Raising Cooperative Kids – Excerpt “Clear Directions”
Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Conari Press an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser,
RAISING COOPERATIVE KIDS by Marion Forgatch PhD, Gerald Patterson PhD, and Tim
Friend is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at
www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087.
We are all guilty of reacting irritably, especially when stressed. Hostility, frustration, and
anger are hallmarks of coercion. When you are upset and give these feelings free rein,
promoting cooperation is virtually impossible. In stressful circumstances, calm down and ask
yourself a few questions: What is my goal here? What do I really want? Do I just want to show
my children how angry I am? Or do I want them to follow my direction? If your goal is simply to
express irritability, let it rip. And then prepare for the aftermath.
Here’s an example that illustrates this point.
You come home from work tired, walk in the door, and there in the middle of the
doorway lies an expensive jacket. Your immediate reaction is to lash out, and the one
who happens to be there is the person who left the jacket. Do you give your beloved
child a pleasant greeting? Or do you shout out: “What is that jacket doing in the middle
of the floor? Do you know how much that cost? How many times do I have to tell you—
hang your jacket in the closet!” Does your child—does any child—respond by quickly
jumping up and hanging up the jacket, then giving you a smile and a big hug? Have
you set the tone for a pleasant evening with your family? Probably not. Instead, the
combination of jacket and shouts generates a flow of negative reverberations like the
ripples created when tossing a stone into a calm pool of water. When it comes to
telling your child to carry out this simple task, you tend to be irritated because the
jacket should not have been in the middle of the floor in the first place.
Let’s rewind and consider another way to deal with the jacket.
On the way home from a stressful day at work, you are thinking about how nice it will be to have
a pleasant evening with your family. You come into the house, your arms full, and you see your
child’s jacket lying in a heap on the floor. Your child is slouched on the couch playing a video
game. Of course you are irritated! However, you really would like to have a pleasant evening
with your family. Your immediate reaction is to lash out. Try using the enhanced steps for giving
clear directions below to design an alternative response that will set the stage for cooperation.
Enhanced Strategies for Giving Clear Directions
Prepare yourself. Stop what you’re doing and pay full attention to your direction.
Get your child’s attention. Say your child’s name, get close, use eye contact, use touch
Say what you want the child to do. Saying what not to do omits the necessary
information. “Put your jacket in the closet, now please.” vs. “Don’t leave your jacket
in the hall.”
Make it short and simple. Use the fewest words possible and make them easy to
Make a statement; don’t ask a question. Questions imply choice (e.g., “Pick up your
jacket, now please.” vs. “How would you like to pick up your jacket?”)
Pay attention to timing. Give directions at reasonable times (e.g., not five minutes)
Be calm. When necessary, take time to become calm in face, voice, language, and
body posture. Keep negative emotions under control.
Be pleasant, polite, and respectful, but firm. Show that you expect cooperation in a
firm yet positive manner (face, voice, language, and body posture). Use the word
Don’t allow discussion. Simply repeat the same clear, short, polite direction. Arguing
Give one direction at a time. More than one reduces cooperation.
Give your child time to respond. Cooperation means getting started within ten seconds.
Maintain contact. Stand and hold for ten seconds. After that, restate the direction
using the same words and neutral-to-positive emotions.
Follow through. When your child complies, praise the behavior with words, smiles, and
Clear directions can have a profound effect on you and your entire family. Most parents require
lots of practice to make clear directions a standard habit. It can be shockingly hard. If it were
easy, we wouldn’t need this book or the years of research it took to figure this out! How you lead
as a parent affects the way your child will follow. And, before you can change your child’s
behavior, you may have to change your own. That’s right. We can’t expect our children to
become cooperative unless we are skilled at being calm, clear, and polite in the face of chaos.
Think about how many steps are involved. First, when you saw the coat on the floor, you
had to stifle the almost automatic (and actually quite natural) irritated reaction. If you allow
yourself to react with anger, how do you think your child will react? And how will you then
respond to that reaction? And then how likely is it that you will have a pleasant evening with
your family? And, by the way, has the jacket been hung up? So, whether you like it or not, the
first person you have to change is yourself.
In our decades of working with parents—and being parents—we have met few moms and
dads who automatically knew how to deal with irritating situations. Our human reaction to a biting
mosquito is to swat it. Most of us have no idea how often we go through the day swatting
mosquitos. Learning to respond rather than react to life’s many irritants is a lesson in self-control
that requires practice, practice, and more practice. Automatic negative reactions to pain can be
replaced with responses that help you achieve your goals. In the situation above, the goals were
a pleasant evening and the coat hung up
Practice giving clear directions that involve simple actions and that can be accomplished in a
minute or two—put your shoes away; close the door quietly; or put your backpack in your room
now, please. Don’t start with cleaning up a catastrophically messy room or washing the dishes
from Thanksgiving dinner. Another mistake parents commonly make is to give what we call “stop”
directions: “Stop teasing your brother. “Don’t do that.” Instead, provide a direction for an
alternative start-up behavior: “Bring in the mail now, please.” Parents who develop a habit of
giving clear directions report that this simple step dramatically improves their children’s behavior.
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