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6 Ways to Motivate Your Kids

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.

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.