PEP Blog


6 Steps to Better Cooperation

By Paige Trevor

Hoping for less stress in your life? Here is some food for thought, from one parent to another:

  • Inspire your family to work together and share the load of household responsibilities
  • Respect and support other family members’ solutions to shared problems
  • See children as capable partners and use collaboration instead of exasperation to get things done.

Who doesn’t want more help around the house? That’s probably a universal wish. But some of us have the feeling that we have to do it all by ourselves. In many families, someone will gravitate toward the role of “boss,” and in certain seasons of life (new baby, new job, moving) this can be an efficient, short-term way to run a family. However, if we hold on to the “boss” role for too long, we will come to find that it’s an energy and relationship draining way to run the family.

What to do?

You may already have reached the conclusion that you don’t want to do it all yourself, but you don’t know how to cultivate the elusive goal of cooperation. How do we elicit help around the house? When are kids going to “see” what needs to be done and then get the energy, motivation, and skills to do it?

For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on those perennial family household projects that affect everyone – things like organizing the front hall closet, keeping the garage from turning into a dump, preparing meals and planning vacations.

Let’s use the example of the front hallway closet. You know how the eyes are said to be the windows to the soul? Well, I believe the front hallway is the window to the family. How we exit and enter the house speaks to us, speaks to our kids and speaks to our visitors. Does it say, “We are a mess and can’t get it together” or does it say, “We’ve got this, and we do lots of interesting things that we are usually on time for!”

Six steps to better cooperation

If you’re stuck in the “mess” camp and would like to get more organized, help is on hand from Julie Morgenstern, New York Times best-selling author of six books, including her latest, “Time to Parent.” In a recent conversation, I asked her how she would gain the cooperation of a nine-year-old, for example, in helping to clean out the over-stuffed, under-sorted, dumping ground of the front hall closet. Here is what she suggested:

  1. Mindset Shift

Kids like doing projects and they like doing stuff with you – as long as you come to it with a sense of fun and don’t act like it’s a burden to you or your kids. Remind yourself that learning and practicing organization is one of the greatest gifts parents can give their kids. It gives them a great sense of self-sufficiency, agency, and skill.

  1. Ask for help and respect their time table

Start with an open-ended question, “Look at this closet, it doesn’t really work very well, does it? What do you think is wrong with it?” Invite your child to analyze it with you. Is it that things get lost and no one can find them? They’re hard to put away? The space is too cluttered? Stuff falls down? The rod is too high? There is no container? Then you say, “I need your brainpower.” Continue with visioning. “What is essential and needed on a daily basis? Let’s make a list of those, and then guide your kids in seeing how tackling this job will impact the family. “What are we going to gain? How will it help our family if we get this squared away?”

  1. Make a plan

Determine together the three to five categories that should live in the closet. What are the zones? Create a plan for coats, shoes, bags, seasonal accessories, sports equipment or other items that need to have a place.

  1. Sort it out

Sorting is magical. Start there, and additional needs and answers will bubble up on their own. Take everything out of the closet and divide things into one of four categories: keep in the closet, find another home, donate, trash. Try to make it a physical and fun activity. Ask kids how long they think it will take, and then have them set a timer.

  1. Have an open mind

Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers and the solution before you start. Be willing to listen to and accept your kids’ ideas about how to get the closet organized. Say (and truly believe) “I think it will be better if you help. I think you will bring good ideas to the project.” Remember, this front closet is shared, and if they solve the problem they are more likely to respect the solution and do the upkeep more reliably.

  1. Aim for “Good Enough”

Working with your child to achieve an adequate result with their problem-solving input and cooperation is better than forcing them to do things exactly the way you like them. Avoid rushing and refrain from criticizing. Accept your kids as emerging organizers. They don’t have to be perfect; the solution doesn’t have to be exactly what you imagined. If you can do that, you will find your load gets lighter and your relationship with your kids gets deeper.

Common obstacles to cooperation

There are predictable speedbumps in the road to cooperation. If we ignore them and accelerate ahead, we can get off track. If we slow down and address them, we usually stay on the road to cooperation and find ourselves with a mostly cleaned-out closet and a good relationship with our kid. Dara Kessler, a Certified Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and mother of two teen boys, has identified four ideas parents should keep in mind when encouraging cooperation.

  1. No “solution” is permanent

Expect to change things up in three weeks to a year. Chores, motivation and getting things done are continuous works in progress.

  1. Give up on top-down

Parents will have more success gaining cooperation when the kids generate the list of what needs to be done and how to do it. Use inexpensive office supplies to make lists, leave notes, brainstorm ideas. Rather than your gopher, assistant or underling, your child should be treated as a full partner in problem solving.

  1. Take time to train

Parents often have a blind spot in terms of their kids’ capability and expect them to know how to do a task when they have never been taught how. On the other hand, with adequate training, they are capable of learning more than we may think. For example, they can be taught how to fill out their own forms, clean air conditioner coils, and patch and paint holes in walls.

  1. Let go of control

Things fall apart when we rush our kids or act like we know how to do everything ourselves. We are disrespecting our kids when we take jobs over from them. Of course, it’s easier, faster and neater to cook, clean and organize ourselves. We need to let go of that if our goal is to raise helpful, capable, cooperative children.

Make a resolution to free yourself in 2020 from the burden of being the “boss.” When you don’t have to have all the answers you create space for new ideas, plumped-up mutual respect and creative and inspired ways to meet the needs of the situation. You’ll start seeing your family as a cooperative and fun team who can count on each other to solve problems, clean out closets and maintain order. What a great way to start the New Year!

Looking for more ideas like these? Join us online every month for one of our two, highly regarded online master classes:

These classes take place online. Each Saturday, short video lessons, handouts and our signature “Try This At Home” exercises are released for you to watch at your convenience.

Then, throughout the month, join your instructor and other parents online for a weekly discussion and support session where you’ll get answers to your parenting questions. 

This article originally appeared in the January, 2020 edition of Washington Parent Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

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Parent Encouragement Program
10100 Connecticut Ave.
Kensington, MD 20895

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