Are you struggling with how to motivate a child who is unmotivated? Here’s what you need to know.
All parents struggle with the battle of the wills when it comes to getting your kids to do things they don’t want to or motivating them to work hard and get a task completed.
Mom! I’m a princess. I can’t clean all this stuff up! – yells my 5 year old.
Why not? Even princesses cleaned! Look at Cinderella and Snow White.
Yeah, but they had animal friends to help.
So, when your kid seems lazy or unmotivated, what do you do?
Nagging, yelling, and threatening are not effective in the long-term.
Sure, nagging or threatening might provide an immediate solution to the problem, but ideally you want to get your kids to learn how to operate with intrinsic motivation.
In other words, you want them to have their own personal internal drive to do something.
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What you should not do to motivate a child
First, let’s look at some things you shouldn’t do to motivate kids:
- Don’t be controlling or overbearing
Kids are not machines to control. We want to raise healthy, successful adults who have internal motivation (motivation to do something that comes from within). This doesn’t happen by force or control.
Once I was a nanny for a family with 2 kids (ages 5 and 7). The mother was very controlling and dictated the entire day down to what her kids should eat and when. For example, if they were still hungry after the portions were given, I had to call her at work to ask what they could eat next. It was crazy!
No one likes to feel controlled, kids included.
- Don’t show anger, frustration, annoyance
You’re kidding, right?
No parent is perfect and you can’t expect to never get upset, but the goal should be to parent most of the time from a calm, peaceful heart.
After all, everything you do is modeling behavior for your kids.
You want your kids to grow up to be calm, peaceful adults, right?
Related: Practical tips to becoming a calm parent
- Don’t fight, yell, or get into a power struggle.
Yelling doesn’t solve anything. And it just makes you feel guilty later.
Avoid power struggles with kids. They are not helpful and don’t end well.
- Avoid rewards and bribery
External rewards and bribery might give good short-term success, but they don’t help set your kids up for success in the long run. After all, when they are adults, who is going to bribe them to go to school and to their job?
You might also get stuck in this pattern where your kids will always expect a reward for doing something.
If you want some tips on how to parent peacefully without yelling, check out one of my favorite books: Peaceful Parent Happy Kids
How to Motivate a Child who is Unmotivated
- Be calm and clear
Be calm and give clear directions and state consequences clearly.
Remember, getting upset doesn’t help you or your kids.
- Let them have power
Kids often feel powerless, so they try to take control in odd ways. Have you ever tried to strap a toddler in a car seat who doesn’t want to get in?
Find ways to give them power and choices in their circumstances. Even small choices help them feel in control.
At the park:
We need to leave in 3 minutes. Would you like to slide down the slide or cross the monkey bars before we go? or I’ll sometimes even say, It’s almost time to stop, so choose one more thing to do. (It’s from Daniel Tiger.)
Would you like to set the table or get the salad ready?
- Find out what motivates them
Focus on your child’s strengths and use them to your advantage.
Everyone is motivated by something.
Your kid might be motivated to do nothing or rebel against your control.
So flip that around and find what they are really interested in and get involved and use that to your advantage.
Do your kids love baseball? Show a sincere interest in that, ask questions, and get involved. Then, if they are struggling with math – find math questions related to baseball to get them really interested.
Even if your child seems absolutely lazy, I am sure that you can find something they are passionate about!
Find your kid’s passion and work with it!
- Teach them social and problem-solving skills
Kids might feel lost or frustrated (and thus seem unmotivated) because they need help to learn how to effectively solve their problems.
Like the chronically disorganized kid who forgets homework all the time may need help remembering and organizing his notebook.
Help him come up with a method or system to remember his homework and keep his books and schoolwork organized. And be patient while he learns!
- Don’t be afraid to negotiate
There’s a fine line between bribery and negotiation, but you can work with this.
As a single mom, I rely on my 5-year-old to help out (and she’s great at helping her 3-year-old sister). I often chat with her about this too, for example, If you help me clean up, I will have more time to play with you before bed.
My 5-year-old has become an expert negotiator – ha! – because she hears and sees me negotiate all the time.
Have discussions with your kids about what you expect from them, what they expect and need from you, and how to get things done in an effective manner.
Related: How to teach kids to stand up for themselves
- Praise effort
When kids feel noticed, they want to try hard and work harder – even if they aren’t “the best”.
Kids crave connection and attention (don’t we all?).
When parents notice and give them positive attention, they will respond.
Take care to praise effort, perseverance, working hard – otherwise, your kids may feel pressured to perform to a certain standard and “be the best.”
Related: Teach kids the power of positive affirmations
- Let natural consequences happen
If they don’t do their homework, they won’t get a passing grade and might have to repeat a class.
I often tell my girls things like: We have to clean up all the toys in the living room, if you help me it will go faster; otherwise, I’ll have to finish it by myself and we won’t have time for a game before bed.
As adults we understand the effects of natural consequences because we have experienced them: If I don’t go to work regularly, I might lose my job and then not have money to pay my bills.
Let your kids experience natural consequences and help them problem solve ways to avoid them as well.
- Work toward intrinsic motivation
Remember that intrinsic motivation is the internal drive to do something. (Getting up for work even if we don’t feel like it. Eating healthy because we feel better when we do. Exercising instead of eating a pint of ice cream.)
Talk about the benefits of doing their homework, completing their chores on time, and being responsible. It may take many discussions, but it will eventually sink in.
- Be patient and don’t give up
Don’t expect perfection. Kids are kids and they make lots of mistakes.
Be gentle and patient, let them make mistakes, and continue to work on helping them find solutions.
- Let them make their own decisions and find their own answers
As parents, it’s tempting to jump in with a solution right away when your kids have a problem.
Kids build grit and learn how to persevere when they have to find a solution on their own.
Let them struggle a bit to find solutions to their problems.
- Show your support
Let your kids know that you are on their side.
Kids want your love and respect most of all. Showing them genuine love, respect, and care goes a long way to help motivate them.
If you are struggling with how to motivate a child who is unmotivated, keep these tips in mind. Whether you want to motivate them to do their chores, to study, or even if you are trying to motivate teenagers, you can help them by giving support, helping them problem-solve and finding their passion and working with that. What do you do to help motivate your kids?