Can’t get kids to finish tasks like chores and school projects? Learn techniques on motivating children to do their best and follow through with their responsibilities.
An SSBE reader emailed me about this exact situation, and many of us can relate. The desire simply isn’t there, leading to potential arguments and nagging.
So, how can we get kids to actually finish important tasks they need to complete?
First, let’s back track and examine a typical conversation between parents and kids. We know what needs to get done, and why. The homework deadline looms. The chores we swore they’d be responsible for remain undone. And we point out all the ways they’re still coming up short from getting things done.
And so we nag until they get it done, even if they oblige just to get us off their backs. Or we confiscate beloved items hoping this time they’ll follow through and finish. We may even get into arguments over cleaning their room or finishing their Thanksgiving turkey project.
Motivating children to do their best
It doesn’t have to be that way. What if we tried one technique first, one that would make kids finish tasks they started, all on their own?
We’re all more driven when we’re self-motivated, even as adults. Motivation removes nagging because kids find joy in doing the tasks within themselves. And it turns kids into driven, self-starters and finishers.
Okay, so we get that motivation is more inspiring than nagging or punishment. What are a few techniques on motivating children to do their best?
1. Give kids autonomy
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In all our hovering, we’re doing the one thing that kills the eagerness to learn in our kids: Control.
I’ve been giving my kids more autonomy ever since I read these two amazing books, How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. These two authors have reassured me it’s not just okay but beneficial that I back off and give my kids autonomy. Especially if I want them to be motivated, learn critical life skills and enjoy learning.
This applies to finishing chores and school tasks, among the many other ways we can give autonomy. The more we back off, the more they feel ownership of the project. After all, they’ll be motivated to finish a task they got to make most decisions on.
Maybe that’s letting your kids fix their bed however way they want, or not taking over his school projects and crafts (you can always tell which were the ones parents did!).
And I get it—it’s hard to give kids autonomy. We’re scared they’ll mess up, do a project wrong, or completely botch a task. But kids crave that control and the ability to make choices.
After all, the “mistakes” are petty compared to the lessons they learn from doing things on their own. So they didn’t rake the leaves as neatly or even as effectively as you do, but they learned the importance of contributing to the household and the pride of a job well done.
So don’t take over that class assignment, or determine how they do their chores. Instead, allow them to decide what to do and how, so long as they tick off the requirements that need to be done.
2. Allow kids to experience the consequences
Let’s say your kids thought it’d be a riot to toss their pillows on the floor during one of their play times together. But bedtime was coming up and they still didn’t return the pillows to their beds, despite you asking them to do it.
It’s tempting to go into their room and do it yourself. You know they’ll sleep better with the pillows arranged just the right way, and it takes you two seconds to do.
But what if you held back and allowed your kids to experience the consequences of not finishing a task? They’ll learn you mean business as they walk into their rooms to see their pillows on the floor. They might realize how uncomfortable it is to sleep without one and understand why you’d asked them to do it.
None of this would register if you’d finished the tasks and saved them from the consequences.
Did your child not finish a school project? Let him answer to his teacher and experience a less-than-expected grade. Did he not wash all the dishes, or made his bed haphazardly? Let him sleep in a messy bed and wash his own plate and utensils before eating breakfast the next morning.
We shouldn’t save our kids from every struggle, especially with finishing tasks they’re responsible for. Saving kids from their responsibilities paints an unrealistic view of what really happens. They won’t want to finish tasks in the future if they don’t even realize what actually happens if they don’t.
3. Focus on the positive results
Ever heard of the carrot or the stick analogy? I’ve found that my kids are more driven to finish a task when they’re motivated by its final results, more so than through threats, punishment or nagging.
Yes, they might finish a task if we insert a threat or a nag, but they’ll do so begrudgingly. They miss out on key lessons, like developing self-motivation, a love of learning and doing a job well.
Rather than the dire results your kids will face, focus instead on positive ones. What does your child get out of finishing a project? Talk about the positive effects of doing their job such as a cleaner kitchen, a more organized bookshelf or learning something new.
And make success possible so that they can experience it. Show your kids what achievement feels like so they know what to reference the next time they need to find motivation from within.
4. Don’t reward your kids
Yup, don’t reward your kids if you want to motivate them to finish tasks.
Seems backwards, right? Aren’t we motivated by rewards? But focusing on rewards, especially external ones like money, a privilege, or a new toy, is a short-term tactic.
Sure, you might suspend television if they don’t clean the living room, especially if doing so is part of the deal. But if every task requires a reward, then the chances of your child feeling motivated to finish them will dwindle soon.
Rewards work initially. They’re so enticing and new that your kids will likely do all their tasks to earn that reward. But over time, the rewards fizzle—they’re not as exciting as they used to be. Now parents have to up their game, giving even more extravagant rewards to convince kids to do tasks they had once done for much less.
Instead, focus on internal rewards, like the joy a child feels in doing a job well. For remembering to put his library book in his backpack, all on his own. Feeling more responsible because he does his chores without being asked. These are the internal rewards that continue to fuel motivation.
In many ways, our kids aren’t so different from us. How many times have we put off a project we started, procrastinated on a chore or rewarded ourselves with goodies just to get us to finish a task?
It’s a good reminder to think about when we’re frustrated with our kids’ lack of resolve to finish things.
But it’s also reassuring to know that we can change habits through motivation. That giving autonomy and allowing them to experience setbacks are effective ways to motivate kids. And that focusing on positive results and not external rewards can change their mindset.
Finishing tasks is a struggle we all face, but with the right motivation, our kids can learn how, all on their own.
Struggling with getting your kids to do their chores? Want to develop good habits from the start? Download my Printable Chore List templates to help you and your kids organize chores!
Get more tips:
- How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
- The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
- What to Do when Your Kids Refuse to Do Chores
- Teach Your Child the Value of a Job Well Done
- How to Stop Nagging Your Child to Get Stuff Done
Tell me in the comments: What are your top techniques on motivating children to do their best?
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