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How to Motivate Your Child

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An Interview with Dr. John Mayer

Here is a familiar scene in our house: My four-year-old son makes a huge mess – trucks, blocks, play dough, the works. We try to teach him how to clean up after himself. He’s interested at first, but would rather let us finish up the task and sit by the wayside watching us. How do we teach him to follow-through? Do we tell him, if he puts away his toys, he can play with another? Do we make a game out of it? And what about kids who don’t seem interested in sports or other activities? Dr. John Mayer gives us practical tools and guidance on how to motivate our children. — Christina Montoya Fiedler, TMC Contributing Writer

If a child seems unmotivated to complete an art project, sport or dance class — what should a parent do?

First, gently and cheerfully encourage the child to continue the project. For example, if you observe the child becoming distracted and uninterested make sure you say positive affirmations such as, “I’m having fun with you!” or “I can’t wait to put this up on the refrigerator/ your wall in your room/my office, etc.” The use of affirmations is great for motivating children; it’s why teachers have traditionally pasted student’s work on the classroom walls. So, use them at home and often. Point out a fun aspect of the project the child might have not seen or experienced. If you’re working on an art project and the child is getting bored, change up the materials you’re using for the project. If you can get a half hour of attention paid to a project with a child of preschool age, you’re doing well. Second, if that doesn’t work, leave the project for a short time, and again with a cheerful positive attitude come back to it with, “Wouldn’t it be fun to play with …or finish …!” Children this age have short attention spans. Walking away for even 3-5 minutes makes the project seem fresh upon return. When you return, point out an aspect you both didn’t focus on previously and do this with an affirmation: “This is really coming along. Let’s try this on it and see what happens!”

When should parents “push” to make their kids complete, say, a season of soccer, or a dance class series if they aren’t enjoying it?

At this preschool age, never push them to complete a season, or series or term. Here is the truth on pushing at this age, children are right smack dab in the range of the famous terrible twos. They do exist, and we pluralize them for a reason – because they don’t start on that child’s second birthday and they don’t end at the exact moment they turn three. All the way through preschool this is the first time in the child’s life when they are striving for independence. The more you push, the more they will resist. That is why engagement with a positive attitude and affirmation as detailed in my first answer works so well at this age. Furthermore, children up until preschool are too young to have the cognitive ability to comprehend the larger purpose or long-term goals. This is too advanced at this age. But, at around age eight, you should insist they finish what they started. If you apply the techniques I’m suggesting here: engagement, affirmation, positive attitude, apply uniqueness to any activity — you are teaching them commitment in very skillful parenting ways. And, by the way, this helps prevent attention deficit problems at later ages.

Is there anything parents should definitely not do in the hopes to motivate their child?

Yes. The don’ts are:

Don’t be punitive or negative! Parents get frustrated at a child’s impatience. Parents might yell or even punish a child for not sticking with a project, “Now you sit at that table until you finish that Lego house!” Don’t model the opposite of what you are trying to motivate your child to do. Parents want their child to be patient and attentive, so parents need to model those qualities. Lead the way with your patience, attention and enthusiasm toward the project. A lackluster attitude by the parent will assuredly create an unmotivated child.

Don’t speak negatively/sarcastically about an activity. For example if the child starts looking at a book when you expected her to be painting don’t say something like, “Wow, this is so fun painting with you.”

Don’t guilt your kids by saying things like, “Come on! Do this for mommy and daddy, granny and grandpa, etc.” These negative statements send powerful subliminal messages to children — they sense the activity is not worthwhile. Also, doing something out of guilt doesn’t build self-motivation.

But, once the child finishes the project, giving it to the grandparents or hanging it up, etc. are great affirmations of their accomplishment.

What’s your take on using bribery to motivate children?

I don’t support bribes. It may seem like they work in the short-term, but they are atrocious at building internal motivation. But, rewards work wonderfully.

What is the difference between rewards and bribes?

Rewards are conveyed after the fact and are not announced prior to or during the task. Bribes are stated prior to the child starting the task or throughout the task. Rewards are powerful because the child has to keep working to discover what the reward will be, whereas, bribes can lose their appeal in light of the “work” of the activity. For example if a child is promised a sticker after cleaning up the room, the child could easily say, “I don’t want a sticker.”

Is there any value and/or negative consequences for parents to leverage competition between siblings and/or friends to motivate their children?

Children in this age group are in the ‘me’ stage of social and cognitive development, thus ‘we’ techniques, like competition, are lost. Cognitively, a preschooler’s brain is not wired to understand competition yet – this comes later. So, leveraging competition is not effective. If you see children these ages responding to competition, I would argue this is just them responding to parent/adult pressure and mimicking these adult behaviors – it’s not their own motivation. It’s not that competition will harm children at these ages; it’s just the concept has no meaning, and thus it is a waste of time.

Dr. John Mayer is author of the new book, Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life from Healthy Learning Publishers. He is a practicing Clinical Psychologist acclaimed for treating adolescents, children, families, violent and acting out patients, substance abusers and disorders of young adults.

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