One of the most challenging aspects of parenting is trying to motivate our children to do things they don’t want to do. These eight tips (and a whole lot of patience!) can help.
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 that still wasn’t enough.
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 children
Before jumping into what to do to motivate children, 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 help get him to do the task by Sunday evening.
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.
Creating an environment that fosters motivation and cooperation:
The very first place to look when trying to encourage more motivation and cooperation in kids is at yourself.
Kids tend to respond to their parents’ perception 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 him 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.
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Here’s a list of ways parents can create a family environment that encourages 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 likely 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 as it comes time for a task to be complete – one that was agreed upon in the family meeting – 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 is 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 that you won’t have it hanging over your head when you play outside.”
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.
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 with punishment.
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 still not complete – 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 too.
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 motivates kids, however, is to be specific. “Good job” and “well done” might be 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 phrase is: “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 lots. So if a bed is made, but not perfectly, that’s OK.
Patience, practice, repeat
Once you’ve done all these things, be it successfully or not, what comes next? Do it again. And again. And again.
Keep in mind throughout that it’s simply one of the most aggravating parenting situations 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 marginally true.
But hang in there and keep trying. Often what’s really going on is that our kids need help and coaching. They need to learn how to better prioritize time or tackle mundane tasks that seem like too much to handle.
With our patience, help, and guidance, they will get there. And gain invaluable life skills along the way.
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