When We Need Our Child to Cooperate

Respectful parenting can be like running a marathon. We need determination, consistent effort, confidence, and commitment to stay the course.  Of course, if we were actual marathon runners, we might be inspired at regular intervals by cheering fans applauding our efforts and encouraging us to push on. As parents practicing respectful care, while we can’t generally count on applause from enthusiastic spectators, we will be encouraged by our baby.

This might happen at just a few weeks old when in response to, “I’m going to pick you up,” our infant locks eyes with us and we see her ever so subtly tense her body in preparation to be lifted. In that moment, what might previously have felt like a one-way dialogue (and perhaps a bit silly) proves to be actual person-to-person communication. She’s been listening all along.

All she needed was to be spoken to directly and respectfully.

Or it might happen on the changing table when we offer (as we regularly do), “Would you like to put your hand through this hole in this sleeve?” and our 4 month old attempts and achieves this for the very first time.

All she needed was to be invited to participate.

We might be encouraged the first time our 6-month-old relaxes contentedly in our arms after a long cry. We calmed ourselves enough to be able to receive it and just listen, while intermittently acknowledging, “I hear you… Yes, that’s so hard… There was so much commotion in our house today… That must be exhausting for you.”

All she needed was to know it was okay to share and vent.

We might be inspired and bit shocked when our 12-month-old demonstrates that she completely comprehends and can even follow our directions. (As a self-respecting toddler, she might not always choose to follow them, but that’s another post.)

All she needed was for us to speak to her honestly, clearly, as we would with any other intelligent person (albeit a bit more slowly), and believe in her as capable.

And sometimes encouragement appears through far more dramatic or urgent situations, like the one Allison faced with her toddler:

Good morning Janet,

I just wanted to quickly drop you an email to say thank you for providing all the resources, inspiration, and practical advice on respectful parenting.  I have found time and time again that if I “listen to my inner Janet” life is a lot smoother with my 2.5 year old daughter and 6 month old son.  One piece of respectful parenting that has always rung true to me is the idea that kids (and adults) want to know what is going to happen to them, and as such, we always try to tell our 2 year old daughter “the plan.” Be it for the day (if someone is going to come over) or how to prepare her for something she hasn’t done before (like going on an airplane), we always talk through the plan and the details of what is going to come. Anyway, I share this because of an incident that happened earlier on this week:

My daughter was swinging in the backyard, and the swing broke and she fell and hit her head on the concrete. Scary stuff. We ended up in the ER where they recommended a CT scan.  It was a bit of a chaotic evening, and when she started throwing up because of the concussion, they tried to give her Zofran for the nausea (which was a little white pill that dissolves on the tongue).  Well, my daughter was just upset and disoriented enough that she absolutely refused to take the pill, and (I am ashamed to admit) momentarily,  we tried to hold her and poke it into the side of her mouth (which she promptly either spit out or put on the end of her tongue and stuck out her mouth).  She would not take that pill. When you are in a hospital situation where things are happening quickly and you feel out of control, it can be too easy to get sucked into a “panic mentality” and revert to trying to get a result rather than trusting that your child is a full participant in the situation. I think that mentality just made the situation worse.  After trying to force her to take the pill, I had to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and remember that she responds so well when I respect her and trust her rather than try to force her to comply.  I stopped, looked her in the eye, and explained the little white pill would make her stomach feel better, and I needed her to take it so that she would stop throwing up and then we could give her some water (which she had been crying for).  She looked at me for a second, and then opened her mouth and we popped the pill in.

About that time, the nurse started prepping me that my daughter would need a CT scan. She warned me that most kids get freaked out about the machine and can’t hold still, so it was probable that we would need to medicate her to get the scan done.  Emboldened by the pill incident, I started immediately to tell my daughter “the plan”: That the doctors needed to take pictures of her brain, and she would need to hold still for them to get a good picture.  We talked through the table she had to lie on and the large donut shaped tube that the bed would move in and out of.  Telling her what to expect and then trusting her to understand how important it was to hold still was truly the key.

We were able to do the CT scan shortly afterwards, and she was able to hold perfectly still for the 2 minutes it took to take the scan, and both the nurse as well as the techs mentioned that she was one of the best 2-year-olds they had ever taken pictures of.

I guess I relay the story to say thank you for continuing to give me confidence to trust that my 2-year-old can do/comprehend/participate at a higher level than sometimes I give her credit for.  By trusting her to be able to participate fully and treating her with the respect that comes from that trust, she ended up having a more peaceful hospital experience (if that is possible) and hopefully she won’t be scared of the hospital if she ever needs to go back.

Thank you!

All she needed was direct, honest communication, rather than distractions, coaxing, or trickery.

All she needed was to be allowed to actively participate, rather than having procedures done to her.

All she needed were parents who believed in her, nurtured her with respect, and empowered her with the truth.

Thank you, Allison, for allowing me to share your story!

At last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at nobadkidscourse.com. ♥

There’s also more on this topic in my books:

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

AND I recommend The Secret To Turning A Toddler’s “No!” Into A “Yes!” and What To Say Instead Of “NO!” – Six Ways To Gain Your Child’s Co-operation by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

Pikler Bulletin #14 by Dr. Emmi Pikler


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Another helpful article, thank you Janet. I’ve read your post on thumbsucking which was helpful but I’d love to hear a podcast on that topic since hearing seems to resonate with me better than reading for some reason.

    My son is almost three and seems to be a relatively anxious guy. He has sucked his thumb since around six months old. He recently developed a sore on his thumb so we put a bandaid on it (with his consent) and he was surprisingly ok with it and seemed fine. After he didn’t need the bandaid anymore he continued not sucking his thumb for about a week. It seemed to me like he made a conscious choice to not suck anymore.

    Then one day my son accidentally knocked another child down in public. My husband said to him “that upset your friend. When I upset other people I like to say sorry”. That suggestion upset my son and he ended up having a meltdown (I’ve since shared your articles and podcast about saying ‘i’m sorry’ with my husband). A well meaning woman ended up distracting my son to make him feel better and my husband was not able to deflect her (he had to pay a bill) so my son was not able to release all his feelings. On top of all that, earlier that day we saw a child sucking on a pacifier and my son asked about it. I wasn’t sure what to say so I said something like some kids like to suck on pacifiers for comfort, similar to how when you used to suck on your thumb.

    That night he started sucking again and has been sucking more than ever since. I feel like we missed a great opportunity to support him stopping. I know there is nothing we can do to get him to stop and any pressure or worry surrounding it will reduce his willingness to stop. I must admit it is hard for me to see him do it (and was relieved when he stopped for that week or two) because I feel like he started sucking in the first place when he was a baby because I was not responsive or attuned enough during his first year.

    Any advice or insight would be helpful. Thanks for all the support and being such a valuable resource to all of us parents who are struggling.

    1. Maybe when you see him sucking, particularly when he’s just starting to, you could gently help him to remove his thumb from his mouth and then lovingly acknowledge, “You feel like sucking your thumb right now… Are you feeling uncomfortable?” Then, the important part will be really and truly welcoming any feelings he has at that moment and any other time as well. It’s not enough to say things like, “It’s okay to be frustrated, sad, angry, etc.,” You’ll need to demonstrate through your calm acceptance and patience that it is 100% okay with you, anywhere, anytime. If you know what he’s reacting to (by using his thumb), you could acknowledge, “That was uncomfortable when Daddy corrected you,” or whatever. “That makes you want to suck your thumb. But I want to hear your feelings. You didn’t like what Daddy said.”

      So, in other words, I would not make a big deal about the thumbsucking, but I would help him as much as you can to feel his feelings.

      1. I am coming back to this comment by searching your thoughts in thumb sucking again. My son is nearly five now and despite what I think are our best efforts to welcome all his feelings he simply will not stop sucking his thumb. He just says he doesn’t want to. I wish I could ignore it but the germs he is putting into his body bother me. I have told him calmly many times that he could be making himself sick but it doesn’t resonate. He doesn’t suck is thumb at school, but he will basically everywhere else. How hard should I intervene now?

  2. Ruth mason says:

    Another great one , Janet. Thanks for the reminders we all need

  3. This is one rie principle that I’ve been able to adhere to the most and it has made all the difference. Especially for my 2.5 year old, who can sometimes be a bit slow to warm to various types of situations. Now with my 3 month old, we tell him everything we can, including when he’s being passed to different relatives. I’ve noticed he seems so responsive and curious about his surroundings and I only wish I had known to do this when my first was this young!

    1. Yes, I’m thrilled you’re noticing this with your infant as well! This is a parenting “tool” that truly works miracles.

  4. This story gave me such a warm feeling inside. Ever since I started applying your recommendations parenting has become more joyful and natural. It’s not always easy but I take the challenges as big opportunities to make the bond with my 2.5 year old daughter stronger. Thank you!

    1. “…parenting has become more joyful and natural.” YES! That makes me do a happy dance! You’re so welcome, Adriana.

  5. I always feel so stupid when I read this kind of articles. I tried all this with my child (now two years years old) and it never worked. Not even once. Clearly I’m doing a something wrong, but I can’t point out what.

    1. Oh, dear. The last thing I want is for you to feel stupid. Hmm… What is going through your mind when your offer your child this kind of information? What are you thinking and feeling? Do you feel like you talking to your child the way you would with any other person? A friend? Are you simply relaying some information? Sometimes we work a bit too hard at this and can give children the impression we’re trying to sell them on something, which usually doesn’t go over too well.

      1. That’s maybe the issue. When I read it here on your blog, I thought that it makes totally sense, so I tried when my child was little (like during change/bath). Just nothing. And so on. For a long time I have even had the impression that my child would not understand me (we are a multilingual family with no rigid boundaries between languages), but now I’m sure that it’s not the case. And yeah, I’m probably trying too hard to sell him something and at the same time to control myself as I was raised by a yelling mother, so I’m constantly make efforts not to yellow. Thanks for the hindsigh.

  6. My 2.5 year old is terrified of getting a haircut! His hair is getting very long and is starting to get in his eyes. How should I handle this as it’s time that he really needs a haircut!

  7. Thank you for your informed and thoughtful articles.

  8. Chelsea Townsell says:

    Hi Janet,

    I live by your words as if they’re the bible. They really help me through this tough years with two small children (and one more on the way). I am struggling to find success when it comes to my daughter’s chronic constipation, though. I understand that withholding poop is her way of asserting control and do my best to let my 4 year old tell me when she needs to use the bathroom. The second she feels the urge, though, she wants to get off the toilet. It results in days (and days) of withholding, despite Miralax. The doctor suggested ExLax, a chocolate square, but my sweet girl would rather refuse chocolate than be told to eat it. I have explained why the ExLax helps, we have read books about poop, talked about how it can be scary, reflected on all the times she has pooped without pain, etc. I don’t know how to end the power struggle and get her a) stay seated on the toilet long enough to poop and b) how to have her take medication that will help her soften her poop so it’s not painful. I have once had to resort to an enema and neither of us can go through that trauma again. It felt like a violation of her body and brought us both to uncontrollable tears, even after explaining why and how I needed to help her get poop out. I’d be so grateful for some guidance.

    Thank you

  9. Just came to say that we’ve had similar experience as described in the article with medical procedures. Just recently, my now three year old needed a painful injection into a wound and then stitches. When the doctor first announced what needs to be done, my son erupted in hysterics saying he will not have the injection done as he doesn’t want the pain. The doctor suggested we change clinics to a place where he can be sedated for the procedure, but instead I asked her to just give us the room for a few minutes. My son cried and cried, as I explained to him why this needs to be done, and needs to be done fairly quickly. And that it’s completely natural to feel upset and anxious and sad about it. And then, he suddenly was quiet, and said ok. And so it all got done smoothly, much to doctor’s surprise. I’ll never forget this parenting lesson. Just give them a minute (or several!) to express the frustration, hurt, anger about the unavoidable situation. More often than not, they’ll come around.

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