If you ever have a hard time convincing your children to do something (or anything), this formula will teach you how to motivate kids in a positive way.
“Get your shoes on, please!” I called to my three-year-old as I dashed around madly to change the baby’s diaper, grab the diaper bag and get my own shoes. Once again, I was cutting it far too close getting out the door to go pick up my oldest son from Kindergarten.
It was such a simple request, and yet by the time I finished all my running around, my son was still sitting on the floor playing with Legos–shoes nowhere to be seen.
I’ll be honest, I was grumpy. I know he’s little, why couldn’t he just obey? What was it going to take to get him to actually do what I needed him to do?
You’ve been there, too, right? Whether it’s trying to get your child out the door, or convincing them to do their homework, or to sit still during a performance, or any number of other situations, you know the frustration of a kid who just isn’t motivated.
But is it really that he’s unmotivated?
The problem of “unmotivated” kids
In talking about kids who don’t meet our expectations, sometimes parents will comment, “Sam isn’t motivated,” or “Emma is an unmotivated kid.”
The problem is…those statements are simply not true. All kids are motivated…they might just not be motivated to do the things you want them to do.
Big difference, right?
That child who constantly pokes his sister? He’s motivated by the power he gets from knowing his sister will fall for the bait and get mad every time. Not the kind of motivation we want, but he is motivated.
Do you have a child who can’t seem to focus for ten minutes on his homework, but who can focus for hours on getting to the next level of Super Mario Odyssey? Obviously, his focus isn’t the problem…it’s all a matter of motivation.
So, if all kids are motivated (or motivate-able, which is even more important) our job as parents becomes finding out WHAT motivates each child and using it to channel their motivation in the right direction.
I know, easier said than done. But stay with me, and I’ll break it down further.
The secret formula of motivation
While I was taking a classroom management course for my teaching degree, I came across a formula that taught me how motivation works in every single person. Over a decade later, I still find that it holds true.
Ready? Here it is:
Motivation = Expectancy x Value
What does this mean? It means motivating kids to do anything requires two basic components:
- They have to believe that they are capable of doing the thing (expectancy).
- They need to see the reason why they should bother doing it (value).
If our children believe that they are doomed to fail, they have no motivation to make an attempt. Why would a child try riding a bike if he believed he was just going to fall and get hurt over and over again?
Therefore, if we want our kids to be motivated to do something, we have to help them see that it is possible.
Expectancy is often a problem for kids who struggle in school. They do poorly (usually because of bad habits), and then they start to believe they are “just dumb.” They don’t think that success is possible for a “dumb kid,” so they stop even trying to learn. Then they get more poor grades, and the evidence reinforces their negative belief. In order to motivate them again to try, we have to break the cycle and convince them that they can do it.
How? Give them a taste of success…any success. For a child learning to ride a bike, it might mean that you run down the street holding on and praise them for how well they are pedaling…or steering…or whatever. For a kid struggling in school, find something they can do well–anything–and praise them for it. Look at old assignments, even if they had mistakes and find ONE thing that was right. Praise that thing.
Then, give them a new task to do that you know they can accomplish (think super duper easy), and praise them when they succeed. Be specific in your praise rather than offering a generic “good job.”
Whatever you do, make sure your praise is authentic. If it’s not, your kids–especially older ones–will smell a rat, and your overzealous, patronizing praise will do more harm than good as you lose credibility. Take the time to give sincere compliments. As they recognize their abilities and believe in themselves, their desire to try harder will likely increase.
We’re all guilty of asking, “What’s in it for me?” at one time or another. It would be nice to think that our kids are altruistic little creatures, but the truth is that young children are pretty self-centered (Read the brain research that explains WHY here). If you want to motivate a child, they need to understand how the action will benefit them.
For example, when I needed my son to put his shoes on quickly, he didn’t see value in the reason I gave him that, “If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late, and your brother will have to wait for us.” None of the negative consequences I explained affected him, and there were no positive consequences if he did put his shoes on. All he knew was that to put his shoes on he would have to stop playing, and he didn’t want to do that.
Instead of appealing to his brother’s needs, it would be more effective for me to think of a reason that putting his shoes on benefits him. Perhaps I could explain that after we picked up his brother, we would be able to go to the park, or we could come home and have a yummy snack. Or, I could just turn the whole exercise into a game we could play. Fun is extremely motivating for toddlers.
Yes, there is something to be said for teaching our children to be obedient just because we are the parent. However, when we take the time to think of life from a child’s perspective, we can see why obedience is hard. Nobody likes to be told what to do all the time, even if it’s for their own good. Once we understand this, we are able to appeal to their needs and desires as well as the “greater good” so that everyone wins (without the power struggle of “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”).
When you’re trying to build a new habit or routine that your child is less than thrilled about, try using a reward system to get the ball rolling. In any situation, if you want to motivate your child to act, you must find meaningful reasons that your child will value.
Steps to motivating kids
Now, let’s put the formula together. Note that the equation shows expectancy times value, not expectancy plus value. Why does that matter? Well, think back to basic math. One plus zero equals one, but one times zero equals zero. If either expectancy or value is missing completely, your child will likely have zero motivation.
Now, turn the equation into a list, and you get a nice step-by-step process for how to motivate kids:
- Define the objective (what do you want them to do?)
- Give them a taste of success (show them it’s possible…expectancy)
- Find the value (figure out why it should matter to your child)
Part three is the most difficult part of the process. I struggled for over a year to figure out what motivates my three-year-old (and still struggle sometimes). His older brother is a lot like me…he’s a bit of a perfectionist, a rule-follower, and thrives on praise. I have always been able to motivate him with some kind of physical reward (food, stickers, toy, etc.) or by turning things into a race (Let’s race to the bathroom to brush your teeth!). The kid cannot resist a bit of healthy competition. He also responds positively to verbal praise.
Little Brother, on the other hand, has been a bit of an enigma to me. He’s fiercely independent and seems to thrive on doing the exact opposite of what I want him to do (and often the opposite of what he even wants). He loves to be contrary, just for the sake of being contrary. Potty training was a year-long challenge, and simple daily tasks caused epic meltdowns that I have struggled to avoid.
But I finally had a breakthrough. I discovered that Little Brother is motivated by fun. Duh, right? Kids want to have fun. But Little Brother takes this to a whole new level. I’ve found that when I can focus on making things fun for him (and giving him some control–which he so desperately wants), he is much more willing to “play along” with what I need him to do.
It can be exhausting to constantly be acting like animals to get pajamas on, to race to the car, to imagine we’re dragons eating our food…but it works! Honestly, I was exhausted from fighting him all the time anyway, so this playful exhaustion is at least more pleasant for everyone.
It took me a long time to get this far in figuring out how to motivate my kids. I’m still adjusting and reworking my strategies every day. It’s not an easy process, but as I keep in mind my secret formula, I’m able to think logically about what my kids need. In turn, they are more willing to do what I need.
How do you motivate your kids?