We all have fantasy goals for our kids. Maybe we want them to practice their instruments, read more, spend less time on screens or regularly clear the table so we’re not left to wonder yet again how Mac n Cheese becomes cement within minutes. But even though what motivates your child varies by—well—child, most parents tend to reach for the same tools: rewards and punishment. Oh and nagging! Must not forget the nagging.
When you’re dangling some sort of compensation (dessert, TV, Robux) for doing homework or chores, it can feel ickily more like coercion or manipulation than motivation. In fact, this has a technical term: Extrinsic motivation. And it’s the kind psychologists say is far less likely to have lasting positive impact.
So, is there a healthier way to incentivize our kids? Experts say yes. In fact, there are tons. Read on for loving ways to light a fire under them—and leave the threats and bribes in the rearview.
1. Create good habits
“We are creatures of habit, so the key to good motivation is good habits,” says Dr. Lea Lis, a child psychiatrist based in Southampton, NY. Morning and evening routines are essential to kids. Every day, kids should wake up at the same time, brush their teeth, wash their faces, get dressed and go down to breakfast at the same time. Doing this yields its own intrinsic rewards: relaxed, loving mornings with their families, extra time to play. Same goes for chores. Instead of resentfully picking up wet towels off the bathroom floor while muttering about being the unpaid maid, encourage your kids to throw their towels into the hamper after their bath every night, and praise them effusively when they do (see #2). Make reading part of your nightly bedtime ritual and “it will become second nature,” says Lis. You won’t need to keep rewarding it with sticker charts or prizes.
2. Watch your tone, Missy
Connie Simpson, aka Nanny Connie, who has cared for the babies of George and Amal Clooney among other A-listers, writes on Instagram: “You ever wanna hear what your children are thinking about your relationship? Reverse the roles. Just do one of their daily chores and give them permission to correct you the way you would correct them.” Cringing yet? Yelling or harsh criticism are not only terrible for kids (studies show these parental behaviors increase rates of childhood depression) they’re simply ineffective motivational tools. They actually lead to behavioral problems. “If the goal of the parent is catharsis, I want to get this out of my system and show you how mad I am, well, yelling is probably perfect,” Dr. Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale, told the New York Times. “If the goal here is to change something in the child or develop a positive habit in the child, yelling is not the way to do that.” Instead, Dr. Kazdin suggests a system wherein you set up the child for success, explaining clearly and in advance what you want them to do. Then, once you’ve set the expectation, model the behavior yourself (clear the dishes, hang up your coat, put your shoes in the mud room, put your phone away during dinner, etc.). Consequences should only be positive. If your kid attempts to hang up his coat, lavish him with over-the-top, insane amounts of praise, hugs and kisses (the physical acts underscore and alert him to the praise, like an exclamation point on a sentence). And voila, the undesired behaviors melt away. Or as Dr. Kazdin told the Times, “The practice actually changes the brain, and in the process of that, the behaviors that you want to get rid of, having all kinds of temper tantrums and all the fights, all that just disappears.”
3. Teach them to tolerate frustration and confusion
Writes Maryam Abdullah, Parenting Program Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, getting used to frustration is a skill that can be practiced; initial failure can and should be pushed through. When kids encounter a hurdle (say, the piano pieces they’re practicing have gotten harder or they’re learning fractions for the first time) this means they are in the “stretch zone.” The stretch zone is not the time to give up; it’s the time to keep going! It may help to tell your kids about the zillions of times you’ve failed or experienced confusion and share stories of how you persevered. Then ask kids to explain to siblings, grandparents or friends how putting in lots of effort paid off for them. A phenomenon called the “saying is believing” effect will solidify this connection in their minds.
4. First work, then play
No one gets screens or toys until homework is done or the dishes are put away or their room is tidied. Make it a requirement that kids do their homework immediately after school (after a snack, of course). If it’s non-negotiable, “you don't have to transition from game time back to homework, which is impossible for most kids without a huge fight,” says Dr. Lis.
5. Utilize parental controls on electronics
The screen time struggle is real. But when rules around this—and other sticky issues—are black and white and crystal clear, not only do kids resist them less, they feel more secure and less anxious. Boundaries galore! Apps like OurPact allow you to set time limits on your child’s apps, games and even texting capability. Set them at your discretion, and the device simply shuts off at the appointed time. “So you don’t have to be the bad guy,” says Dr. Lis.
6. Edutainment 101
When it comes to onscreen entertainment, experts say you should watch with your kids to maximize any educational benefits and, um, prevent them from learning terms like “sexual harassment” from The Simpsons (D’oh!). Dr. Lis takes that common sense notion one step further: “If they watch TV in English, it has to be educational like Planet Earth, PBS, or Brainchild. If it is non-educational like Barbie, Teen Titans Go!, or Pokemon, then it must be in Spanish.” Like putting zucchini in their muffins, bake intellectual pursuits into the fun stuff.
7. Bite size goals, big rewards
Micro-Steps are a powerful productivity hack that work just as well—if not better—for kids. Ken Schuster, a former teacher and neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute recommends breaking work up into small portions and using quick breaks as rewards for getting through each chunk. Another tip? Say you were already planning to go out for ice cream or get your kid’s favorite takeout meal for dinner. Tie that positive experience to a job well done or significant effort. Say, “We’re going to have a pizza party tonight to celebrate how hard you worked on your book report!” or “You have been making your bed every day without being asked. You earned a trip to the zoo!”
8. Ask for help
Without being alarmist, a kid whose motivation falls off a cliff may be struggling with a diagnosable issue that can be improved with professional help. “If you continue to see an unmotivated kid that’s underperforming, it may be because she hasn’t developed the skills she needs to thrive, because of a learning or language disorder, or executive function weaknesses,” writes Danielle Cohen for the Child Mind Institute. “When a child encounters difficulty, especially if the problem hasn’t been identified, his reaction may be to stop trying in the area that’s frustrating for him.” Certain issues tend to pop up during certain pivotal years. “Kids with reading disorders like dyslexia may begin to struggle around first grade, when reading becomes important, as well as third grade, when material starts to get more complex. Many executive functioning issues become visible at the beginning of middle school, where students are expected to be a lot more independently organized, both with their work and with their belongings,” she writes. If you can identify an area of deficit, you can get your kid the targeted help she needs to manage it and excel in school.
9. Put kids in the driver’s seat
“Children are more motivated when they have some degree of self-determination, and can elect to pursue tasks that are personally meaningful,” according to Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child. Does your son want to tackle math or reading homework first? Would your daughter prefer to read a book on the solar system for research or watch a NatGeo video? “When they have a choice of projects, or at least a little wiggle room as to how a task gets done, children are more likely to stay engaged.”
10. Praise effort, not outcome
As psychologist Carol Dweck writes, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success.” Highlighting their natural intelligence on the other hand (‘You’re so smart. You got this…’) takes a task out of the realm of control. Most importantly, writes Dweck, it “provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” We may think we are doing the right thing by constantly telling a kid how smart and talented he is. But this can lead to a “performance orientation,” write the Harvard researchers. As a result, kids may “shy away from challenging activities that they might not excel at, for fear of negative evaluation.” A negative outcome, after all, challenges not just their ability to master a new skill or area of study, but their whole entire identity. Failure, then, is not something to learn from; it throws into chaos the whole notion of who they are supposed to be. Per Harvard’s child development specialists: “When we praise children for their effort and help them see falling short as an opportunity to learn and improve…they will be more motivated to work hard and more likely to believe that they can achieve what they put their mind to.”