Friday, January 13, 2012

52 Tool Cards: Winning Cooperation

Jane Nelsen writes:
Children feel encouraged when you understand and respect their point of view.

This tool card encourages parents to listen to the child's thoughts and feelings, then express understanding and empathy for them without condoning.  Perhaps share a time when you have felt or behaved similarly before sharing your thoughts and feelings about the situation at hand.  Finally, focus on solutions together.

Ever since reading How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, I've tried to respond with empathy and understanding to C's emotional reactions.

Lately though, she hasn't been taking it well, and it almost seems to ramp up her emotional reactions instead of calming her down.

Winning Cooperation?
For example, the other day we were at a children's museum with another family that has two boys, one her age, one around a year older.  The older boy, J, started to play with a kid-sized guitar.  There were three other small guitars in the music area, but C really wanted the guitar J had.  I told her she had to wait until J was finished, and she could pick one of the other guitars or a different musical instrument while she waited.

She screamed "NO!" and tried to grab the guitar out of J's hand.  I took her hands in mine to stop her and moved her away from J.  "You really want that guitar," I said.  "It is hard to wait."

"STOP TALKING!" C said, and tearing herself from my grasp, threw herself on the floor (prudently on a nearby tumbling mat vs. the concrete floor we were standing on).  She kicked and yelled about how mad she was.  I said, "You are so mad you want to be alone right now.  When you are ready, I'd like to give you a hug."

(J's mom reassured me by commenting how familiar this scene was to her as mother of a boy who just turned three and another who was three not so long ago).

In a few moments, C got up off the ground, came over and accepted a hug.  She said a few more times how much she really wanted that guitar, which J was still playing.  We talked some more about other things she could do while waiting, but she said no to each one, a little more calmly this time.

Meanwhile, J's mom had asked him to choose if he was going to play with the guitar for two more minutes or three more minutes.  He said he wanted to play it for ninety minutes!  She told him that was too long and he could pick three minutes or she would pick two minutes for him.  He abruptly decided he was done with the guitar after all.

C picked it up, but then noticed that J had moved on to the dress-up area of the museum. She put the guitar back down before she had even played it once, and followed J into the dress-up area.  I just had to laugh!

Did It "Work?"
I realize that whether or not I think the tool "worked" depends on my definition of "work."  I would have preferred if C had heard and received my empathy, accepted the hug right away, and quickly chosen a different instrument to play alongside J.  But, empathy is not a magic wand or switch that instantly stops the flow of emotion and turns my daughter into a cheerful robot.

And, although it didn't have the instant effect I was hoping for, it did prevent further grabbing.  After letting out her anger in a mostly healthy and age-appropriate way, she was ready to cooperate.  She waited her turn and no longer tried to grab the guitar from J.  Even at that point, I would have preferred her to just pick another guitar or different instrument and play along with J instead of continuing to tell me how much she wanted the guitar, but the maturity to make that choice will come in time, perhaps with further guidance from me.

Still, This "stop talking" reaction has been a typical response the last few weeks to any efforts on my part to express empathy or soften the blow when she can't have her way.  It makes me wonder if I'm doing it wrong, or if the tool isn't a good fit for her at this point in her development.

I wonder if I'm allowing her enough time to be heard before I offer my understanding words.  I wonder if my empathy comes across as a pat response, an insincere response?  Would a different tone of voice be more effective?  I wonder if I've only used empathy when saying no and she's caught on to that and associates it with not having her way?  Maybe she needs more space to work through her disappointment without commentary?

I'm probably over-thinking it.

The most likely answer is this new "stop talking" reaction is somehow related to the fact that she is very much a three year old girl who is showing all the developmental signs of being three!  Foremost among those is a desire to do things without help and to pick her own course in life.  It's all part of the perfectly normal and healthy impulse to continue to differentiate herself from me, her mother.  Sometimes this means that she seems to do things and choose things simply to be contrary. If I choose or seem to show preference for one thing, she's sure to choose the opposite!

So I will continue to use empathy and understanding to win cooperation. I may have to fine tune some thing, but on the whole, I believe the tool "works."  Not only that, it is a way to practice the Golden Rule to treat my children the way I want to be treated.


  1. A book that has really helped me to further understand the empathy thing (I was hopelessly unknowledgeable in this area, still am really) is "Connected Parenting" by jennifer kolari. She really helped explain the voice, tone, speed and connection of empathy.

  2. Thanks for sharing this blog with me! I do so enjoy spending time with you! You are a GREAT mom!


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