Homework. The very mention of this word often makes parents groan as much as kids. How do you motivate your kids to get it done, and do it well? That very question has many moms and dads paying their kids for any good grades they bring home. And why not? Adults get paid for working a job, so shouldn’t their kids get paid for good schoolwork?
Unfortunately, well-known research by Edward L. Deci and others concluded that students who were paid for specific activities exhibited a decrease in intrinsic motivation to perform those activities. Many studies since Deci’s groundbreaking research replicated the findings that any kind of rewards—whether candy, class credits, awards, tokens or prizes—have the same result: a weakened internal drive toward the rewarded behavior. By doling out rewards for doing homework and good grades, parents take the focus away from skills like hard work, perseverance and planning—not to mention a love of learning—in favor of putting it on the final grade. Needless to say, this garners the opposite result of what parents intended and hoped for.
Don’t worry: There are still plenty of positive ways to get your kids to do their homework and encourage good grades. So before you take out those checkbooks, here are some ways you can motivate without money:
- Remove the rewards. Even if you’ve been paying for good grades or using other reward systems for completing homework, you can get a fresh start. Simply tell your kids something like, “You’re old enough now to do your best work without needing a reward. I have complete confidence in your abilities.” Then, take a deep breath and stop offering rewards cold turkey.
- Implement a When-Then Routine. There’s no need to dish out rewards when homework is programmed into your child’s day. The key is to structure the after-school routine in a “When-Then” format so that homework comes before seeing friends, computer time, soccer practice and other activities your child enjoys. That way, you can tell him, “When your homework is finished, then you can use your phone.” “When your homework is finished, then we’ll leave for soccer practice.” Let your child have some input, and then stick to the same routine every day so it becomes the law in your house.
- Remove the distractions. Make sure nothing, and especially the TV, Internet, phone or iPod, gets in the way of your child’s homework success. That way, she’ll spend more quality time with her studies, but be able to get it done in less time—so she can get on with the business of having fun!
- Avoid “red pencil” mentality. If you review your child’s homework, focus on the progress she’s making and not just the wrong answers. Celebrate mistakes as great learning opportunities!
- Encourage good habits and the love of learning. Be sure to acknowledge your child’s effort out loud when you see her nose to the grindstone the night before a math test, or reviewing spelling words nightly. Not only will she beam with pride, she’ll be more likely to repeat the behavior. The research by Deci and others concluded that encouragement was far more powerful than rewards in fostering intrinsic motivation, which will serve her well throughout life no matter her task.
- Link good grades to effort. It’s natural to be excited when your son brings home an “A” on the big science test, but instead of jumping up and down about the “A”—or worse, handing over a five dollar bill—tie the end result to a specific activity that he can repeat. Tell him, “That ‘A’ represents a lot of persistence and long hours of studying on your part. You should be very proud of yourself.” Any words that let him know that that "A" is valuable in and of itself will be well worth it!
- Ignore the whining! While these suggestions will improve the homework situation in your home, we can’t guarantee they’ll make your kids love doing worksheets or studying for the history test. That’s okay—but there’s no need for you to respond to the moaning and complaints. Doing so will only make the whining continue. You’re better off tuning it out entirely. After all, working through challenges and pushing ourselves to do things we might not completely enjoy doing is part of growing up and is a great skill to foster in today's kids.
Believe it or not, your kids really can learn a new homework system—even without rewards. Maybe now they can finally focus on learning long division!
Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time... For more strategies to get kids to listen without nagging, reminding or yelling, follow Positive Parenting Solutions on Facebook.