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Raising Cooperative Kids: Start Conversations Positively

Warm conversation starters strengthen relationships and cooperation with kids.

Key points

  • Gently opening conversations with kids strengthens your bond and creates more ease.
  • Parental warmth in childhood helps kids flourish emotionally, psychologically, and socially later in life.
  • Start with a positive, offer a choice, use humor, or offer a carrot first.

In a 6-year longitudinal study, John Gottman of The Gottman Institute found that how a couple tended to start a conversation (the first three minutes) predicted the trajectory of their relationship and the likelihood that they would get divorced. If couples started their conversations with negative emotions and or criticism, they were less likely to be together six years later.

Gottman’s research teaches us a lot about how to communicate with kids, too.

Softened startups or gentle conversation openers, are an indicator of parental warmth. They are void of criticism (overt or veiled) and focus on problem-solving. Research by Moran, Turiano, and Gentzler (2018) suggests that experiencing parental warmth in childhood is significantly related to improved well-being and greater coping skills in adulthood. Another study by Chen, Kubzansky, and VanderWeele (2019) found that parental warmth in childhood is positively associated with the continuous score of flourishing in adulthood, including flourishing emotionally, psychologically, and socially.

Softening your startup with kids not only invites greater cooperation, it also strengthens relationship attachment with your kids, which is related to a plethora of positive outcomes.

Here are some ways to use a softened startup when trying to get kids to cooperate or address a challenge:

1. Start with a positive:

Hard startup: Why are your stupid socks on the floor again?

Softened startup: Jane, you’ve been doing such a great job putting your laundry in the hamper in your bedroom. But sometimes you leave your socks on the living room floor. Can you think of a way to help you remember to get them in the hamper too?

2. Choice:

Hard startup: Clean up your toys, I said now.

Softened startup: We know we have to clean up. Do you want to clean up the craft or your blocks first?

3. Connection:

Hard startup: It’s time for bed. Get upstairs.

Softened startup: [Sitting down next to child.] Oh, are you playing cars? Can I play with you for about five minutes before we head up for bed?

4. Humor:

Hard startup: Go brush your teeth. That’s the third time I’ve told you.

Softened startup: (Parent waving toothbrush around and talking to it). “I know you want to brush my teeth, but you’re not my toothbrush. You’re [child’s name] toothbrush. You can only brush their teeth or you’ll spread germs. You’ll have to wait for them. They’re almost here. They’re almost ready. Just a second.

5. Ball in their court:

Hard startup: I said stop teasing your sister or I’m taking your iPad.

Softened startup: Can you sit down with me for a second? I’ve noticed it’s not working when I ask you to stop teasing your sister. What do you think will work to help you stop? [Go outside, do something different, have me give you a consequence if you do it again.]

6. Mood helper:

Hard startup: Clean your room. It’s a dump.

Softened startup: I know it’s hard to clean your room. What kind of music can I put on to help you start it?

7. I want to help you:

Hard startup: Stop sending texts with bad words or that phone is gone.

Softened startup: I really want to help you keep your phone because I know how much you like having it to talk with friends and for other reasons. But I’ve noticed you’re sending texts with bad words, and I’m worried I’m going to have to take it away if it keeps happening. Can you think of a way to help you remember not to do that? So you can keep the phone?

8. Hype up:

Hard startup: We’re going to the library. Get your shoes on already.

Softened startup: What was that book you liked about the robot? I wonder if there is a sequel to that at the library. Let’s go look. We’ll leave in five minutes.

9. Carrot first:

Hard startup: Come on. Stop being lazy. We’ve got to shovel all the snow now.

Softened startup: Whoah! Look at this gorgeous snow. After we shovel it, we’re going to have hot chocolate. Let’s get it done right away so we can have that hot chocolate.

10. Invite help:

Hard startup: You've been lazing on the couch all morning. You’re going to grandma’s to rake leaves.

Softened startup: Grandma hasn’t been feeling great. She’s getting over a cold. She was really hoping someone could help her rake the leaves. Would you help her out?

11. Positive pre-set:

Hard startup: I'm not playing Monopoly with you again because you’re a sore loser.

Softened startup: I’d love to play Monopoly, but I’m worried. Last time you got upset and refused to clean up when I won. How can we make sure we have fun this time and clean up together no matter what?

12. I statement

Hard startup: Ahhh! You woke your sister up again. Don't you care about anyone else in this house?

Softened startup: I feel upset that you woke your sister up from her nap, even though I know it wasn't on purpose. Could we think of some ways to help you be quiet while she is sleeping?


Carrère S, Gottman JM. Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Fam Process. 1999 Fall;38(3):293-301. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1999.00293.x. PMID: 10526767.

Chen, Y., Kubzansky, L., VanderWeele, T. (2019). Parental warmth and flourishing in mid-life. Social Science & Medicine,
220, Pages 65-72, ISSN 0277-9536,

Moran KM, Turiano NA, Gentzler AL. Parental warmth during childhood predicts coping and well-being in adulthood. J Fam Psychol. 2018 Aug;32(5):610-621. doi: 10.1037/fam0000401. Epub 2018 Apr 30. PMID: 29708363; PMCID: PMC6072567.

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