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 was barely legible.
For many parents, convincing kids to do tasks like chores and homework can already be a struggle. The desire isn’t there, leading to potential arguments and nagging.
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 completing them.
And so, we nag until they get it done, even if they oblige just to get us off their backs. 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.
Even once they do finish the task, the finished product reveals the 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.
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 work 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 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. Letting them have more control is important if I want them to be motivated, develop life skills, and enjoy learning.
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, he’ll be motivated to finish a task he got to make most decisions about.
Maybe that’s letting him fix his bed however way he wants, 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 him autonomy. You’re scared he’ll do a project wrong or botch a task. But he craves that control and the ability to make choices.
After all, the “mistakes” are petty compared to the lessons he learns from doing things on his own. Sure, he didn’t rake the leaves as neatly as you do, but he learned the importance of contributing to the household and the pride of a job well done.
Don’t take over that class assignment or determine how he does his chores. Instead, allow him to decide what to do and how, so long as he ticks off the requirements that need to be done.
Free printables: Struggling with getting him to do his chores? Want to develop good habits from the start? Download your Printable Chore List templates to help you organize chores! Join my newsletter and 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 play time. 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’ll 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’ll 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 to 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 own 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 of what really happens. They won’t want to finish tasks in the future if they don’t 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 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’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 child will 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.
4. Don’t reward your child
Yup, don’t reward your child if you want her to motivate herself.
Seems backwards, right? Aren’t we motivated by rewards? But focusing on rewards, especially external ones like money, privileges, or a new toy, is a short-term tactic.
Sure, you might suspend television 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’ll feel motivated to finish them will dwindle soon.
Rewards 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 rewards will fizzle—they’re not as exciting anymore. 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, focus on internal rewards, like the joy she feels in doing a job well. For remembering to put her library book in her backpack, all on her own. For feeling more responsible because she did her chores. 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 gave ourselves goodies just to get us 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, all 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 encouraging 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 Will Help Your Child Love Math
- Why We Need to Encourage Our Children’s Interests
- How to Stop Nagging Your Child to Get Stuff Done
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and download your Printable Chore List templates for free to help you and your kids organize chores: