Jedi Mind Trick: 8 Ways to Motivate Kids

You've yelled, scolded, bribed and pleaded, yet your child still drags her feet at every simple request. Chore times and homework sessions become a battleground where you both lose. What can you do to motivate kids? Numerous studies have found that the most effective parenting model is an authoritative one—firm, but loving. Authoritative parents have a high level of involvement, but allow their kids to make choices and face the consequences. As kids get older, parents gradually give more freedom. Read on to find some specific strategies for motivating kids that fit within the authoritative parenting model.

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Sign a Contract

Contracts reduce misunderstandings and open the door to communication. Debi Gilboa, M.D. suggests using a contract to motivate kids in almost any parenting situation—including cell phones, a common concern for parents. If your kid's desperate for her own phone, decide on a terms of use together and get it down in writing. "Write a cell phone use contract, to be renegotiated every 3 months," suggests Gilboa. "The contract specifies the necessities: the child will always pick up a call or answer a text from a parent. The child will 'park' the cellphone on its charger every evening 1/2 hour before bedtime and can pick it up before (or after) school the next day. The parents and child will split the cell phone bill each month 70/30 (or whatever works). The child will not send any inappropriate texts or pictures. The parents will not pay for a replacement phone if it is lost or broken. To earn a later curfew or more freedoms in 3 months, the child will abide by all these rules."

Be Happy

Your actions speak louder than your words. If you view work as a satisfying, essential part of a happy life, your kid will pick up on that. On the other hand, if you grit your teeth through every work assignment and job around the house, she'll develop the same attitude. Let your child see you working on projects, reading books and doing chores, and talk about how rewarding work is. For example, "This project at work is really challenging, but I love learning new things," or "I love being home when the house is clean and the lawn is mowed."

Let Her Choose

If chore charts and nagging aren't working, maybe your kid needs more control, suggests Rhonda Franz, managing editor of When it's time to clean up, point out the things that need to be done around the house. Ask your kid to make her own to-do list, choosing three items from your list, and give her some freedom on when the tasks should be completed. For example, "Chores must be done by 6:00 this evening," is more flexible than "I want this cleaned up in an hour."

Use Technology

Kids are constantly "plugged in" to our wired world, so use this trend to your advantage, says Rose Morelock, vice president of operations at Children's Lighthouse Learning Centers. Download a new audio book or a few songs that your kid can jam to while doing chores.

Make it Fun!

Nagging and punishment don't work, says Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent. Instead, come up with fun, meaningful ways to work with your kid. "I recently worked with parents who were having a hard time motivating their child to read," says Duffy. "They decided to read their child's assignments along with their child. As they worked through certain books, they would discuss them in an ad-hoc Family book club. This turned out to be a highly effective technique, as the child began to read more on his own, and the family became closer through the exercise."

Watch Out for Blackmail

Avoid paying for appropriate behavior, warns Ellen Notbohm, author of 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism and Asperger's. This tells your kid you're willing to fork over money to stop her from acting a certain way. Eventually, says Notbohm, you'll be forced to "raise the ante" before she stops misbehaving, and "the time interval between payoffs gets shorter and shorter."

Work Together

Doing chores is a lot more fun when everyone pitches in. Set aside a time each week—Saturday morning usually works—to clean together. Set a time limit (such as two hours) and make a reasonable list of the chores you want to complete. When the work's done, celebrate your work with a family outing.

Follow the Golden Rule

It can be easy to forget that your kid's merely a little person, with the same feelings and wishes as you. Consider your current strategies for motivating your kid—would they work on you? Talk to your child with respect and be sensitive to her feelings. If she feels appreciated, she's more likely to cooperate.

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