Parents dream of responsible, engaged children — perhaps a kid who can show a little enthusiasm, one who will step up rather than check out. You might consider getting a puppy, for example, if you thought your tween would really come through with the daily walks.
Responsibility can mean many things with kids, from doing chores and homework without a fuss to taking care of toys and making good choices outside the home. While all of these facets are important, but let’s focus on one area of responsibility right now: How can you encourage your kids to be more actively involved in family life?
As parents, you know what makes your child tick better than anyone. If you were a coach trying to motivate a player, how would you encourage your own kid? Recall situations where he or she has had plenty of motivation. Is he encouraged by praise and celebratory dinners? Does she like a payoff in the form of extra cash and privileges?
Maybe your kid just like to take on a project that is all his own. Strategize on ways to inspire your child based on what you know.
Consider, too, what situations bring him to a grinding halt. If he is always tired and grouchy on Monday nights, that probably isn’t the time to inspire him to take action. Or if you want to motivate her on a Saturday, figure out a way to get the ball rolling before she starts playing video games.
But be warned! Getting chores checked off the list is not the same as increasing motivation. No one is going to feel particularly motivated to take out the garbage and clean the litter box week after week. However, if it becomes part of the routine, it can happen. After a certain age, few kids fuss about brushing their teeth; it becomes a habit and is accepted as something that must happen.
For those yucky chores no one wants to do, find a less painful way to knock them out. Instead of snacks and screen time, perhaps the first 20 minutes home in the evening can be a time to "blast the chores." Crank some tunes and have everyone pitch in. It can be a great bit of teamwork — and help everyone knock off the work and school blues and get in a positive frame of mind for a pleasant evening. You’ll be surprised how much can be done in a short time.
Children love to feel that they're doing an adult task for which they’ve previously been told they're simply too young to do. Look for opportunities to let them be "all grown up." Let a junior chef plan and cook meals for the week. You provide a few ground rules, such as: Dinners must be reasonably healthy and must use in-season veggies. Give assistance if needed, but as much as possible, let your son take over the project and roll with it.
Perhaps he decides to do theme nights: Taco Tuesdays or Wacky Wednesdays, where he whips up a new-to-the-family food. For this to work, parents have to be flexible; maybe your appetite is not as adventurous as your new cook's. To develop this into an ongoing routine, maybe you give your child one or two nights a week when he is responsible for dinner.
Maybe your family wants to plant a vegetable garden. Since it would help to research exactly what will grow well where you live, give this task to your kids. Even teenagers who are often concerned about environmental issues may be inspired to take on this locavore project.
Consider using this strategy, too, when deciding to bring a new pet into the family. Have your kids research what animal or breed would be a good match for the family lifestyle.
For all cases and topics, try to avoid arguing, which can leave everyone bitter and frustrated. If your youngster is overwhelmed or stalled out by chores, simply pitch in.
Say your daughter as let her room go for weeks on end and now the mess is overwhelming. This is a great opportunity for parents to help get things moving rather than stand back and lecture. For kids (or adults), the hardest part of any project is often the first step. The reward of a clean room and the finding of lost treasures will go further than speeches about how "your room should have never gotten that way in the first place."
Chore charts can be helpful for children in much the same way "to-do" lists or fitness apps are for adults. If used, these tools will provide a sense of accomplishment and accountability. Don’t begrudge providing rewards for your kids when they take care of chores. It is no different than rewarding yourself with a Friday night happy hour or a double latte with caramel after an exhausting meeting.
There is no one-size-fits-all plan to increasing your child’s motivation to take on more responsibility. Much like all of parenting, getting your kid enthused is an ongoing process, with you as coach, cheerleader, and biggest fan.
Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.
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