NORMAN — One of the most problematic words in America’s post-1960s parenting language is “cooperate.”
“I want my children to cooperate,” a parent tells me. She tells me this in the midst of complaining that her kids rarely do what she asks them to do. That’s another problematic word: ask. Those two problematic words go hand-in-hand, in fact. Parents who want cooperation tend to ask as opposed to tell. Asking is nice. Telling isn’t. And today’s parents are trying their best to be nice. Which, by the way, is why they often suffer total cerebral meltdowns during which they get red in the face and begin screaming like lunatics. Their children have no appreciation for their niceness; they simply take full advantage of it.
I tell the above Mom that the reason her kids don’t obey her is she wants cooperation. That necessitates a peer-to-peer relationship. Neighbors cooperate. Friends cooperate. Spouses cooperate. Coworkers cooperate. But the CEO of the company, when he tells two cooperating coworkers what he wants, he’s not looking for cooperation. He wants them to obey. Two Army privates assigned to the same task will cooperate with one another. But the officer who assigned them to the task is not seeking their cooperation. He expects them to obey.
When the relationship is not between equals, the proper word is obedience. The fact that so many of today’s parents talk in terms of wanting their kids to “cooperate” reflects two things:
First, these parents do not feel comfortable with authority. They are trying to avoid being seen by their children as authority figures. So, when they communicate expectations and instructions they use persuasive speech as opposed to authoritative speech. The symptom of this is the ubiquity of “OK?” at the end of a parent’s persuasive sentence, as in “Will you please hang your jacket up in the closet, OK?”