Cooperation is an extension of empathy and compassion. It is a willingness and ability to work with others toward a common outcome. With the support of others, your child can accomplish goals far beyond what he could do alone. By helping and sharing with others to reach a common objective, he is also likely to gain emotional connection and a sense of meaning.
Before the age of three, children usually play on their own for short periods of time. They can usually play with an older child or an adult for longer periods of time if the other person focuses on what the young child wants. Two children under three years old typically play in parallel, or side by side, using the same or different toys while playing on their own. In parallel play, your toddler may enjoy the company of other children, even though they are not playing together directly. During his third year, your child and his friends may start to play together cooperatively by sharing and by negotiating difficulties without fights.
Although your child may not be able to cooperate fully until around the age of three, he experiences the spirit of cooperation far earlier through his relationship with you. When your baby cries and you respond by feeding him, the two of you engage in a joint effort to satisfy his hunger by means of communication, assessment, and appropriate reaction. Around the age of one, when he discovers a sense of autonomy as he learns to walk, you cooperate with his desire to explore by providing him with a safe environment in which to do so.
By 18 months, children are able to understand their caregiver’s wishes and expectations, and they usually can follow simple commands. Your baby can and does cooperate. In fact, most children this age love to help out, and this demonstrates compassion, as well as cooperation.
At this stage, however, your child is also developing a defiant side of his blossoming personality. You may struggle to get your child dressed in the morning as he runs away and refuses to wear certain clothes. Individual differences in temperament and character contribute to the degree to which your child tests his boundaries and exerts his will.
You might find it challenging when your toddler is willful, but seeking his cooperation—not merely his compliance—at these times will pay big dividends in his future and yours. Compliance is the act of doing a task “because you said so.” Cooperation, on the other hand, is getting your child to perform the task because he realizes it is in his and everyone’s best interest. He wants to be a team player, and his cooperation helps advance the goal.
Cooperation requires your child to have the ability to take another person’s perspective, set aside his own needs, and consider the benefits of helping others achieve their goals. This takes a good deal of self- control, a skill that increases in capacity between the ages of one and a half and three years of age. Children who have advanced attention and language skills also exhibit a greater ability to delay gratification, and thus are better able to cooperate.
During his toddler and preschool years, your child becomes more aware of himself as an individual, while simultaneously becoming more attuned to—and affected by—others’ feelings. This development represents a basic internal conflict, as your child experiences the dilemma of managing individual differences for the greater good. If he is unwilling or unable to find a balance between having his own needs met and helping others to meet theirs, his peers may reject him.
A secure attachment nurtures your child’s natural tendencies toward cooperation. Trust in you—and, by extension, in the world—gives your child the confidence he needs to engage with others in working toward a common goal. Trust is the safety net that gives him the freedom to be courageous in his acceptance of individual differences and his belief in a common good.
Cooperation begins at home and branches out as your child has more experiences in the wider world. If he feels good about cooperating with his family members, he will continue to be cooperative as he interacts with the world. This will pave the way for meaningful, lasting relationships.