How to Motivate Kids to Do Things They Don’t Want to Do

One of the most challenging aspects of parenting is trying to motivate kids to do things they don’t want to do. These eight tips (and a whole lot of patience!) can help.

motivate kids

It’s 4 PM on a Sunday afternoon and you’re about to lose your nerve.

Your son had all weekend to clean his room and put away his clean clothes. And yet, it’s still not done.

His room is covered in sports gear, paper, and dirty clothes. And the basket of clean clothes that’s been in his room for a week – hasn’t been touched.

At the beginning of the weekend, you made it clear that both tasks needed to be finished before dinner on Sunday evening. You even gave him a few reminders throughout the weekend. But neither task has been completed.

Instead, your son spent his time playing outside, indulging in a little screen time, and building a car out of Legos.

And while you’re glad he’s had some time to relax over the weekend, he also needs to understand what it means to be responsible and complete these chores.

So what’s a parent to do?

What not to do to motivate kids

Before jumping into what to do to motivate kids, let’s first review what not to do.

It might be tempting to tell your son that you’ll give him a bowl of ice cream once his room is clean or add a sticker to his behavior chart. These rewards will likely encourage him to complete the task by Sunday evening.

But down the road, rewards or bribes like these can actually demotivate kids by sending the message that you don’t trust them to do things on their own.

It’s also possible that later on your child might decide that rewards aren’t worth the effort and just stop doing chores, especially if he doesn’t feel trusted and consequently feels bad about himself and his abilities.

Something else to avoid is criticism or condemnation of your son for his lack of motivation. It seems natural to make him aware of how wrong he is to not do what’s expected of him. But this, too, could squash any future motivation to do better.

The trick to getting children to do the things we need them to do – even if they don’t really want to – is to create the right environment for a sense of responsibility and intrinsic motivation to flourish.

Fostering an environment of motivation and cooperation:

The very first place to look when trying to encourage more motivation and cooperation in kids is…yourself.

Kids tend to respond to their parents’ perceptions of them. So it’s important to ask yourself what messages – both outright and subliminal – your kids detect when you ask them to do things.

Do your kids perceive that you see them as capable? Do they feel supported when a task is overwhelming or too difficult? Or do they feel criticized for being lazy and not completing a task on your schedule?

It can be beyond frustrating to have a child not do something you’ve asked them to do – and we’ve all lost our cool once or twice when faced with this situation. But being aware of the tone we set in the house can have a huge impact on how kids view themselves and their internal motivation to get things done.

The bottom line: kids are more likely to view themselves as responsible if their parents view them that way. And the opposite is also true: kids will view themselves as irresponsible if their parents have either implicitly or explicitly implied this to be the case.

Here are six key ways parents can begin to cultivate a family environment that fosters motivation and cooperation:

Connection is key

As with all of parenting, the connection we have with our kids is the key to getting cooperation. Kids who feel connected to their parents feel appreciated and respected. In turn, they respect and listen to their parent’s direction and guidance. None of the advice that follows will be useful unless that connected relationship is already established. 

See related: Connecting With Your Child

Set standards and keep to them

Before we expect our kids to behave a certain way, we need to make clear (often VERY clear) the family standards and expectations. Examples of these standards could be keeping a set bedtime, chores and homework coming before play and free time, and everyone’s beds needing to be made each morning.

Since no one likes to be told what to do ( strong-willed kids in particular), you’ll likely get more acceptance of these standards if you discuss them first in a family meeting. Having a discussion about family standards, with everyone’s thoughts and opinions considered, will lead to greater buy-in from kids.

Let kids have a say

Just like adults, children appreciate being in control of their own destiny.

So when it comes time for a task to be complete ask your child when he or she plans to complete it.

In the example of putting away the laundry and cleaning his room, ask your son at the start of the weekend when he plans to accomplish these tasks. If the time he chooses isn’t viable, help him pick a time that makes the most sense for both him and your family. And most of all, make sure he sticks to his end of the bargain. If not? Then you’ll choose a time for him next time.

You’ll also likely find that this method not only results in more cooperation but helps your child begin to build the skills he needs to manage time independently.

Talk to kids about the why behind the what

Another helpful tactic to use if a child is resisting the task at hand is to talk to them about why it’s important or necessary. This appeals to children’s sense of self and sends the message that we think they’re mature enough to understand. Additionally, most kids won’t do something if they don’t understand why they need to do it.

Whenever possible, appeal to what might motivate your child and frame the reason in a way that’s advantageous to your child. For example, you could say: “putting away your clean clothes in your drawers will make it easier to for you to get dressed in the morning” or “getting your homework done means you’ll have more time to play outside.”

responsible kids, motivating kids

Assume your child is capable

When parents approach their kids as being capable, children feel this and respond accordingly. The reverse is also true. If kids get the sense that their parents view them as incompetent, lazy, or self-centered, they begin to view themselves this way and act out those perceptions.

But what if your child’s actions suggest that they’re incompetent? Are we to just pretend otherwise? No. Which leads to…

Remove barriers, including mindset

Sometimes the reason why kids don’t do the things we’ve told them to do is because of perceived barriers to completion.

One barrier kids might feel is a sense of being overwhelmed. If a task seems insurmountable, it can be difficult to get started. In this case, try breaking the task into smaller tasks for your child to complete.

Another common barrier is time management. Kids are still developing their sense of time and what they’re capable of completing. This is where discussing the task beforehand can be helpful.

And let’s not forget that just like adults, kids may simply want to do other things – such as play with friends or ride a bike – instead of completing a chore. This is where family standards – and most importantly, sticking to them – come in handy.

The bottom line is, before jumping to the conclusion that your child is simply being disobedient and adopting the mindset that they’re incompetent, first see if there’s a barrier making it difficult for them to complete the task.

Are you wondering when your child can begin doing certain tasks and chores on their own? Click here to sign up for my weekly emails and you’ll receive my Age-Appropriate Guide to Kids’ Independence as a free gift.

Problem solve instead of control

So you’ve tried all the above tactics and your child STILL isn’t getting done what needs to be done. First of all, take a deep breath and try your best (I know it’s difficult) not to force your child to do what he needs to do.

Instead, reflect for a minute on the fact that your child is still maturing. He needs to learn responsibility for when he’s an adult, and sometimes that skill takes practice and time to acquire.

In this situation – with the task incomplete – jump into a problem-solving mode. Ask your child what he plans to do to complete the task and how he can make sure the task is completed on time in the future. It’s OK to show your disappointment but also show your desire to see your child be successful.

Use praise that motivates

Some kids may not show it, but every child loves to hear praise from their parents.

The trick to sharing praise that will motivate kids is to be specific. “Good job” and “well done” might sound nice, but they don’t tell kids that we really saw the work and growth they demonstrated in completing a task.

An example of more specific praise would be: “You really stuck to your plan of getting your room clean at 4 PM. That’s awesome. And look – you even organized your bookshelf in the process!”

Let go of imperfections: Kids aren’t going to do things perfectly – they’re still learning. So if a bed is made, but not perfectly, that’s OK.

See related: The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement in Parenting and Why it Matters

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Patience, practice, repeat

Once you’ve tried all these tools, whether they’re successfully or not, what comes next? Do it again. And again. And again.

Keep in mind that one of the most aggravating parenting situations is when kids show little motivation to do what we have asked them or need them to do.

It can feel like our kids are being lazy, devious, and deceitful. And maybe this is partially true.

But hang in there and keep trying. Often what’s really going on is that our kids need training and coaching. They need to learn how to better prioritize time or tackle mundane tasks that seem like too much to handle.

With your patience, help, and guidance, they’ll get there. And gain invaluable life skills along the way.

See related:

How to Motivate Kids to Do Chores – Without Paying Them!

How to Raise Kids Who Are Motivated to Work Hard on Their Own

How to Raise Responsible Kids Who Want to Help

What to do next…

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3. Get your kids started on chores.

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About Kerry Flatley

Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.