“Put the dishes away when you’re done.”
“Don’t take your sister’s toys without asking her first.”
How often do you feel like a broken record? Between after school activities, homework, video games, soccer practice, and just keeping up with life, getting your kids to do what they’re supposed to do sometimes feel herculean and impossible. You ask nicely, repeatedly, and nobody does anything until you Jekyll and Hyde into the yelling, mean parent!
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could motivate your kids and get them to do as you say?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for motivating your children. What works for one may backfires and turn another into an oppositional defiant beast! As parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be your children’s friend, wanting them to like you, but they depend on you as their first and most important teacher, guide, and motivator!
Some surefire tips to motivate your children:
By encouraging them and praising them fairly, consistently and immediately, you utilize the three most important aspects of positive reinforcement (and make your job as a parent much easier.) My previous blog post Junk Food for the Soul discusses the importance of “catch them being good” throughout the day, and not waiting until an external achievement milestone (i.e. winning the spelling bee, scoring xxx on the PSAT) to praise in order to celebrate true effort and progress rather than only the final outcomes.
This one is a no brainer, but what is the difference between rewarding and bribing your child? Will your kids keep up the good behavior once the reward is faded?
The answer lies in how, when and what you use as rewards. You’re rewarding not only for good behavior, but to develop your child’s intrinsic motivation. Countless research affirms the importance and superior long-term effectiveness of intrinsic motivation, which is self-motivation—not through external punishment or reward. What’s effective as a reward differs from person to person and influence how successful you’ll be in getting your kids to listen to you or any other goal.
curaJOY has made a fun rewards chart that you can use with your child to track behaviors or goals. You may download a pdf version here.
When rewards are consistent, children can easily identify the causal relationship you’re establishing to the desired behavior whereas inconsistent rewarding may lead them to either associating the wrong behavior to the reward or a decreased in motivation.
Example scenario: “If I finish all my homework before 6pm, then mom will allow me to play x minutes of video games after dinner.” But if you allow your child to play video games when you’re too tired to enforce your reward system, then you’ve created extra resistance to getting your kids to doing what you want them to do.
A fair reward is one that is proportional to the true effort your child put into the task. When I was getting my daughters to brush their teeth independently long ago, I rewarded them for the behavior daily for 8 months before it became a habit, at which time the behavior no longer needs any external reward. Many families use a reward chart system. Review the rewards that you’ve set up and see how each reward measure up when you’re comparing them based on the required effort. Also, choose your rewards carefully. Just like someone who’s working on losing weight shouldn’t reward themselves with cream and chips when they lose a pound, your rewards should never be an item/behavior you are trying to extinguish.
Rewards are most powerful when they are immediate. Children elementary school or younger perform better when they receive their earned rewards daily (or even smaller increments like half days, or after every class period depending on the child). Self-discipline is an inner strength that needs to be developed step by step.
Some ideas for behavior rewards:
- Letting them select the movie for family movie night.
- A one-on-one afternoon tea date with you
- Read an extra bedtime story.
- Choose a restaurant for the family.
Rewards serve as concrete milestones and help when you’re aiming for bigger goals.
Children are like sponges. They observe your behavior carefully and try to emulate. Kids who see their parents lose their temper, yelling and cursing when things don’t go their way are being shown that such behavior is acceptable and expected. They also observe more subtle ways: how you de-stress, problem solve, persevere, learn, spend your time.
It’s important to remember children’s perspectives and explain your actions in a way they can understand. When my kids were in kindergarten, I heard my daughter tell her teacher, “My mom’s job is shopping,” to which I was dumbfounded because I launched products, placed PR events, landed deals, and shopping is one of my least favorite things! I worked a long-hour, high-stress, long-commute job, and often didn’t see them until dinner. The highlight of their lives back then was going grocery shopping with mom. Shopping was the main task they observe me do, so naturally they assumed all I did was shop ☹
Consequences are very different from punishment. What most parents need to do more of is simply to allow natural consequences to occur. When your children don’t do the things they’re supposed to do, you determine, with your response, whether they learn how their actions or inactions impact their lives and the lives of others. If you’re unable to influence the natural consequence, make something away for a short period and explain why you’re doing it and how they can earn it back.
Examples scenario: Your son procrastinated on his project for the science fair, and barely filled up 1/3 of his presentation poster before the fair. Do you have the heart to let him experience the bad grade, embarrassment, etc. his behavior caused him?
It’s difficult for children to remain motivated when parents remove natural consequences and “take care of everything.” A rule of thumb that I generally use is compare the benefits of lesson to be learned from the natural consequence to actual risk. I ask myself “will they suffer irreparable harm from my allowing them to experience this consequence?”
When my daughter forgot her lunch, I decided to let her experience the consequence—a few hours of hunger. Months later, when she forgot her water bottle and was running the mile under the hot California sun, I promptly delivered her water bottle. After she got home, I explicitly explained what should have been the natural consequence of her inattention, and why I decided to bail her out (due to the dehydration danger to her respiratory condition.) We then agreed on a replacement consequence.
Motivating your children isn’t easy. It takes unrelenting commitment to applying all the principles (recognition, reward, model, consequence) we discussed above, and just getting things done for them will often be easier and quicker, which is why parenting is often cited as one of the most difficult jobs! Feel free to ask me questions or leave a comment below. Your efforts now shape your children’s futures.
p.s. You don’t want to be delivering forgotten lunchboxes when your son/daughter is 30!