Can’t get kids to finish chores and homework? Learn how to motivate children to do their best and follow through with responsibilities.
“How many sentences do I have to write?” my son asked.
The assignment was simple: write about a time you had courage, and draw an accompanying picture to go with it. Except, right from the start, he had treated the assignment as a hassle, something to just get done, even haphazardly.
It was no surprise then that his sentences showed no effort and his picture wasn’t legible.
For many parents, convincing kids to do tasks like chores and focus during homework time can already be a struggle. The desire isn’t there, leading to potential arguments, frustration, and nagging.
First, let’s backtrack 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 of completing them.
And so, we nag until they get it done, even if they oblige to get us off their backs. We confiscate beloved items hoping this time they can follow through and finish. We may even get into arguments over cleaning their room or finishing their Thanksgiving turkey project.
Even once they do finish the task, the finished product reveals a lack of motivation and interest in it. The clothes are barely folded and words are misspelled everywhere. It’s enough to make you wonder if this is how it will always be.
How to motivate children to do their best
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.
A lackluster effort is bound to happen, but kids shouldn’t have to drag their feet over every task or responsibility. They should feel proud of their mastery and enjoy the process. And even if they’d rather do something else, they should still fulfill their responsibilities.
Take a look at how to motivate children to do their best:
1. Give your child autonomy
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In all our hovering, we’re doing the one thing that kills the eagerness to learn in young children: 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. Letting them have more control is important if I want them to be motivated, develop life skills, and have a growth mindset.
This applies to finishing chores and school tasks, among the many other ways you can give autonomy. The more you back off, the more your child feels ownership of the project. After all, she might be motivated to finish a task she got to make most decisions about.
Maybe that’s letting her fix her bed however way she wants, or not taking over her school projects and crafts (you can always tell which ones the parents did!).
And I get it—there’s a helplessness with giving autonomy. You’re scared she might do a project wrong or botch a task. But she craves that control and the ability to make choices.
After all, the “mistakes” in childhood are petty compared to the lessons she learns from doing things on her own. Sure, she didn’t clean her bike as neatly as you do, but she learned the importance of ownership and responsiblity and the pride of a job well done.
Don’t take over that class assignment or determine how she does her chores. Instead, allow her to decide what to do and how, so long as she ticks off the requirements that need to be done.
Free printables: Struggling with getting her to do his chores? Want to develop good habits from the start? Join my newsletter and grab your Printable Chore List templates to help you organize chores! Get it below—at no cost to you:
2. Allow your child to experience the consequences
Let’s say your child thought it’d be a riot to toss her pillows on the floor as part of her playtime. But bedtime was coming up and she still didn’t return the pillows to her bed, despite you asking her to tidy up.
You might be tempted to go into her room and simply do it yourself. You know she can sleep better with the pillows arranged just the right way, and it only takes you two seconds to do.
But what if you held back and allowed her to experience the consequences of not following directions? She can learn you mean business as she walks into her room to see her pillows on the floor. She might realize how uncomfortable it is to sleep without one and understand why you’d asked her to do it.
None of this would register if you’d finished the tasks and saved her from the consequences.
Did she not finish a school project? Let her answer her teacher and experience a less-than-expected grade. Did she not wash all the dishes, or made her bed haphazardly? Let her sleep in a messy bed and wash her plate and utensils before eating breakfast the next morning.
We shouldn’t save our kids from every struggle, especially with tasks they’re responsible for. Saving them from their responsibilities paints an unrealistic view. They won’t want to finish tasks in the future if they don’t realize what happens if they don’t.
Discover consequences for kids that work.
3. Focus on the positive results
Ever heard of the carrot or the stick analogy? I’ve found that my kids are more driven when they’re motivated by the 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 might 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 child might face, focus instead on positive ones. What does she get out of finishing a project? Talk about the positive outcomes, like a cleaner room, a more organized bookshelf, or learning something new.
And make success possible so that she can experience it. Show her what achievement feels like so she knows what to reference the next time she needs to find motivation from within.
Read more about raising kids who love to learn.
4. Don’t reward your child
Yup, don’t reward your child if you want her to motivate herself.
Seems backward, right? Aren’t we motivated by treats? But focusing on rewards, especially external ones like money, ice cream, or a new toy, may not be the best approach.
Sure, you might suspend internet privileges if she doesn’t clean the living room, especially if doing so is part of the deal. But if every task requires a reward, then the chances she might feel motivated to finish them can dwindle soon.
Rewards might work at first. They’re so enticing and new that your child will likely do all her tasks to earn that reward. But over time, the extrinsic motivation might fizzle. Now you have to up your game, giving even more extravagant rewards to convince her to do tasks she had once done for less.
Instead, a more effective way is to focus on internal motivation, like the satisfaction she feels in getting a good grade on her math quiz. Praise her for her persistence during basketball practice or for being responsible with taking care of her bike.
These are the internal rewards that can continue to fuel her enthusiasm and raise a motivated child.
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 given ourselves goodies just to get motivated?
It’s a good reminder to think about when you’re frustrated with your child’s lack of resolve to do a task well.
But it’s also reassuring to know that we can motivate them in a healthy way. That giving autonomy and allowing them to experience setbacks are effective. And that focusing on positive results and not external rewards can change their mindset.
Starting, finishing, and doing tasks well are struggles we all face, but with the right motivation, our kids can learn how on their own.
p.s. Check out Do Your Best Every Day to Do Your Best Every Day by John Cena and Susanna Harrison, an illustrated book filled with encouragement and uplifting words:
Get more tips:
- The Secret to Raising Hard Working Kids
- What to Do When Your Kids Refuse to Do Chores
- 6 Techniques That Can Help Your Child Love Math
- Why We Need to Encourage Your Child’s Interests
- How to Stop Nagging Your Child to Get Stuff Done
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Our problem is getting our oldest to actually start anything. He’s just more interested in doing anything else than what he’s supposed to. Any advice for that?
Nina Garcia says
Hi Stephanie, I think a big factor in whether our kids do what we ask and start these tasks is the way we phrase it. I wrote another article on the blog all about how to change our words or even the way we say things to have our kids start. Check it out here:
I’d also encourage you to step back and give him the responsibility to handle it on his own. If it’s a task he’s supposed to, don’t nag, and instead let the natural consequence of not doing it be his lesson learned. Let’s say he’s supposed to hang up his clothes but he doesn’t. Let him deal with finding clean clothes to wear, and hopefully the next time he’ll realize that he really should hang those clothes.
And give him the autonomy to do it the way he wants to. If he hangs the clothes weird or not how you would do it, let it go. He’ll feel less motivated to do these next time if you give him a hard time about it, or worse, re-do it for him. I hope that helps! xo
Im 12, and the oldest and I kinda do the same thing… mt mom always repeatedly tells us to do chores and forces us which for me, makes me want to do it less because it makes me feel like what I want/think doesn’t matter. Im nor sure if this will help your kid but I find that whenever my mom just drops something and forgets about it, I usually get it done eventually even if its a long time after, it gets done and thats because I feel more in control of my decisions and like an equal, instead of like my opinion doesn’t matter and my time that I can comfortably do things isn’t thought of… idk if this helped but I tried
Terri Ayers says
I don’t necessarily have a problem getting my daughter to do something, it’s her follow through that needs lots of help. If I ask her to get something out of her top drawer, for example, she will do it. She needs a stool to accomplish this task, which she gets from the bathroom. She can never put two and two together that if she gets the stool out of the bathroom, then it must go back to the bathroom. I can pretty much follow her trail around the house where she has used something and gone on her merry way, leaving her mess for someone else to deal with.
Nina Garcia says
Haha, she’s definitely leaving the evidence Terri! For something like that, I would work on practice and repetition. Correct her when you notice the stool, not so much in a scolding way, but to teach her that that’s also part of the process. My kids would always forget to turn off the lights in the bathroom when they used it. It’s almost like they didn’t think that was part of the deal. But I made it part of the routine so that it eventually came second nature. Keep reinforcing what she needs to do (hence the practice) until she gets it.
I have three kids. The eldest child I raised using rewards and everything was fine, but when he was about 5 years old, he accumulated the amount he needed and refused to do chores. I couldn’t make him do anything else, because his already had a certain attitude to matters. Now he is 7 years old, it is impossible to force him to do household chores. I don’t know what to do. I am not ready to put pressure on him, as it affects the child’s mental health. With the second child, everything was somehow easy, he took the vacuum cleaner himself, helped clean the table and put away the toys. He repeated everything after me and I just praised him. The third child I raised using printable star reward charts. The son liked it, but the stars were constantly lost. Then we switched to the Manini app. Now the youngest child is 3 years old and we already know how to do a lot. I don’t scold him if he misses something or doesn’t want to do it.
Now I think about it and wonder how different all children are)
Nina Garcia says
Absolutely, Amelie. We have to tailor our approach for each child. As far as your 7-year-old, I’ve found that letting the natural consequences unfold teaches the lesson. For instance, if he doesn’t put his dishes in the sink after a meal, leave the dish there and for the next meal, let him know that you can’t put his new snack because the old dish is still there. It’s less about you scolding and more about him understanding the natural consequences of their choices.