How to Get Children to Cooperate Without Punishments or Rewards

Is it even possible?

I have a three year old, so this is a subject I have had a lot of time and opportunity to ponder. My son has been blessed with a stubborn gene (passed on from myself and his Opa no doubt!) and knows his own mind. The fact that he isn’t afraid to say no, that he questions “authority” (me!) and doesn’t blindly follow orders and instructions is something I am immensely proud of. I love that he thinks for himself. And yet…

At times, I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish he would just this once, just do as I ask. Sometimes we are in a hurry and it would be really helpful if he would do a few things I KNOW he is capable of – Tidy his toys, put on his coat, wash his face. The fact that he can do these things but chooses not to can be a real source of frustration for me.

And so on these occasions, I would find myself getting cross. I’d nag and complain. I would put the pressure on, and I admit, I even tried subtle bribes and threats. (Lest you believe I always get it right!) And what was the result? He dug his heels in even further. He not only refused to do the thing I had asked, but now refused to even move. Or worse still, my actions made HIM feel frustrated which displayed itself in destructive behaviours. Which in turn, made me angrier still! It became a very negative circle of emotions and reactions.

When this happened I would have two choices. I could up the anti and start punishing in a way that would MAKE him comply by sheer fear, causing catastrophic damage to our relationship, his trust in me, his self confidence and so much more, or I could back down. Admit defeat. Calm myself down and start again. I always chose the second option.

But this still leaves the issue of how do you get your child to cooperate if you don’t want to fall into the dangerous trap of punishment and rewards? So I wanted to share with you what I have learned along the way, and what has worked for our family.

1. Accept that your child has the right to say no. Sounds simple but it is actually something which we as parents overlook. We must remember, we do not own them and they do have the right to say no, even when it is not what we had hoped to hear.

2. There came a point where our days felt tense and frustrating for both myself and my son. I was so focused on the importance of him doing certain things that I was starting to neglect the joy in our relationship. I made the choice to completely stop with the nagging. I would rather be happy and enjoy his company, and just help him with the tasks, accepting that there WOULD come a point where he no longer needed my support. One example was that he refused to pull down his own trousers when going to the potty. He would always ask me to do it and to pull them back up again, even though I had seen him do it himself previously. It began to become apparent that although physically he didn’t need any help, I was clearly overlooking an emotional need. This was proved to me the very next day, when with an emotional cup full to brimming with positive energy having finally got my attention in a joyful and healthy way, he went unprompted and did all the things we had been struggling over for weeks. He took himself to the potty and pulled up his own trousers without comment or fanfare. It turned out that the combination of me removing the pressure along with being more relaxed and genuinely happy was all it took. I don’t think this is something I could have faked to my advantage. I’m sure, had I just been pretending not to care, his intuition would have told him. But making the choice to put our happiness above everything else and not to worry about him learning self care skills, actually had the effect that he no longer felt he had to fight against me. As I said, this is a boy who knows his own mind and values his autonomy. He doesn’t respond well to force and coercion (thankfully!)

3. Lastly, and this is something that will only work in combination with the previous point: Make it fun! Putting your shoes on can be exciting if it is done in a calm relaxed atmosphere. Or, it can be a stressful event to be avoided at all costs if they are being rushed and hurried. We so often forget that what comes naturally and unconsciously to us, is still a learning process for our children. They are far more likely to be open to trying something if they have the time to do so without feeling hurried and worried about doing it wrong. Leave room for mistakes and time for exploring. Tidy up time can be a fun family task if made into a game or done joyfully and calmly together, or it can be boring (if expected to do it alone) or intimidating (if reprimanded for putting the toy in the wrong box.) Try to see each situation from the child’s point of view, and parent slowly and gently.

This way, in the end, you will ALL be happier, more relaxed and more connected. It worked for us, why not give it a go?



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4 thoughts on “How to Get Children to Cooperate Without Punishments or Rewards”

  1. What about when they won’t go to bed? Bedtime has been all about “reward/punishment” lately – like if you don’t lay down, mama is going to leave the room. Of course, I can’t get her to STAY in her room either (and I won’t let her cry). She’s 3.

    1. Have you tried laying down with her until she falls asleep? Bedtime struggles are often based on fear, loneliness, attention needs or fear of missing out. If you stay with her she will be comforted, have her attention and attachment needs met and know that she is not missing out on more exciting things going on elsewhere without her.

      1. Yep – we ALWAYS lay down with her. She co-sleeps and so once we get her down, we do come back and sleep with her. It is just hard to get her to GO down without coercion or “If you don’t lay down and close your eyes, I’m going to leave” or whatever. I hate it!

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