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Home Family Parenting Advice Decenter to Gain a Child’s Cooperation: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Decenter to Gain a Child’s Cooperation: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My children, ages 2 ½ and 5, are generally manageable for myself, their dad, and other adults. They even do well with their older cousins. There are times, however, when I’m in a hurry, or I’m exhausted, or I’m trying to concentrate on a project for work and they just won’t cooperate with me. The five-year-old pitched a fit about getting her shoes on yesterday, making us late for her dental checkup.

Are there any tricks to getting them to do what I ask?

Pretty Please

Dear P.P.,

There are. You need to practice “decentering”. This is a psychological term to describe momentarily getting out of your head and into your child’s. This is a social skill that is basic to all cooperative interactions. Children typically don’t react well to being rushed. 

So adjust your schedule accordingly and be prepared to invest a minute or two in getting your child to understand, to agree to, and to comply with your request. It’ll save you time in the long run.

Make a Connection

Before you ask a child to do something – to get her shoes on, to play more quietly, to put toys away – take a moment to imagine what she’s thinking right now. You have a much better chance of getting her attention if your words connect to what’s already going on in her mind.

Make a positive comment about the activity in which she is engaged. “This puzzle you’re working on reminds me of our fun trip to the farm.” “I see your dolls are having a tea party.” Ask her a question or two about what she’s doing. “How did you decide on the menu for the tea party?” You are establishing contact between her mind and yours.

By the way, you’ll have a harder time gaining her attention when she’s deeply focused – for example “reading” a picture book or watching a video. Be polite and wait until she’s finished so she can give you her full attention. Now you can have a brief conversation, even just to ask, “Was that a good book / show?” And listen while she tells you something about it. (Scheduling note: give a child a choice of some very short videos when there isn’t time for a longer one.)

Take the Child’s Perspective

Remember that a young child, up to about age seven, can only see things from her own point of view. This is ego-centrism, in which everything and everyone exist for the child’s own reasons. She cannot sympathize with your rush to get her to a dental checkup, your fatigue, nor your work deadlines,

Don’t waste your energy on fussing at her about other people’s needs, such as the dental hygienist’s need to see patients at their appointed times. Likewise, reserve your requests for her to meet your needs to a minimum. In a dysfunctional family a parent’s needs supersede the child’s on a regular basis. In a functional family, the parent takes care of the child’s needs all the while guiding her toward independence.

Accommodate your children’s narrow perspectives about how the world operates. Use Teachable Moments to expand their understanding. You can explain that getting to the appointment on time helps out the hygienist and the other patients. You can explain that letting you have a rest will help you to be able to cook up a nice dinner for the family. You can explain that your work results in money that buys the family food and other necessities. Explaining is different than laying responsibility on the child or demanding compliance.

Motivate Appropriately

Why would she want to get her shoes on? Before you ask her to do this, think of what would excite her about getting ready to go. For example, remind her of the aquarium she likes to look at in the dental office waiting room. Maybe she is fond of the hygienist or the dentist, or maybe she usually gets a nice new toothbrush after a checkup. (The dentist of my childhood had a “treasure chest” of tiny toys we were allowed to pick from. The prospect of choosing my “prize” guaranteed my cooperation for the whole appointment.)

If there is nothing about this excursion that would please your child, then work on a suitable post dental appointment treat. Tack on something to look forward to that’s nearby such as a playground or a pet store. Long ago I had a toddler who had to endure several visits to a cardiologist, so we paired this with an after appointment visit to a bowling alley – just to watch the bowlers bowl and to make our own sound effects when a ball hit the pins. “Krrrrr!”

If you’re at home and needing cooperation for the children to play quietly or to clean up, you can similarly offer an incentive that will immediately follow their compliance. Since your children are still concrete thinkers, you can ramp up their trust with visible evidence of the reward to come. For example, have them each pick the book they want you to read to them and set the books in your reading spot “for when I’m / you’re finished”.

When you need your child to follow what’s on your mind, you first need to see things from hers. This shouldn’t be too hard. You were a child once.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Dr. Wood is presenting a workshop for parents and other caregivers of young children, tonight, July 25, 7-9 pm, on Zoom. Childcare professionals can earn MSDE-approved certificates for participating.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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