You would be hard-pressed to find a successful adult who does not constantly exercise the art of cooperation. From the moment we learn this valuable skill as children, it gets put into action in almost every aspect of our lives. Whether at home with our families, with classmates in school or with coworkers in the workplace, cooperation helps us interact harmoniously with others and accomplish tasks more easily, more efficiently and, oftentimes, more effectively. That’s why it’s so important for children to start exercising their cooperation muscle at an early age.
The definition of cooperation is simple enough – combining energies to work towards a common goal. But teaching its meaning to a young child is easier said than done. Cooperation requires a combination of character attributes, such as being respectful, honest, helpful and thoughtful. Though these are traits every parent wants their child to have, young children naturally tend to be focused on themselves. They can, however, learn these traits over time through frequent encouragement and modeling by adults.
Working together becomes fun for children as they develop an understanding of the skills and techniques necessary to lend a hand to another, but sometimes teaching children to accept help is the bigger challenge. When my 2-year-old granddaughter, Jordyn, is struggling with a task, she is more likely to accept help from me if I phrase my request as, “Will Jordyn help Nana, please?” instead of, “May Nana help Jordyn?” This way, Jordyn still feels independent and in control, which is important for most 2 year olds. She is also learning that cooperation helps get the task done more quickly and easily, and we have fun helping each other accomplish it.
We know that children learn character mainly through imitation. They listen, observe and learn cooperation skills by watching the words and actions of their parents. When your child sees you working happily with others, they sense the joy you feel and will want to experience that joy, too.
What are some ways that you can model cooperation? The following tips may seem like common sense, but by deliberately practicing these skills in front of your child, you are teaching behaviors that will ultimately help your child succeed (and will surely make you proud when your child imitates you on the playground):
- Listen carefully to others so that you can understand what they are saying.
- Share or take turns when more than one person wants the same thing.
- Compromise when you have a serious conflict.
- Do your part of a shared task and do the very best that you can.
- Show appreciation for people for what they contribute to a group or team.
- Encourage others to do their best.
- Include everyone and make everyone feel needed. Help your child recognize that everybody has something valuable to offer in a group.
In addition to serving as a role model, it’s important to be intentional about teaching cooperation to your child. Every day there are boundless opportunities to point out what cooperation looks like. Take advantage of these moments and create others that will help your child understand the importance of working together. Here are some fun ways to practice and teach cooperation as a family:
- When you read a story with your child, point out times when the characters cooperate with each other. Discuss how the characters feel and how much easier it is to accomplish the task when they work together.
- Plan a family project that includes a task for each family member to complete – even the youngest member of the family. Start a vegetable or flower garden, cook a special meal, clean the house, paint the family room or play a game. Then talk about how much fun it was to work together.
- Schedule household chores at times when all family members can work together to finish them. Praise your child for her attempts to help, and refrain from redoing the chore when she’s finished. Help her see the fun of working together to accomplish a goal. Talk about how much faster the chores were completed than if mom or dad had to do them by themselves. Cooperation with chores allows for more time to have fun as a family.
- “Catch” your child sharing or helping someone and show your appreciation. Encourage the behavior, but refrain from giving material rewards; they are not necessary. Children should learn the joy of helping others without expecting something in return.