We all know how hard it can be to get children to respond to our requests—go to bed, get in the car, go potty, get dressed… it can all be tough.

One powerful tool to get kids to do things with more cooperation and ease is to use ‘relationship before request’—connect with your child for a few minutes before you ask them to do something. Not only does this make your day go smoother, it also lets you build warmth and strengthen bonding.

Here are a few ways to implement ‘relationship before request’:

1. Pause and observe—watch your child quietly

Before you say, “Get in the the car!” pause for a moment and notice what your child is engaged in. Are they playing restaurant with toy food? Zooming cars? Counting the pennies in their piggy bank?

Watch them for a second and simply notice how they are deep in the middle of something.

2. Comment or ask, “I see you are . . .” or “Can you tell me about what you’re doing?”

Acknowledge aloud what kids are doing. “Oh, I see you are making a book of drawings for Grandma” or, “I see you are putting together the bridge on your train set. You’re pulling that long train all around the tracks!” or, “I see you’re making something with those ribbons.” Or “Can you tell me about what you’re doing/playing?”

3. Ask,“May I join you?”

Kids will be way more likely to go brush their teeth or clean up their books after you’ve joined them in play for a just few minutes. When kids are engrossed in what they’re doing, ask, “May I join you?” and then follow the child’s lead (let them be in charge).

For five minutes (or however much time you have), do a puzzle with them, play catch, build with blocks, string beads on a necklace together, color beside them, look at books side by side, help line up their stuffed animals, run in circles with them, or engage in whatever they are already doing.

Some kids may be open to or even delighted to have you participate, while others may prefer that you watch.

4. Give ownership

Kids love a sense of power and control. By giving them a bit of ownership in the process (of doing the next thing), they are more likely to cooperate.

Sample questions to offer ownership:

  • What special place do you want to put that (until the morning, until we get back, etc.)? When a child is playing with something right before bed or leaving to go somewhere, having them find a special home for it where they know it will be later can help.
  • Do you want to [do the next thing] now or in 5 minutes? Ask them to reiterate to you what they will do when the timer goes off. Have them set the timer.
  • How do you want to get there? Do you want a piggyback ride or do you want to skip there together?
  • Are you at a stopping point? Imagine if you were 134 screws into putting together a 542-screw Ikea dresser, and someone insisted you “leave it that very second!” without putting so much as a bookmark in the 34-page direction leaflet. Sometimes a child might be engaged in building a Lego design, constructing a dollhouse play scenario, or sorting seashells with the same kind of intensity.
  • Can you be in charge of X? “Can you be in charge of picking the books we’ll read tonight?” “Can you be in charge of passing out the raisins in the car?” Giving kids a special job can reduce resistance and build enthusiasm.

5. Share the schedule with kids ahead of time

Let kids know the day’s plan in advance. “We’re going to the library, then swimming lessons, then we’re stopping at the park for an hour.” Write a checklist for them (or a picture checklist if they can’t read yet), and ask them to check things off as you do them.

Ask them to help you prepare or pack special things for an activity. This gives them a sense of control, safety and ownership, rather than having them ask, “Where are we going, anyway?” once you’re already driving. Also consider these additional tips for building kids’ enthusiasm about the day’s events.

Spending just 5 minutes connecting before you ask kids to do something will help your child complete the next thing with more cooperation and way less resistance.

It’s also a form of sensitive caregiving, which research suggests, is a strong predictor of an individual’s social competence and academic achievement, not only during childhood and adolescence, but all the way through to adulthood.