6 Ways to Motivate Your Kids

Try these no-nag strategies to get them to pick up, do homework, brush teeth, and more.
child standing in pile of clothes

Stephanie Rausser

Convincing your children to do things they don't want to do can be challenging. And making them stop doing the things you don't want them to do can be even trickier still.

We asked experts who have cracked the code of what does (and doesn't) drive kids to improve their behavior to share their wisdom.

#1- Reconsider Rewards

When my friend Jeff was toilet-training his daughter Alex, he offered her a small piece of chocolate each time she peed in the potty. Out of candy one day, Jeff told Alex he would have to use "pretend chocolate" for her reward. Alex hopped off the potty, smiling, but nothing was in it. "What's the deal?" Jeff asked. Alex replied, "I made a pretend pee."

"Sharp girl," says psychologist and Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. Clever kids can often work their way around any reward system, she says. What's more, studies show that the positive effects of rewards are short-lived.

Of course, giving kids rewards can sometimes be temporarily useful to get them over a hump such as learning math facts. "It is true that rewards will motivate people to do activities," says Edward Deci, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "But what happens is the behavior becomes dependent on the rewards and will stop when the rewards stop. Adults go to work to get paid, but if the pay stopped, they would stop going to work."

This is true even if an activity is pleasurable. Researchers at Stanford University found that when children who enjoyed drawing with markers were paid to do so, they quit using them when they were no longer paid. In other words, the reward somehow extinguished their passion.

While using bribes in the short term isn't harmful for things like getting your child to stop having a tantrum on an airplane, external rewards won't build your child's character or impart the value of keeping his room organized or getting to sleep at a decent hour. What does? Encouraging him to follow the lead of what makes him feel good inside -- such as satisfaction in a newly learned skill or a job well done. He's not only more successful in the long term, he's also happy along the way, and inspired. "When a child learns to ride a bike, he's usually so thrilled with his new skill and eager to do it, it can be hard to persuade him to stop," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "That feeling of mastery is tremendously motivating."

#2- Have Meaningful Conversations

One-on-one talks with your kid are crucial for tapping into a child's intrinsic motivation, says Dr. Deci. Children are naturally curious, and inviting them to understand why something makes sense may appeal to their intellect.

Jodi Golden, of Baton Rouge, says she often bribes her kids to behave while grocery shopping with the promise of a toy from the dollar section, "because it works." But she confesses the kids are generally much better behaved for her husband, Brett, who doesn't bribe but instead makes everything a life lesson. After the kids have cleaned their room, Brett always points out how nice it looks, Jodi says, and how important it will be for them as adults to know how to keep their things neat and organized.

If your kids balk about the task at hand from the start, Dr. Deci advises parents to begin by seeing it from your child's point of view. Then talk about the importance of the activity in a way that is respectful. If your child doesn't want to clean her room because she's tired from soccer practice, say, "Why don't you take a rest and after dinner you can straighten up your room so you can find everything you need to do your homework?" Refrain from using language such as "should" and "must," advises Dr. Deci, and offer to be there to help when kids truly need it.

Asking your child how it feels doing a particular task while she's doing it can also contribute to the kind of happy atmosphere that makes kids want to cooperate. Questions like, "What do you think about doing your homework by yourself?" and "How does it make you feel having finished that homework now?" can lead kids to insights they might not have had otherwise about their accomplishments. Another effective strategy for getting children to turn a bad habit around: Show empathy by asking how you can help. Says Dr. Kennedy-Moore: "It puts the parent and the child on the same side against the problematic behavior, rather than setting up a battle."

When her daughter was in first grade, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says she fell into a familiar after-school routine: coming home, hitting her brother, and being sent to a time-out. When Dr. Kennedy-Moore asked her daughter if she could think of a solution, she suggested a snack in the car on the way home from school. "I don't know if she was acting out because she was so desperately hungry, or if eating was just a soothing, calming activity for her, but it definitely helped," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Kids' solutions for problem behaviors often work better than parent-suggested ones, because children are invested in having their solutions work."

Giving your kids feedback during these conversations about the way they're handling their responsibilities can also motivate. Rather than dangling a trip to the park as a reward for doing homework, try catching your child on a day when she's finished it at a decent hour. As you head out to the park, point out that the natural consequence of getting her homework done early allowed time for fun later.

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