Getting to Cooperation

Words are important in the RIE Approach. On so many levels.

From speaking respectfully to children, to telling them what we are going to do before we do it, to using our words to involve them in their own care, to telling them what we want them to do (as opposed to what we want them not to do), to explaining why we are excited about something they are doing instead of just saying “good job”…well, yes, words are an integral part of RIE.

RIE’s founder, Magda Gerber, was a wordsmith herself (take, for example, educaring), and she was known for being very precise with her own language. And this carried through her training and her legacy. So today, I want to challenge you to get a little more precise with your language. With one word in particular…if not in practice, at least in your own mindset.

What’s the word of the week?


What do you think of when you hear that word? For me, I think of two or more people working together on a shared task…sometimes working in tandem, sometimes with one person doing more and the other less, and certainly sometimes when everyone is not on the same page.

When I’m working with children, I want them to cooperate with me on the task…say, staying at the table during snack or not crawling on the table. Parents may want children to cooperate when it’s time to leave. Or maybe we want children to cooperate with other children when they are negotiating over toys.

But we have to be careful…because in practice, it can be very easy for us to say ‘cooperate’ when we actually mean ‘comply.’ And it’s tricky, right…because we do want children to comply with our wishes!

But we also want to be in relationship with them…can you imagine expecting your friend or spouse to immediately comply with you at your every whim? Well, that actually might be nice…but it isn’t reality! In reality, we expect (and hopefully get) cooperation from other adults, but we also give grace to moods, activities, distractions, countering points of view, etc. And (when we’re regulated), we probably don’t grab our partner’s hand and pull them into the kitchen to empty the dishwasher just because we’ve asked them once and they didn’t do it on our timeline.

And just like with adults, we want to give a little space and time to our partner in cooperation, instead of expecting immediate compliance. I sat with this concept all week, after listening to an episode of the ​Peace and Parenting podcast​ entitled, well, the difference between cooperation and compliance…I was primed. And I started to notice how very often children will absolutely cooperate with us…comply to our wishes…when we slow down and give them the time to do so.

In one class, two children spent pretty much the entire time trading toys…not peacefully mind you… there were scowls and howls. There were clenched hands trying to hold onto or take toys. There were times when each child deliberately held a toy away from the other. The adults in the space made sure children stayed safe and carefully narrated what we saw: “You noticed Cally playing with that ball and you wanted to try it. Oh, she’s not ready to let it go. You’re pulling on it. Cally, you can tell Ted that you aren’t done. You can hold on…Oh, Ted has it. That looks really frustrating. Ted, I don’t think Cally was done.” Less than two minutes later, Ted sought out Cally and passed her the ball back. She beamed. He beamed. This dynamic played out over and over. We didn’t have to tell them to share, we just had to give them the space and the safety to cooperate in their own time.

Today at snack, like almost any other snack I’ve ever offered, a child walked away from the table with her bib on and banana in hand. I immediately asked her to return, and after a quick smile and check in with her Mom she did…and then did it two more times. Another child thoughtfully removed his bib at the end of snack and then bolted with a big hunk of banana. When I told him I needed him to come back to the table to finish his banana, he smiled and walked further away. When I came close to take the banana (as I’d done last week), he quickly wolfed down his chunk and grinned at me. Clever guy…yes, I don’t want you walking around with banana, and now you don’t have any banana to walk around with! We’ll continue working on this cooperative effort!

So yes, cooperation doesn’t always yield compliance or obedience…but (and this may sound radical), I don’t want to raise obedient children. I want to raise children who are thoughtful about what their actions do to others…I want connected children.

And sure, there are going to be times when we don’t feel like connecting…when we’re hungry or tired or ill or overstimulated or anxious or…or…or… that is the same for children. And when I’m any of those things in that list, what helps me is either getting my physical needs met…and more importantly, co-regulating with someone I trust. Children need that, too. So, the next time you find your child less cooperative, less compliant, try a little co-regulation to see if that helps. A little slowing down and connecting goes a long way.

And if you’re interested in learning more about self-regulation and co-regulation, I highly recommend the book ​Raising Good Humans​. I’ve read it several times as part of my book club series…and I just learned that the author is hosting a ​free summit​ in early July with lots of fantastic speakers! Even if you haven’t read the book, I think the summit will be excellent. Let me know if you sign up for it!

And let me know if you practice actively shifting your mindset to cooperation rather than compliance…I’d love to know what happens!