Raising Cooperative Children

Cooperation—working in harmony with others to achieve a goal—is vital not only to a happy, successful life but also to a more peaceful and harmonious world. Cooperation requires children to solve conflicts and exercise a certain amount of self-control and empathy—often letting go of something they want for the good of the group. Building this kind of team spirit begins in the family, where kids learn how good it feels when everyone works together. As the classic children’s song puts it: “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

Read our tips on teaching kids about cooperation.

Tune In to Your Child

The seeds of cooperation are planted very early, when parents tune in and respond to their young child’s needs. Try mirroring exercises: When you smile into your child’s eyes or synchronize your movements to his, it creates a harmonious rhythm that says to the child, “Mom and Dad understand me.” As kids get older, listening empathetically to them--even as you make demands or enforce rules--continues to foster the good feeling of reciprocity, the give-and-take that underlies cooperation.

Share and Share Alike

Why is sharing so hard to do? Because initially children think their toys might disappear permanently if someone takes them away--and their drive to be separate makes "No" the word of choice. Still, it's important that kids begin the process of learning to share even though it may take a few years to sink in. Why? Sharing some of their possessions is an early precursor to sharing thoughts and ideas. It also strengthens the bond between friends and makes people feel closer and happier, a strong basis for cooperation.

Set a Few Good Rules

Cooperation starts with learning to follow the rules that make a family--or any group--run more smoothly. But if parents don't set any guidelines, kids never get used to having limitations on their behavior. (On the other hand, too many rules make home a stern, forbidding place.) Having a few simple rules in the context of loving family relationships gives kids a strong foundation for working together with others. Rules can range from "no muddy shoes in the house" to "no name-calling." These convey the sense that children are part of something larger than themselves and that the world does not revolve around them.

Teach Problem-Solving Basics

When kids get into a dispute, parents often want to jump in and solve the problem. But kids learn more by solving disagreements themselves than when you take over. Help them control their impulses by having them take a few breaths before they say or do anything. Encourage verbal problem-solving, pointing out, "How do you think that makes her feel?" and "Can you think of some ways to work this out?" Show children how to use “I messages” to tell their friends what’s bothering them. Instead of  “You’re stupid,” they could say, “I feel mad when you take my toy.” Use “I messages" yourself as a way to express your feelings without blaming or attacking.

Kindle Family Spirit

The family is the first group to which children belong. It’s important to help them see their family as a team that benefits as a whole when each person does his or her part. Give age-appropriate chores to foster a spirit of helpfulness at home. Since kids are more cooperative when they have some choice in the matter, you might offer choices for jobs they can do, geared to their various likes and dislikes. Fun traditions like making up a song with every family member’s name or taking turns talking about their day at the dinner table also contribute to the growth of cooperation.

Encourage Group Projects

When kids engage in projects with friends--building something, cooking, putting on a play or musical, or pretending together--they strengthen the social skills that underlie cooperation. Encourage children to collaborate on creating a pretend environment (such as a farm or a restaurant), and suggest they decide together what animals or food they want to make. The point is that they are learning to be flexible, to use language for mutual understanding, to work out decisions--the basic ingredients of cooperation. Throughout their school years, doing projects with classmates allows kids to see first-hand that when people come together to cooperate, great things can be achieved.

Talk About Peer Pressure

There are times when cooperation isn’t a virtue, such as when peer pressure pushes kids to go along with things they shouldn’t. Teach them to be aware of their alternatives and to have a strong enough individual sense to know what’s really good for the group and what’s not. Talk about the difference between going along with the crowd in negative ways, like harassing another child or shoplifting--and true cooperation toward a positive goal.

Join the Team

Playing team sports is a time-honored way of giving kids the opportunity to practice cooperation. Not only do they see how rules work for the common good, they learn to put off immediate gratification for long-term gain. A child may want to play a certain position, but if the coach needs him in another spot, he’ll have to sacrifice his personal desire for the good of the team. If your child doesn't love sports, joining another kind of team--a band, a debating team,  a drama club--can offer the same kind of experiences. All of us have individual strengths and weaknesses, and teamwork enables us to maximize our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses in order to make a contribution. These lessons serve children well in later life.

Do Community Service

Lots of schools encourage students to participate in community service, but it’s also great to volunteer as a family. Not only will you be helping your community—you'll be showing kids how banding together can have an effect on the larger world, not just on their own immediate lives. Check out the needs of your community and how much time you have available. You could commit to a regular weekly spot at a food bank or participate in a short-term project, like spring cleanup at a recreation area. Through volunteering, kids learn to work together, to take on different roles, and to set goals. But the most lasting benefit is the closeness you’ll feel as a family joined in a cooperative effort.

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