Getting a 100% on a test.

Unloading the dishwasher.

Playing your hardest in a game.

These are all reasons why a parent could reward their child. But is the reward necessary and does it help? Or are the above reasons what is expected of them?

When I was growing up, I never received an allowance for doing chores or was given money for getting good grades. But recently, my children told me about their friends getting rewarded for doing well on a report card. Silly me, I thought that was a kid’s “job” to do well in school. But that got me thinking, “How do you motivate kids?”

Motivating Your Kids

It may be one of the biggest struggles parents and teachers experience. As parents, we remind them to clean their rooms or do their schoolwork. They reply that it’s too hard or boring. We plead with them to do their chores and they whine, procrastinate and even ignore us. So how do we motivate them?

I’ve tried punishment with a timeout or withdrawal of privileges. However, rewards do seem much sweeter than punishments.

When I offer bribes (or threats), this usually leads to the desired behavior I am seeking. For example: as a parent, I want to encourage my kids to clean their rooms, but if I measure room cleaning behavior over a two-week period, I’ll discover that room cleaning is at zero, even with nagging. It just doesn’t happen. But when I implement a reward system to motivate better behavior, I find that room cleaning has increased enormously. It MUST be working!

Eventually, however, my reward system fails because I am tired of rewarding my children for what I think is expected of them.

And when the reward system is taken away, suddenly school achievements drop off and the room cleaning behavior stops. Then the reward system starts again and results improve. It’s a vicious cycle.

Addressing Their Challenges

However, I realized that rewards and punishments ignore what’s going on for my kids struggling with motivation. Instead, I now ask them what their challenges are. Why are they lacking intrinsic motivation? Is the task really boring? Or is there something else going on? When I genuinely understand their challenge, I typically find that it’s not going to be fixed by a goody.

They say things like, “it’s boring”… and a reward isn’t going to remedy that. Rewards don’t make things interesting. They simply shift the focus from the task to the reward. I needed to focus less on behaviors and more on obstacles to desired behaviors. Are they tired? Lonely? Stressed? Is it too hard? Does it seem to lack meaning?

Addressing the obstacles requires me to consider how I might be contributing to the problem and work creatively with my child to find ways around the obstacles. Is the work I’m asking them to do meaningful to them?

I found that giving them a choice leads to an automatic increase in motivation. Or giving them a challenge like, “I bet you can clean up your room is less than 5 minutes” helps with motivation.

Changing the Reward

Finally, I recognized that when my child feels competent, they are going to be more motivated than when they feel incapable. As a parent, my job is to build their sense of mastery so they feel like the things I invite them to do are achievable.

If I MUST offer a reward, I make it unexpected. And assure my child that this isn’t going to be a regular thing.

But I also changed the reward system. A reward is now an investment in our time together, not money. It’s now a trip to the zoo, museum or the movie theater. To me, this is a much better idea than simply getting them the latest game or gadget. I make this a special one-on-one trip with my child and give them the benefit of my attention. Experiential trips make for great rewards and inevitably teach my children that money is not everything, but spending some mindful time together is.

Mallory Connelly

Mallory Connelly

Babies & Toddlers

In addition to the time I devote to being a mom, I also work full-time outside the home, which means my day is hardly ever as simple as nine to five. With an all-too-established schedule, as soon as I walk through the door, my day doesn’t end, but rather just begins. It’s a balancing act, especially with two children, but being a mom is one full-time job that I never want to quit!

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