Encouraging Your Toddler to Cooperate

The words “toddler” and “cooperate” might not seem like they could be joined together into one sentence--the phrase “terrible twos” exists for a reason. But, despite expectations, even very young children can learn to cooperate successfully with practice and encouragement.

Cooperate Photo

Here are some tips to help teach your toddler to cooperate:

1. Request instead of demand. Of course, there are times when you are going to have to require your child to follow your instructions, especially where safety matters are concerned. But whenever possible, phrase your demand as a question. “Could you please put your toys away?” will get a better response than, “Put your toys away.” The way you word things can have a huge impact.

2. Connect with them first. Spend a few moments playing or talking with your child before you introduce a request. Observe what he is doing and get involved, even for just a few minutes. Then, when you ask him to do something, he will be more inclined to cooperate because of your bond with each other. Anytime you connect with your child also allows you to build upon your relationship with him in a loving and responsive way to support even more cooperative behavior in the future.

3. Provide choice and ownership. Toddlers are just beginning to understand they are separate beings and love the opportunity to have control over their environment. For example, instead of saying, “Put on your shirt” (which you have chosen), take out two shirts and let her choose which one to wear. Then, use positive language to praise her for completing the task, e.g., “I like that shirt too. You did a great job!”

4. Make it fun. Turning chores into games or playing pretend when you need him to follow directions makes cooperation enjoyable. Instead of saying, “Get in the car right now,” ask him, “Can you hop like a bunny over towards the car?” Make objects talk; you can say, “I’m Joey the toothbrush and I’m lonely because you haven’t played with me today.” Many problems and disputes can be solved with fun and laughter.

5. Introduce and maintain routines. Young children are less frustrated when they know what to expect. Predictability may seem boring to you, but it’s a comfort to your toddler when she is learning to make sense of her world and all the stimuli surrounding her. Start with small routines, like reading the same book before bed, playing with the same toys at bath time, and any other point when cooperation is needed.

6. Complete chores together. Demonstrate cooperation by helping each other complete household tasks. Even very young children can help with simple chores like putting napkins on the table, cleaning up toys, and sorting socks. A sense of accomplishment from doing something helpful and important adds to his self-esteem, too.

Note that none of these strategies include bribery. Sometimes, rewards can be appropriate for extraordinary behavior, but cooperation is a life skill that shouldn’t require compensation before it’s given. Some kids get good at a form of extortion--for example, “I’ll do it if you give me ______.” You don’t want that. Instead, model and teach cooperation early on. Cooperate with your kids and you’ll be more likely to get cooperation in return.