Parents often express their concern about their child’s lack of motivation. I get lots of complaints that all their child is truly interested in doing is playing video games or being on social media. So if that is what you are seeing at your house, you are not alone. Here are 4 tips for motivating your child to take action on their own—even when no data or wifi is part of the equation!
Treat your children with respect
Maybe you feel like you do treat your child with respect. But if I left a video camera running in your house, what would it sound and look like? In lots of houses I would hear things like this:
•You never hang your stuff up.
•If I have told you once, I have told you a million times to…
•Sit up. Use your napkin. Don’t reach across other people’s plates.
•Why do you always forget to put the lid on the toothpaste?
These are not respectful communications. They are much more likely to shut your child down than to open her to reflecting on her actions. They are hyper critical and they use words like “always” and “never” that will soon become self-fulfilling prophesies.
It would be much more respectful to sit down with your child and ask them to do some problem solving:
“Sweetie, I see that sometimes it is hard for you to remember to hang up your stuff so that it is out of the way. That impacts the rest of the family and is a problem. What ideas do you have for making sure we don’t trip over your stuff?”
Asking for your child’s input is always a good way to start. Initially, your kids may need some help with brainstorming. That’s fine, but be sure to ask permission:
“It looks like you are struggling to come up with ideas. Would it be okay if I threw out some things of my own that might work?”
If you have already gone through this process and your child is still not picking up the ball, help out by offering some choice while still holding the expectation.
Some children have a hard time moving into action because they struggle to decide on which course of action is best. You can pop them out of being overwhelmed by limiting the amount of decisions they have to make:
“Would you like to leave your backpack on the hook by the front door or would you to bring it all the way through to your room right when you get home?”
No matter which option your child chooses, help them anticipate what might make it hard to follow through on their commitment . Then help them find a solution for that. For example, could they set an alarm on their phone a minute or two they usually get home to bring putting their backpack away to top of mind? How about posting a sign as they walk through the door? Maybe the buddy system would work? Whichever sibling reminds the other could get a point and points could add up to taking over a sibling’s chore one time.
A/B choices could be combined with an open-ended possibility. For example, the fall that my daughter’s gymnastic class was full by the time we went to sign up, I told her that she could either take tennis with me, go to family yoga or find some other class that met on the days that she was at my house. The expectation of engaging in some kind of physical activity was clear, but the parameters of how she could meet that expectation were very wide. I didn’t personally have anything invested in her choice—as long as she was getting exercise one way or the other.
Give Your Kids Autonomy
Once your kids have come to a decision about what or how to do something, leave them to do it. Agree on a time/date by when you want something done and ask if they need any support but then leave them be. If you have given a child the parameters of a choice, it is a good idea to let her know by when the decision has to be made and what the consequence of no decision will be. For example, with the finding-a-physical-activity-class task, I told my daughter she could investigate classes on her own and figure out the logistics of getting there: If that wasn’t done by Sunday night, by default the choice would be taking tennis lessons with me.
You can imagine that a child would be motivated to find her own after school activities, but this same approach works with chores: As the parent you set the expectation that everyone in the family needs to find a way to contribute. Let the child know by when he needs to submit his proposal for the work he wants to do in the house. Also let him know that if he fails to submit a proposal, you will be assigning him to cleaning out the bathrooms every week.
Once you have an agreement in place about what his contribution will be, don’t micro manage how he approaches the job. You may prefer to mop the kitchen from the far end of the room towards the mudroom so that you can sweep things out the back door. Your son may do it the other way. Even if your motivation is truly to save him some trouble, keep your experience to yourself. People are more motivated to complete things they have control over.
Look for the Best in Your Child
Think of the ways in which you are successful. I bet you have excelled the most in your area of strengths. While all of us have to work on our weaknesses, doing so is not particularly motivational. Generally we get energy and excitement around something we are good at. We then use that energy and excitement to drive us through some of the more mundane parts of our job.
Your child is no different. When he is using his strengths, he can get in his zone and truly take pleasure in his task.
Your job is to help a) identify his strengths and b) connect his strengths to his actions at hand. What does your child bring to the table that helps her shine? Humor? Optimism? Curiosity? Wisdom? Courage? (If you are struggling to find your child’s strength, check out sites like viacharacter.org’s character strengths list.)
Even laundry can become absorbing if you bring your determination and curiosity, say, to removing a particular stain. Or perhaps your child has a future as an efficiency expert and wants to figure out the fastest way to fold a shirt. .
Bottom line is that when your child is working from his strengths, he will be more motivated.
Give these tips a try. I’d love to hear how they work with your kids! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.