Remember the classic children’s film Mary Poppins? Jane and Michael Banks managed to chase away every nanny their father hired for them. Then Mary Poppins arrived. One of the first tasks she required of the children was to clean their room. The children balked and whined. Then Mary Poppins threw in a spoonful of sugar and made the whole thing a game. In no time at all the room was clean and the children were tucked neatly in their beds.

Obviously, real life doesn’t work quite like that. Parents have no magic carpetbag from which to pull out hat racks and measuring sticks. But we do have the same power Mary Poppins did to create a positive atmosphere in our homes.

Any parent knows that if you want a kid to really hate something, just tell him he has to do it - or else! Whether or not our children will resist doing what we ask them to do, or do it willingly and cheerfully rests largely on motivation. “The biggest battle we face as parents and teachers is motivating our kids,” says Paul Martinsen, principal of a Southern California elementary school and father of three children.

Extrinsic motivators (i.e. money, treats, extra play time) may work fine in the short term, such as when you want your children to clean their bedroom or complete a homework assignment, but says Martinsen, “they are not a good solution for the long run and, in fact, cause children to expect a reward for everything they do.” They may also come to see tasks as optional. If they don’t want the reward, they don’t have to complete the task. Or worse, they may start negotiating with you. “I’ll clean the bathroom if you give me more allowance.”

For a parent to maintain control within the home, and to ensure that children do assigned tasks with a positive attitude, kids need intrinsic motivation, incentives beyond tangible rewards.

Below are five rewards that will motivate even the most resistant of kids. Parents who utilize them are sure to become their family’s very own Mary Poppins!

  • Praise. Be sure to notice when kids have done a chore or homework assignment and praise them for their efforts. Making kids feel good about what they’ve done today will motivate them to complete future tasks without being asked.
  • Time. Kids need one-on-one time with their parents, and this can be a great reward for doing chores. Parents should find out what activities their children enjoy and spend time doing that with them. “Carving out time from our schedules can be tough on us parents,” says Martinsen, “but it is vital to help children grow up into well-balanced adults.”
  • Choice. Kids often get frustrated at having to do chores they don’t want to do. One solution, suggests Martinsen, is to find out what chores kids want to do, and let them do them. “For example, my kids like to hold the leash when we take our dog for a walk,” says Martinsen. “They enjoy holding the leash, and the dog gets walked.”
  • Breaks. When kids resist doing assignments, they are probably feeling overwhelmed. Break larger tasks into smaller tasks that can be accomplished quickly. “Little pieces make it manageable,” Martinsen says. 
  • Thanks. Children need to be acknowledged for their accomplishments. Sometimes a simple thank you is the greatest reward. As Martinsen reminds us, “Words don’t cost money.”