Getting Kids Motivated

Getting kids to do things is not easy. The following ideas can increase your success. They are adapted from 1,2,3 Magic Effective Discipline for Children 2-12.[Phelan: 2003] Dr. Phelan also reminds us to avoid unnecessary battles (e.g., does the child really need to keep his room clean or can he just keep the door shut) and spontaneous requests that interrupt a child from an enjoyable task (e.g., don’t ask a child to pick up his coat in the middle of his favorite TV show. Request it be done before he/she turns on the TV or wait till after the show. Then turn the TV off and make the request.) When you begin to use these techniques, focus on getting your child to follow through on only a few requests making sure that you also follow through if they don’t comply (i.e., don’t nag, don’t get distracted yourself). There is no getting around it, getting kids to do things means being willing to put the work in yourself.

Sloppy Positive Feedback:

Watch for your child to do something you like—then complement it. You don’t have to complement it every time you see it, just intermittently. Look for different things to complement throughout the day. Use verbal “thank you for starting your homework without being reminded” or physical praise (a pat on the back) depending on what your child seems to be most comfortable with. If your child has been doing a lot of things in ways you are unhappy with, search for small efforts and complement these (e.g.,” thanks for picking up your dirty clothes” even if the rest of the room is in shambles.) Concentrating on this technique is especially useful when you find yourself in a negative cycle with your child and all you have been saying is “don’t”, “stop”, and “no”.

Kitchen Timer:

Kids love the perception of a game. Tell the child what you want the child to do (e.g., put all his dirty clothes in the laundry basket) and then say “I’m setting the timer for ten minutes, can you beat it?” or “Lets see who can pick up the most toys in 2 minutes" and then race with the child.

The Docking System:

This works for kids who are at least 5 years old and get an allowance (start one just for this purpose if you need). Then make a contract with the child that he/she is expected to do a specific task on a regular basis (walk the dog, take out the trash). If the child forgets to do the task by a certain time (e.g., hasn’t walked the dog by 7pm, hasn’t taken the trash out by 7pm on trash night) then you will complete the task but expect the child to pay you a small sum (e.g., 25-50 cents) for doing the chore. Then don’t spend your time reminding the child to do his job. If its not done by the set time, you do it. Then ask him/her to get the money out of their piggy bank.

Natural Consequences:

Using natural consequences means letting go and allowing the child to suffer the negative consequences of his/her behavior. Examples include having a child spend the day in their room if they miss the school bus (instead of driving them in to school), letting a child be cold if they don’t want to wear their coat (instead of fighting over it at the door), letting the child go hungry when they repeatedly forget their school lunch, making an agreement with the teacher to keep the child in from recess to do their homework if they refuse to do it after one request the night before (instead of fighting over it). Obvously, judgement has to be used to decide when allowing natural consequences is safe and appropriate.


Here you use provide positive reinforcement in a structured way. If you have a few tasks you want a child to do on a daily basis, set up a charting system. When the child gets a certain number of stars on the chart for successful completion, have an agreed upon reward. (Note: Don’t set it up that the child has to have a perfect performance to get the reward. Set it up so, if the child tries, he will eventually reach the goal.

Time Out:

For requests that can be completed quickly (under two minutes), you can use time-out. For example, you ask a child to hang up their coat. If they don’t respond say “1”, if they still don’t respond say “2”, if they still don’t respond say “3” and put the child in time out for 1 minute for each year of age. For this to work you need to be sure that you know how to use time out effectively (i.e., avoid talking and emotion).

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: September 2009
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Medical Home Team

Page Bibliography

Phelan, Thomas W. Ph.D.
1-2-3 Magic Effective Discipline for Children.
3rd ed. Glen Ellyn: Parentmagic Inc; 2003. 1889140163
Dr. Phelan has written many books about parenting and discipline. His no nonsense approach has earned him high praise from readers. His books are self-published.