The other day, I started a conversation with my former student, Kumi, about the word “cooperation.” We were discussing a recent workshop we’d both watched, about eliciting cooperation from children during wiggly diaper changes. You’ve all been there, if not with diaper changes, then with getting dressed or undressed, or going to sleep (or staying asleep), or feeding, or transitioning from one thing to the next, or, or, or…you ask and you ask…sometimes you cajole and sometimes you castigate, and sometimes you just plead: you just want your child to just cooperate already!

Here’s the thing about that word “cooperation:” so often we use it when what we really mean is ‘just listen and follow my directions. Now.’

I’m not pointing fingers; I do it, too!! It’s a sneaky little word because it feels like we are being so respectful and convivial with our children: I’m asking her to cooperate, not telling her what to do! But we kind of are: we are the ones that set the agenda, who know what needs to get done, not only in this moment, but in the coming moments and the rest of the day, so it’s important to keep things moving…to keep the momentum up. But here’s the thing, from your child’s perspective, they get a lot of direction. All Day. Long. And depending on the age and stage of your child (and their physical and emotional state (hungry, tired, tender, sick, excited, etc.), they are going to be more or less interested in cooperating with you and your agenda.  

This is not at all to say you should throw your hands up and give up on getting things done. Not by a longshot! But RIE asks us to consider caregiving interactions with children to be opportunities for yes, cooperation, but also interaction, intimacy, and mutual enjoyment. It’s a chance to connect, even while…no especially while…providing care.

The next time you need to get your child to do something, pause. Take a couple of deep breaths. Then notice: what is your child doing? What has captured their attention right now? Get on their level. Get their attention. Invite them to participate in whatever needs to happen. Use what Magda’s mentor, Emmi Pikler, called “asking hands:” your child should feel that the hands touching them are asking, seeking. (You can feel the response in their bodies…tightening/resisting, or relaxing). This might be a place where your child resists…if you have time and a little latitude, you might say “okay, I can see you aren’t ready yet, I will go make sure everything is ready for (diaper, bath, dressing, etc.) and when I come back, it will be time.” This is a place I invite toddlers to come assist with, if they are interested and willing…children often enjoy being part of preparations: picking out bath toys, selecting different outfits, choosing which plates and cups that will be used…often, just being involved in some simple steps in the process will make the next part of the interaction go more smoothly.

If your child is still resistant, try asking a new question: how can I cooperate with my child? What can I do to cooperate with him? Cooperation really is a two-way street: it is the process of working together to the same end. Honestly, cooperation gets to the very heart of RIE: it asks you to take your child’s (ever-developing) point of view into consideration when engaging with them. It goes back to one of RIE’s basic principles: trust in your child. RIE asks us to trust our children to be initiators, explorers, and self-learners. And through the principle of slowing down and practicing sensitive observation, we can see not only where they are emotionally and physically in a given moment, but also how much they are capable of when we just give them a little time and invite their participation.

And then there’s reality…sometimes even when your child is well-rested, fed, happy and peaceful, they may just simply not want to be bothered with a diaper change or teeth brushing or, or, or…that’s called “being human.” Yeah, I don’t always feel like brushing my teeth at the end of a long hard day. But I do it because I have healthy executive function and know that if I neglect my teeth, I’m going to pay for it…with sour breath in the short term and an un-fun trip to the dentist in the long. So I do it. Your children don’t have that executive function just yet…you do. So I mentioned that cooperation entailed working together to reach the same end? Yes, well, sometimes one partner has to do a little more of the work to reach the end. Sometimes, you can get creative with your diaper changes (stand up diaper changes, anyone?) or your teeth brushing (maybe skip the brush and use a washcloth with toothpaste (hat tip, Deb F.!)…and sometimes you will tweak your routine (maybe tooth-brushing right after meals, or dressing as part of the first diaper change instead of later in the morning)…but sometimes your child will be unwilling and upset. And you will have to do more than usual while your child participates less than usual. That’s okay. Believe that is okay… calmly and lovingly say, “Wow, you really don’t want to X,Y,Z right now. That’s so hard. I hear you.” And then, gently go ahead with what needs to be done. Children need boundaries to be held, even as they test them and protest them.

Someday your child will cooperate more regularly and routinely…someday sooner if you consistently slow down and take their point of view into consideration…but for now, remember that your children are still developing and learning and growing. Their brains, while wide open, are less complex and effective than ours…they don’t use logic in the same ways we do, their executive functioning skills (problem-solving, creativity, planning, imagining, and thoughtfulness…the seat of their rational decision making, conscious control over emotions and body, self-awareness, and empathy) are vastly immature (the prefrontal cortex starts developing at age 2…and continues to well into adulthood). All this to say, Magda often said that we underestimate babies and overestimate toddlers…it’s true: babies are capable of cooperating in ways you only see if you look…and toddlers seem so competent: they can talk and be playful, follow directions (sometimes), and seem to understand so much. They do, but there’s a lot of growing they still have to do. Resisting cooperation, testing boundaries, melting down…these are not signs that you are doing something wrong…this is simply part of the process of growing up.

And here’s this week’s reading from The Parents’ Tao Te Ching:

9. Can You Make Room?

If you fill every waking moment
of your children’s lives
they will have no room
to be themselves.
If you push them constantly
they will break.
If you burden them with an abundance
of material toys
their hearts will contract in possessiveness.
If you always try to please them
you will be their prisoner,
not their parent.

Don’t strive or strain.
Do you work, then rest.
Your children will learn serenity.
Are your children “problems to be solved,”
or people to be loved?
Consider current problems with your children.
Can you create a space,
free from your own anxieties,
in which they are able to find their own way,
feeling your love,
but not your expectations?