What Can You Do To Help Your Child Learn Cooperation?

May 27, 2014


Parents sometimes unintentionally use the word “cooperate” when they actually mean “obey."

For example: Jenna, who is 3, is fooling around at dinner. When she sings, her father says, “Stop singing at the table, Jenna.” She feeds the cat under the table. She grabs her sister’s toast. Her father says, “Leave your sister and the cat alone.” Jenna keeps fooling around. “Jenna, eat your dinner!” exclaims her father. Jenna ignores him. Dad is fed up. He yells at Jenna, “I want you to cooperate young lady! Sit still and eat – or else! ”

Dad says he wants cooperation. But what he really wants is for Jenna to obey. Yelling and threats might make her mind – for a while. But Dad could show Jenna something more useful: To cooperate with him and the other people in her home.

Cooperation really means, “to work together.” It doesn't mean that children do what adults order them to do. There are many ways to help our children learn to cooperate.

How Much Cooperation Can I Expect?

Cooperation needs to be encouraged. What kind of cooperation can you expect from a baby, a toddler and a preschooler? What can you do to help your child learn cooperation?


Babies are explorers. They learn by using all their senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Babies explore without rules or common sense. In part, they explore to find limits, or boundaries.

Babies see themselves as the center of the universe. They don’t know about the needs and rights of others. Because of this, you can’t expect your baby to cooperate naturally. But babyhood is the perfect time to begin teaching cooperation. Every moment you spend with your baby is a chance to show respect and cooperation.


Toddlers still like to explore, but they are beginning to see the results of their actions:

  • “When I run, you chase me.”
  • “When I scream, you cringe.”
  • “When I cry, you hug me.”

Toddlers can move faster and farther than babies, but they don’t have self-control or see dangers. Toddlers need clear safety limits. They also need to start learning social limits. Toddlers can begin to understand parents’ messages about which behaviors are-and not-okay.

Toddlers have a simple sense of what cooperation means, although they often act in ways that seem totally uncooperative. You toddler may:

  • Refuse to do what you ask
  • Do the opposite of what you ask
  • Say NO-loudly and often

Toddlers are learning that they can control themselves and they show this in many ways. For example, closing their mouths when parents want them to eat or running away when parents want them to get dressed. Toddlers are not “bad,” they are simply learning what they can and can’t do as they grow more independent.

How can you encourage your toddler to cooperate? By guiding your child to positive activities that build independence and self-esteem.


Emotion rules toddlers, but reason begins to play a part in the behavior or preschoolers. Preschoolers are able to use self-control. They have some ability to change their behavior to avoid unwanted consequences.

How do you get the cooperation you expect from your preschooler? Give clear, simple rules. Explain the consequences of breaking the rules. Your preschooler won’t always understand your expectations, but this understanding is growing.

It’s not reasonable to expect completely cooperative preschoolers, but we can expect the beginnings of cooperative behavior. Preschoolers naturally believe their needs and wishes come first, but the seeds of cooperative behavior, seeds that were planted in babyhood, are beginning to sprout.