#3- Embrace Their Imperfections
Most young kids actually enjoy select chores if you can relax your standards about how well and how quickly they get done. "It's sad to watch children between the ages of 3 and 5 losing their love of doing chores," says Parents advisor and psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. "For example, some like sorting warm laundry and matching socks, but they stop because parents can be too rushed and too picky." Focus on the fact that your child got his comforter off the floor -- instead of that it's hanging unevenly -- and praise the effort. And if there are certain jobs your kids love, make sure that they get those jobs. Sandra Tyler, of Setauket, New York, has a son who likes to play at being a waiter, so it's a win-win for her family that his chores include clearing the table and doing the dishes.
As for the jobs your kids dislike, using a little creativity can make them more appealing: Use a puppet to ask your child to please clean up her shoes, or challenge her to race Daddy to bed. Offer a choice where possible, even a limited one such as brushing teeth before bathtime or after; this gives kids a feeling of autonomy, an important component of tapping into internal motivation. Heavy-handed efforts to control children sometimes lead to unnecessary power struggles that end in words like You can't make me! (followed by: Oh yes I can!). None of us likes to feel controlled, especially little kids. Children like to believe that what they are doing was their choice rather than an obligation.
#4- Consider Their Capabilities
When Dr. Kennedy-Moore gives parenting talks, she illustrates how external rewards aren't all that motivating by picking a parent from the audience and saying she'll give him $1,000 to do a back handspring. When he refuses this impossible request, she tells the audience, "Look how stubborn he is! I guess I need to be more firm with him." The audience laughs and gets the moral of the story: Rewards and punishments are irrelevant if the child can't do what we want him to do.
Rather, think about the time your child learned to write her name, or play a song on the piano, and how pleased she was with herself and how you could barely tear her away from the new activity. "The feeling of mastery is profoundly motivating," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "And the flip side is also true. When I hear about a kid fighting homework I wonder if there is a skills gap or a learning issue that is making this kid feel like it's impossible to do what we've asked." So have a meaningful conversation with your child about what might be getting in her way. If more answers are needed, talk to her teacher, pediatrician, or a counselor.
#5- Express Appreciation
Let's say your child woke up when the alarm went off and got ready for school on his own. Or he stayed in bed all night rather than waking you at 3 a.m. and hopping into your bed. Be sure to let him know how much you appreciate his efforts and don't forget to add how nice it was to ride with him to school without feeling rushed, or how well-rested you feel from that uninterrupted night's sleep.
"Kids want to please their parents," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "That sense of connection is powerfully motivating." Praise your kids when you mean it, but be careful about how you praise; focus on effort and growth more than outcome. "Also, when they hit the home run or land the lead in the school play, be careful that your pleasure doesn't swamp theirs," she says. "We want the excitement to be theirs, so it isn't all about us."
#6- Lead by Example
It's pretty simple: If you want your kids to stop fighting so much with their siblings, rather than offering them candy or other rewards to "be good," try to resolve your conflicts with your spouse in a loving and admirable way. To help them remember their manners, make sure you say "please" and "thank you" to them too. And when you're on the phone and your child wants your attention, don't tell her "just a sec" if it's going to be more like 20 minutes. According to Dr. Mogel, doing so teaches your children that you're going to put them off for as long as you can get away with and that you don't keep your word. Playing loosey-goosey with time also means that your kids probably will too, so don't be surprised when you tell them it's time to leave a party or clear the table, and they say "just a sec" and don't mean it either. Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say, can be highly motivating indeed.
Tough Answers About Success
The key to motivating kids is different than what's commonly thought, reports journalist Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. We asked him to explain.
What's the most common misconception about children and motivation?
Until recently, researchers believed that the leading factor in a child's success was cognitive skills, the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words. But in my visits with psychologists, doctors, and economists around the country, I learned they've identified more important qualities that lead to success: persistence, self-control, curiosity, grit, conscientiousness, self-confidence, and optimism.
How can we help kids acquire these skills?
Having a strong relationship with your child may be even more important than we've thought. Studies show that children with a secure attachment to their parents -- even 3- and 4-year-olds -- have greater resiliency and are more self-reliant. It's also important to remember that character strengths like curiosity and self-control can be taught. They don't appear magically as a result of good genes. There's a lot we can do to influence their development in children.
Has your research affected your parenting?
My wife and I had our son, who's now 4, just as I began reporting this book. When he was born, I believed that the faster he mastered reading and math the better he would do in life. Now, I'm much more invested in his character.
You've reported that kids need to encounter failure. Why?
They need to experience the process of making mistakes and failing, and then bouncing back and recovering. As they grow up, they're going to be much better at facing setbacks. I've learned that it's possible to let kids fail but still to be emotionally present for them. It's a hard balance to reach, but it's exactly what kids need.
-- Interview by Chrisanne Grise
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.