Nobody does anything they don’t want to do

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A long, long time ago in my parenting (not professional) life, I got in a friendly argument with another mom about whether or not kids should be “made” to do something they didn’t want to do. My friend said, yes, of course, because we all have to learn to do things that we don’t want to do. I said, no, of course not, because none of us does anything we don’t want to do so what we need to do is help kids figure out how to motivate themselves do the yucky stuff.

OK, it was kind of a game of semantics but kind of not. I really don’t think anyone — kid or adult — does anything that they don’t want to do so the key is helping them want to do it.

All of us do things because:

  1. We enjoy doing them;
  2. We enjoy the results; or
  3. We want to avoid what will happen if we don’t do them.

We clean our houses not necessarily because we like cleaning; we clean them because we like clean houses.

We get our teeth cleaned not necessarily because we love going to the dentist; we go because we fear what will happen if we are lax in our dental care or because we love the feeling of having shiny, clean teeth.

We pay our electrical bill not because we like writing checks to the utility companies; we pay because we don’t want to lose our access to electricity.

When it comes to our kids, figuring out what motivates them — and helping them figure out what motivates them — is better than “making” them do whatever it is that we want them to do.

Many parents use incentives to help motivate kids, which may be a good short-term strategy. But it’s important to understand that extrinsic rewards — such as a new toy or a shiny quarter — wear off. Outside payment, otherwise unconnected to the behavior you want to encourage, operates under the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, if the child doesn’t figure out how to motivate themselves, they’re going to demand more  of a pay-off.

(I remember one friend of mine telling me that she was buying her child a toy for every new food tried. Eventually the child refused to eat at dinner unless there was something unfamiliar because she sure wasn’t going to eat anything unless there was a new plaything at the end of the meal.)

I encourage parents to see the extrinsic pay-off as a bridge to an intrinsic reward. In other words, instead of putting stickers on a chart so the child can buy a bigger event (a new Lego kit or a pizza party) or to count the number of dollars he’ll get at the end of the week, use the chart to keep track of his accomplishments. Some children will find a (mostly) full chart reward enough and that pay off — the satisfaction of seeing all of those stars lined up, proof of his hard work — can help him start to internalize the good feeling of a difficult job well done.

Parents also use natural (or unnatural) consequence. You know, clean your room or lose your Xbox. Get up on time or miss the bus. Natural consequences make sense; buses are actually missed when people oversleep. Unnatural consequences can make kids dig in their heels. A child who isn’t convinced that room cleaning is really necessary may just see the punishing parent as the bad guy instead of understanding that it’s their behavior driving the problem. So if you do take away the Xbox, make sure there’s a way for the child to earn it back. Instead of an arbitrary number of days, return the console when the room is clean.

Kids — like the rest of us — don’t get good at stuff over night. It can take years (seriously) to grow a child who can keep her room clean without nagging. You may have to harangue your son or daughter about homework for most of their school years. But don’t lose heart! Remember that you’re building a long-term habit here; the habit of helping them find what motivates them.

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