Refuses to Cooperate

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Dear Dr. Nelsen,
I have a son in the 1st Grade. When things don't go his way, he refuses to cooperate. He either becomes a "statue," a "limp rag doll," or becomes defiant in other ways. I have read your book "Positive Discipline" and my husband is in the middle of reading it. I have given him choices as you suggest, and he responds with "neither." Then I'm stumped. His teacher just called and told me he wouldn't cooperate in Drama. I talked to my son to try to figure out if he was afraid of being on stage or what he was feeling. He said he was sad because this was the worst day of his life. It was difficult trying to ascertain his feelings over the phone. He wanted me to come get him and take him home. I think he was shocked when I said I couldn't come. Are we doing the right thing? What other suggestions do you have? We would appreciate any help. Thank you.
P.S. We are having our first family meeting tonight and today's problem is going on the agenda.


Dear Elaine, 
It is very difficult to answer your question because I don't have enough information. I don't know if he is pampered or if he is resisting excessive control. I did think it was interesting that you said you tried choices and he wouldn't take either. One concern I had about this is the sense that choices is the only tool I suggest. Kids often won't take either choice if neither is acceptable to them and parents are just using choices as a method of control. Another possibility is that you didn't take it far enough and say, "Why don't you think about it and let me know as soon as you decide." Besides choices you distract him with humor, "Here comes the tickle monster to get little boys who don't pick up their toys." You could create routine charts "with him" and draw pictures or cut them from a magazine to represent things that need to be done. Then the routine chart becomes the boss and he can check what is next. You could give him a hug until you both feel better and then explore together how to solve the problem. These are just a few of the many possibilities. I would have to rewrite the whole book to list them all. A very important suggestion is to "get into his world."
When I was in the first grade I became very uncooperative--and it was because I was afraid. I remember looking at the windows of the classroom and being afraid that they and the doors would be locked and we couldn't get out. Don't ask me where the fears came from. Of course, my fears were unreasonable, because we could have broken the windows. I would cry and the teacher would put me out in the hall. I would go to the park and play until I saw other kids going home. Once I forgot my jump rope and waited on the school grounds. The principal came by and tried to talk me into going back to school. I refused. He picked me up and carried me and I screamed and kicked him. He sat me on the teacher's lap and I screamed. She called me a baby and put me in the hall, and I left.
I will tell you what helped. My mother came and sat in the class room for a day. She didn't scold or lecture, she just sat and encouraged me with smiles of reassurance.
My point is that it can be difficult to know what is going on in a child's mind. I do know that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. Do you have the revised edition of "Positive Discipline" or "Positive Discipline A-Z"? These books are full of nonpunitive suggestions for just about any problem you can imagine. Also, I hope you will read the "I Need a Hug" article on our home page.
I'm glad you are having family meetings. Don't expect them to be effective immediately. It takes a while for kids to believe they will truly be listened to and their thoughts and ideas validated instead of the meetings being just another way for parents to give lectures and edicts.
My best to you,

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