comes to young children.

So if we want our child to cooperate we have to figure out how to get them to share our goal instead of simply saying “You are going to.” At this age “no” is still a valid answer to “please” and “it’s time to.”

Children at this age also have very very little impulse control. They are locked into their own thought process and are still developing empathy and the ability to control their impulses. This is not something that they’re taught to have, this is something that is linked to brain development.

A toddler’s brain is not an adult brain. The part of the brain that allows a person to control themselves and their impulses is NOT fully developed until a person is in their early 20’s. It develops gradually between birth and adulthood.

So how do we get a child to “stop banging her spoon”? We have to help her change what she is doing, shift her thought process closer to what we want it to be. She has to be engaged in something because trying to pry her mind out of the gear of “bang the spoon” is not going to work too well. Think of a car. Drive. Reverse. Neutral. If you’re on a hill and gravity is pulling you down the hill and you want to back your car back up the hill then shifting from drive to neutral isn’t going to reverse you up the hill.

“Stop” with a child is sort of like shifting into neutral. The child’s brain is committed to the path that they’re on. If we want them to change direction rather than temporarily stop and continue, then sometimes we need to provide them with a new direction instead of simply trying to get them to “stop doing that”.

“Are you my baby bird? Oo, look. There is a noodle worm in your bowl. Can you scoop it out?”

“Are you all done eating? Can you help me put your bowl and spoon into the sink? We can wash it together.”

“Where do the bowl and spoon go when you’re all done eating?”

“Is your spoon a drumstick? Nooooooo That’s silly! It’s a spoon. What do we use spoons for?”

What about a child cooperating as you get ready? Resistance to shoes, for example?

“Where are your shoes? Do you know? Oo, what color are your shoes? Do they match your pants? That’s fun! Do you know how to put them on or do you need me to put them on for you? Do socks go on first and then shoes? Or do we put your shoes on and then your socks? Is that comfy? No? Let me fix it. ::swoops finger around the back to make sure that the shoe isn’t folded over:: Now you’ve gotta walk and jump to make sure the shoe’s all the way on! Okay, what do we do next now that your shoes are on?”

What about when the child is trying to change every single option as soon as they have the option? It can easily become endless and even more frustrating as the child is overwhelmed and needs some sort of boundary for their choices. If I’m regularly stuck in that type of cycle I try to sort of shut off the other options once a choice has been made. Pink shoes? Awesome. Let’s go sit on the stairs and put them on. ::shuts closet so that the other options aren’t available::

“oh, you want the sparkle shoes now? I’m sorry but we already picked and we need to go now. Would you like to wear the sparkle shoes next time?”

I also try to figure out if there’s something that is bothering them. For example if the child is saying that their shoes are too tight or not comfortable, what do they mean? The automatic reaction is “The shoes are your size and if they’re any bigger you will fall on your face.” But what if the shoes are too narrow? What if your child’s socks are bunching up as they slide on? What if the socks are pulling uncomfortably on their toes no matter how big the shoe is? What if the back of the shoe has folded over and is digging into their heel?

It’s simple to dismiss a complaint as “The toddler is being a toddler and is uncooperative”. My daughter objects to the car seat frequently saying it is “too tight” when what she really means is that her dress or shirt have ridden up behind her uncomfortably or the harness is putting more pressure on one shoulder than on the other, or the lap belt part has gotten caught lower on her legs rather than sitting on her hips. The harness is not “too tight” in a way that requires me to loosen it to the point of it being unsafe, but it is uncomfortable and something does need to be adjusted in order for her to feel that it is not “too tight”.

One final thing is that I have found that the more my children are forced to comply the less cooperative they become. Mondays are difficult for us because others in the house are more inclined to utilize force and distractions which have a long term negative impact on actual cooperation. A child who is regularly “made” to do something will often resist until they are made to do it, and will try to resist even then. Sometimes taking a step back and re-evaluating which battles we are choosing can be a good and healthy thing.

What is necessary?

No. You can’t run with the knife. I am sorry.
No, I won’t let you go out into the snow without boots. You can put your foot in the snow to feel how cold it is, but if you won’t put your boots on we will stay inside.

On the other hand… Do I really need for you to sit on the high chair instead of on a regular chair? Do I really need for you to eat your chicken with a fork or do I just need for you to clean your hands off before you get up? Do I really need for you to learn this RIGHT NOW at two and a half or three, or is it a skill that you can approach when you are more comfortable with your fine motor skills and when you have more of an interest in keeping your body clean?

Not everything has to happen perfectly RIGHT NOW. Some things can develop and grow over time. A two year old is very different from a one year old, a three year old or a four year old.

3 thoughts on “Cooperation and Compliance are Not the Same Thing

  1. I’ve really been loving your posts lately! I have a 2 year old and it’s great to read a different approach to parenting… It just clicks with how I think and feel!

  2. Thanks. I needed to be reminded to take a step back more often and see the bigger picture. I’ve definitely been guilty, lately, of telling my almost 3 year old to just “stop”, instead of distracting him. I think I had forgotten that. At least I haven’t forgotten to not just grab things from his hands. That’s actually something I have had to stop my husband from doing. I’ve worked hard on having patience with my son, something I was not taught as a child, nor was my husband. Sadly, I can see that my husband has not worked on his patience at all. I don’t know what to do with that other to remind him to be more calm and understanding with our son. Often, though, he thinks/feels that I’m undermining his decisions with our son when I come in and tell him that something he said “no”to actually is something that’s Ok for our son to do. He can be a little bit unreasonable when it comes to our son. He doesn’t mean to be, it’s more that since he hasn’t read everything I’ve read (though I’ve tried to get him to) he’s not always thinking about how to better do things and ends up falling back to how he was raised. Maybe I need to insist that he read your posts 😉 

  3. I just used his last night after reading it.
    I was having the worst time with getting my middle child to go to sleep (he is still in our bed most of the time). I do night alone and the baby will not go to sleep if he is awake in the bed. He was adamant that she is younger and should be asleep first; but he was exhausted and the baby had taken a late nap…
    I thought … Right now, he can’t cooperate, because we don’t have he same goal. How do I get him to have the same goal as I do. In comes a little manipulation (please don’t bash this… He was really tired).
    “I know you want the baby to go to sleep. I’ll tell you what. I will go get her, because I can’t leave her much longer anyway. If hen I come up to lay her down, you are asleep, she and I will go to sleep with you. If you are awake when I get back up, I am going to have to sake you to sleep in your own bed, so that she won’t roll around and want to play with you”
    His bed is at the foot of mine; but he likes to snuggle. Suddenly, we had the same goal and he cooperated :)
    I never heard another peep from him until 6:00 am this morning :)

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