Raising Happiness

 

How to get kids to do boring (but necessary) tasks

April 29, 2009 | The Main Dish | 27 comments

Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear. —H.A. Dorfman

After much background material about why I was using material rewards before (habit + compelling neuroscientific theory) and why I've changed my thinking (much more well-established research about the perils of rewards in the long-run), here is my first suggestion for what to replace rewards with. More to come, but this specific kind of encouragement has been revolutionary in my household. I had to make up a mnemonic device for myself so that I could remember all 3 components at first, but I'm happy to report that this science-tested encouragement is now rolling off my tongue almost as easily as "If you brush your teeth now, I'll give you an extra star on your chart for being so speedy!"

Psychologists have tested a specific kind of encouragement and found that it is the best way to motivate kids over the long run—far better than offering them a piece of candy. Here is how to support your kids' self-motivation when you're asking them to do tedious (but necessary) tasks.

  1. Show empathy before you finish making your request. This step was life-changing—okay, maybe just habit-changing—for my family. One night I wanted Molly to go brush her teeth, and I'd asked her a thousand times already. Then I thought: oh yah, express empathy. I said, "Molly, I know you don't really want to, but you need to go brush your teeth right now." When there was no response I realized that I didn't know why she was resisting, so I couldn't really empathize. I simply asked her: "Molly, why don't you want to go brush your teeth?" Her response was that she didn't want to go downstairs by herself (there were no lights on, and it had gotten dark), and that she wanted to be with me. So I said: "I can understand why you don't want to go downstairs in the dark, and I want to be with you, too. But I need you to go brush your teeth." To which she replied: "If you understand, why don't you just come with me?" I did NOT reply that I was trying to save all of about 2 minutes by having her brush her teeth alone while I did something else—I just went with her. And she brushed her teeth gleefully. Seriously.
  2. Offer meaningful rationales. Why are you asking your kids to do that seemingly unimportant task? I am getting into the habit of offering positive rationales like: "Please go brush your teeth so they feel clean and healthy today." This is much more motivating to them than some version of "Please do it because I've asked you to do it 200 times."
  3. Imply that they have a choice rather than of using "controlling language." Shocking but true: my bossiness does not motivate my kids. It IS a lot easier to just tell my kids what I need them to do, as in: "Please empty the dishwasher. Now." Less controlling language would be "What I propose is…" or "If you choose to," or "It would be extremely helpful if you…" At first I thought, well, that isn't going to work—my kids will definitely reject the task if given a choice like this. But then I realized I had nothing to lose: they were already rejecting the tasks, repeatedly. Most kids know that they are eventually going to end up doing most of what we ask them to do—it isn't really an option not to brush their teeth or not do their homework. When we avoid using directives and controlling language, ("You should do…" or "What you have to do now…") they have a lot less to resist, and thus offer a lot less resistance.

Here is the great thing: research shows that when we encourage kids to do a blindingly boring task with empathy, rationale, and non-controlling language, they feel happier when they are performing the task than they would if we'd offered them a material reward. That happiness they feel IS the reward. Moreover, these kids tend to be no less likely to perform the task than those who were offered material rewards instead. And kids motivated with empathy, rationale, and choice learn that just because something is boring and unfun doesn't mean that it isn't important.

Here's how I remembered what to do in the heat of the moment with my kids: The 3 steps are ERN (Empathy, Rationale, Non-controlling language). Before I was motivating them to EARN a reward; now I motivate them with ERN encouragement. If you can think of something better, please post it in the comments or send me an email!

Here is how I would summarize the last three postings: Rewards work in the short-term because they provide us with a nice feel-good Dopamine hit. But unfortunately, rewards tend to have a negative effect on kids' motivation over the long-term. The answer is to motivate kids to do those not-so-fun things that are necessary in life with the particular kind of encouragement described above. That way, their brains deliver those feel-good chemicals in response to their feelings of mastery and autonomy (intrinsic motivation) rather than in response to receiving a material reward (extrinsic motivation).

Up next week: a new habit tracking chart, and more on helping kids break bad habits and replace them with good ones. Until then, please post your suggestions and feedback about the ERN method!

Key Reference: Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., Houlfort, N. (2004). Introducing Uninteresting Tasks to Children: A Comparison of the Effects of Rewards and Autonomy Support. Journal of Personality, 72(1), 139-66.

For more references, click here.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Perhaps you, or another commenter can answer my question: How does this work with the under 2 crowd? I plan to try this with my 3 year old, but my 17 month old doesn’t seem to have the attention span/logic to get to the meat of the request, unless it is short, to the point, and without any wiggle room. Does this technique have a ‘average’ start age?

ivory | 10:06 pm, April 29, 2009 | Link

 

Any parent of an only child can think “I have done such a wonderful job raising my child.  All that they are is because of me.”  When that parent has a second child with a different personality, suddenly that illusion can all come crashing down.
Having two has taught me that different children with different inborn personalities means I have to parent them differently.  I certainly agree that intrinsic motivations are better than extrinsic, and I certainly attempt to parent that way, but with some children, it’s significantly harder than others.
Do you have any advice on how to apply these rules of thumb to different children’s personality styles?
I would class myself as “stubborn-independent” — my mother reports that one of my first sentences was “I do it I-self!!”  My 4 year old son however, fits more of a “stubborn-dependent” classification.  Sometimes it seems there is no technique that works to self-motivate him to put on his own shoes, climb into the car himself when my hands are full, or set the silverware on the table.  (My 2 year old daughter does all of these things.)
The plus side is, I’ve never had to deal with him running off in the parking lot, which has been a challenge with my daughter.
I guess I’m having the most trouble with your step 3 — Imply they have a choice, when they don’t have a choice.  Being a part of the family means doing your job and setting the table.  I give my son a choice of when to set it (usually a half-hour window) including a 5 minute warning when the window is about to close, but every night it seems that Daddy’s done working, I have dinner on the table, and we’re all waiting for him to finish setting it so we can eat.
–Beth

Beth Leonard | 10:38 pm, April 29, 2009 | Link

 

This will likely save my sanity. I have been going nuts trying to get my 6 year old to do anything. I tried the empathy approach this morning when my son wouldn’t get dressed for school. I know I have a long way to go before I get good at it but I only had to ask him twice instead of seven times. Thank you for posting this.

KristenMV | 8:38 am, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

How about E for Everything, R for runs, N for nicer – ERN.  As is everything runs nicer when I don’t have to beg, threaten or punish.
Great post as always!

Lori Rappa | 9:15 am, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

Dear Christine,

Love how you’ve turned things around and are finding alternatives to rewards. We’d been doing the rewards thing and I felt like it left kind of “an emptiness” around getting stuff done, and it seemed to feed the tendency to over – indulge.  It’s wonderful to have healthy alternatives to this approach – that REALLY work. 
A “Responsive Parenting” tip I got, and one from the book “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers” talks about creating charts for daily routines.  We created a 4 step chart WITH my son, for what needs to get done before breakfast, and it has been a tremendous help. Now, when we get up and he wants to do other things, we ask, “Hmmm…what was it we were supposed to be doing right now (or before breakfast)?  Or “hmmm…remind me again what comes next?” and he gleefully (yes, gleefully) runs over to his chart to point and tell me what the steps are and does them!  Sometimes he needs assistance, but for the most part he takes it on willfully! (he helped make the chart, after all!)
And then there are days when it’s really hard to even do the chart (that happens to us all) and I empathize with him, but say it’s what helps our family greet the day and be on time, so we are going to stick with it.  And then if he really refuses the chart, I tell him again what my expectations are, and then tell him, too, that he can keep whining and trying to negotiate if he wants, but if he does keep whining and trying to negotiate, I’m not going to be able to give him attention, because I’ve already given him my answer.  “When you’ve completed your morning chart, know that you’ll have Mommy’s full attention.  Until then, my attention is here – in the kitchen”, and I go about merrily unloading the dishwasher.  Then he says something like, “awwww, guess I have to go get dressed” and he does grump off to the other room, and when he returns – happy as a lark!  Because he has a sense for what he’s accomplished, and he now has my undivided attention.  (BTW, sometimes I still provide assistance to certain tasks if he needs it, and I don’t mind, because he’s on his way to doing what he needs to do.) 
We BOTH feel so much more competent using this process.  This approach of respect and trusting in your child’s own resourcefulness is fabulous.  Next thing we want to start adding to the family activities is “family meetings”  – again straight from the book on positive parenting.
Thank you again Christine for sharing options for happier families.  I look forward to your next post!

Gail Reich | 9:45 am, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

How do I make this work with a 4 year old with the habit of saying no?

Verda Davenport-Booher | 10:04 am, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

Thank you for this post!  I know this will be really helpful in our house. One of the non-controlling things we (accidentally) discovered works well is to pose a question such as “Who wants to feed the dog?”  It’s amazing to watch the kids clamor to be the one who does a task that is totally resisted when we tell or demand that they do it. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about resistance in parenting and noticing that when I don’t “push back” it is a lot harder for my 3.5 year-old to keep up her resistance for long.  A good life lesson! We’ve tried the rewards and never really found it to be effective (it is an awful lot of work for both parties to be really consistent with it), so I am very thankful for this new ERN method.

Amy Starr Redwine | 11:09 am, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

My son is four and a half, and he’s thankfully, pretty willful.  (meaning he says “no” a lot) I say thankfully, because I think it’s completely developmentally appropriate for them to be saying no a lot, but, YES, it’s not easy on us parents when we have to get somewhere or get something done! 
The “no” can be a powerful way to assert power when you feel as though you don’t have any. I don’t know about you, but when I think about it, kids have so little that is in their power in their day.  I cart him on errands when he’d rather play, and sign him up for activities, etc… So I understand like Christine said, that the idea is to give them more power in their day.
One of the ways is a chart I suggested above.  To be clear, it is *not* a reward chart, it’s a chart of what activities are a part of the day.  So, for instance, our morning chart has 4 things on it. (book advises to keep it short) You sit down with your son, and tell him the objective: “We want to have a good start to our day, and be a family that is on time, so let’s make a chart together to help with this…” what does Mommy ask you to do usually when you first get up in the morning?” “Pee!”  Yes, very good – so let’s put that on our chart.  Here offer him the chance to write the word with help, and you can then draw a picture of him peeing, or draw a picture of the toilet, or take a picture of it for the chart, or anything visual to “cue” him if he can’t read yet – or even if he can.  Or just invite him to pick what color pen you use!  The idea is to give him options so that he feels he has some say in it.  Then you ask, another question, like, “what else would help us be a family that is on time…do we go out in our pj’s? “No, we dress!” “yes, we dress!  Very good, what color pen do I use this time?”  Then another question and on – and then ask them if they are happy with this chart.  Tell them you are too.  (they can do more decorating too) And then post the chart prominently.  Ours is in a plastic magnetic frame on the refrigerator.  Next day you say, ” so what did we say we are to do today to have a good start to our day?” and “remind me again what we are supposed to be doing now?”  Or “I forgot, were we supposed to do this or that first on our chart?” 
I hope this is helpful.  I feel like the approach changed our lives.  Notice too how the method employs Christine’s suggested “meaningful rationales” and “language with choice” and in my earlier message I outlined use of empathy when the chart concept is tested.  (which eventually it will be!)

Gail Reich | 11:32 am, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your postings. I agree with your stance on rewards and establishing internally driven motivators rather than ‘treats’. Our sons are 3 and 16m, and while we use a combination of both of these in order to establish the behaviors we want to encourage (and while we fail on more than one occasion), I am excited as I see our eldest start to embrace doing things because of his own internal compass and not my yelling about it. It will be interesting to see how this changes and goes back and forth as they grow older.

Helen | 1:08 pm, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

Love this post, and all the discussion it stimulates!  Makes me feel like I can tackle the future with my own – how did Gail say it? – thankfully, pretty willful four-and-a-half year-old son. There have been days when I have definitely felt outsmarted by him, but you’re giving me new skills!  Thank you!

Candice | 2:20 pm, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

A suggestion, and a question.

The suggestion is that sometimes it helps to get my kid to do “boring” things by making them into little games.  So when it’s time for my son to empty the trash (one of his chores), we pretend he’s feeding the troll that lives outside in the garbage can.  When it’s time to change into PJs, he’s a snake who’s shedding his skin.  It’s always nice to eliminate a potential struggle, and this becomes a bit of a fun little ritual for us.

The question is this:  Is requiring that certain tasks be done before we get to the fun stuff the same as rewards?  For example, if my son gets dressed and does his homework in the morning, and there’s still time left, he’s allowed to play a computer game.  If there’s no time left, obviously, no computer game, we just go to school.  Once or twice I reminded him to finish up quick so he’d have time left; now I don’t need to remind him much at all.  Do I need to be concerned about the potential issue of rewards?

Karen | 4:06 pm, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

I love this train of thought…  thank you for this.  On the subject of controlling language, one key for me is to try to make it less personal, not about me, more subjective.  Instead of “go brush your teeth” or “I want you to go brush your teeth” sometimes a better result is received when I say “it’s now time to brush your teeth.”  This works even better if we decide, ahead of time, what time is teethbrushing time.  That way they don’t argue with me, because we’ve agreed on a time.  Keep up the good work!

Anne Goodrich | 4:14 pm, April 30, 2009 | Link

 

Tried it last night:
“Lukas, stop playing cars and go to bed.  Lukas, go to bed.  Lukas I told you go to bed.”  Then….

Lukas, I know you don’t like going to bed but it would be great if you did.  Then your body could rest and be ready for another day tomorrow.”  And guess what, right away he got up from playing cars and went into bed.
Voila – it’s magic!!!
Have a good day,

love Tia

Tia Stephens | 11:18 am, May 1, 2009 | Link

 

I don’t remember where I got this idea – maybe from Scott Noelle’s Daily Groove emails – but I found myself too often saying “it’s time to brush your teeth” or “it’s time to leave now” as if I weren’t really in control of the situation and I was helpless to some external power.  I had been thinking this was the easy way out – keep the blame off myself – but I realized I was also ceding my power, too. 
I started to try to reclaim that power, and say: “I am asking you to come with me now” and “I am asking you to brush your teeth now.”  It’s authentic, it doesn’t side-step reality, and if the child is interested, it can lead to a discussion of *why* I am asking these things that helps them buy in to doing them, rather than just doing them because “it’s time.”  It also means they can participate with me in creative problem solving when I’m the one setting the expectations – and they keep believing in me instead of doubting the abstract reality of it being time to brush teeth (I mean, really who is cosmically saying it’s time to brush teeth?).
So yes, I am asking you to brush your teeth – because I care about your teeth, and it’s my responsibility as your mom to help keep your teeth healthy and safe!  It’s not controlling, it’s authentically stating my expectations, and then listening respectfully to work with the response.

Rosemary | 7:35 pm, May 1, 2009 | Link

 

I love the ERN method you just wrote about! Regarding the “empathy” tactic, that’s something I’ve been doing in a slightly different way, and when I first tried it a few years ago, I was surprised at how great it works.  I empathize by telling my son that I feel the same way about doing those necessary but annoying tasks. I first did it when he needed to get a shot at the doctor.  I put my most pained look on my face and told him how I hated getting shots, too, and it hurts, but it’s over quickly, and I feel so good when it’s better.  He immediately was less worried and tense, and agreed to the shot. After that I started using that method on other things: homework (“Yeah, I hate homework, too, but I’m glad I did it, because…” or “Yeah, I hate having to get all wet in the shower, too, but once you’re in there, it feels so good…”)  I guess it’s kind of a combination of the “empathy” and “rationale” parts of ERN.  I’m definitely going to start incorporating the Non-controlling language aspect, because I do the opposite all the time. Not only does it not work, it creates an unpleasant mood in the house.
And I’m still working on one of your first recommendations – Only asking him to do something once or twice and standing there right next to him until he does it.  It works like a charm, but often I’m busy doing something else, and don’t take the extra minute to walk over to him.
Thanks very much!

Roxanne | 7:51 pm, May 1, 2009 | Link

 

You have a great web resource.
See my blog, La Bloga and the post “Privileged Parents Anxious on Getting Kids into Elite Universities”
Link: http://labloga.blogspot.com/2009/04/privileged-parents-anxious-on-getting.html

Alvaro | 12:46 pm, May 3, 2009 | Link

 

I would like to say up-front that there is absolutely no judgment intended by my question. I mainly desire to understand better how parents socialize their children’s emotional expressivity and internalization of parental values. So here’s my question: From a mindfulness perspective (think Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Everyday Blessings”) what is the value in labeling any activity “boring” or “annoying”? Please, if possible, provide an explanation other than, “Because homework or housework is boring and annoying.” Much thanks to all who are contribuing to this discussion!

Rebecca | 7:26 pm, May 3, 2009 | Link

 

Thank you for this article, and the ERN advice.
@Rebecca: I think such labels would be inherently important to comparative observation and expression at developmental stages:  good, better, best; expressing likes and dislikes …and so on.  And your statement also presumes that the parent is the only one doing the labeling of these tasks.  In my experience, peer groups played a large role teaching my daughter what tasks to consider “boring” or “annoying”.  However, I don’t consider it helpful to pretend a task is fun or exciting when the child clearly thinks it is not.  This simply invalidates your child’s feelings, while causing you to lose credibility with her.

Tracie | 1:19 pm, May 11, 2009 | Link

 

Tracie, I’m not sure who suggested that it is “helpful to pretend a task is fun or exciting when the child clearly thinks it is not” but I agree that such a parenting strategy is probably not very effective.

Rebecca | 8:47 pm, May 11, 2009 | Link

 

The ERN approach fits nicely with Alyson Schafer’s (Honey I Wrecked the Kids) take on parenting.
At our house, the evening teeth-brushing was always a dreaded (and very prolonged) ritual.  Esp. when my 4.5yo was tired and in a very contrarian mood.
A month or so ago, I changed how we approach bedtime by figuring out some good logical consequences for taking too long or making a stink.  Before brushing teeth, I’d let my daughter pick out the books we’d read in bed after brushing.  Then we’d set a timer (she gets to start it) and let her know that if she’s not finished before time’s up, we’ll have to return one of the books to the bookshelf, put two more minutes on the timer and see if she can be finished by then.  she understands it as her choice as to whether she gets to read all the books or not.
To my amazement, tooth brushing has immediately improved 100%.  There was one time timer went off and I returned one of her books, but even that didn’t cause her to be upset.  I’m still have a hard time believing how pleasant tooth-brushing can be http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif

stepan | 4:46 pm, May 20, 2009 | Link

 

This is very close to NVC (cnvc.org). NVC has worked for my kids now 4.5 and 3.5 for a year and a half.  Empathy is the key to everything. There is NO pretending or manipulation in NVC only truly hearing your child and giving them empathy.

Ani | 5:40 am, June 2, 2009 | Link

 

i found a technique that works well in getting my children to help clean up after a meal.  i called it 5 MINUTE CLEAN-UP.  i would shout out the phrase as everyone would be leaving the table, or my husband and i would both call it out. they would then watch me set the kitchen timer to 5 minutes and the challenge was to get finished in 5 minutes. with all 5 of us working quickly , i mean fast, together as a team, to beat the clock, the chore amazingly would be completed much of the time. if not, all i had was a few pots left.  the point was to find something they all could do. i manned the sink, one child loaded the dishwasher, my husband put up leftovers, another child wiped stove,countertops, table and the youngest would help as she could, carrying dishes, silverware, fetching items and “wiping” the table. my son( who loaded the dishwasher) and i even had a competition between ourselves. could i rinse dishes faster than he could load them? this technique also worked when the house was in shambles. before heading off to a fun activity or dinner out we’d call 5 MINUTE CLEANUP! before we would walk out the door. the kids are grown now and pass the technique to friends who have children–

robin rabon | 2:34 pm, July 7, 2009 | Link

 

Hello Half Full,
I’m a reader of your website, and a single Dad.  I have a solution that some of your readers may be interested in. My solution solved two problems.  One problem was was how much money was appropriate to give my kids for allowance. And the second was getting my kids to do their chores every day.
My previous method of handling my kids’ allowances was not working. Previously, my kids would receive a set $ amount per week as an allowance. in a separate agreement, they were expected to do a set of weekly chores. Often I would find that the chores were not done, but my kids still expected their allowance! I told them they needed to complete their chores, or they would not get their allowance. Sometimes one child did their chores, but the other didn’t. As you can imagine, this often resulted in lies and bickering come allowance time.
I knew I needed to tie the two concepts together in a no nonsense manner.  Get your chores done, and you are a fully functional member of this household who deserves some spending money.  That was the inspiration for Chore Bank (aka Bank of Dad); it’s an iPhone app.

Chore Bank allows me to check off chores as they get done. Each checked chore updates the child’s account with whatever monetary value I have associated with that particular chore. The sum of all the child’s weekly chores is roughly equal to their previous allowance. Since I started using the Chore Bank, there are no more arguments about allowances or chores. My kids want their allowance, so they do their chores. And they actually seek additional chores to do, in order to earn more allowance. This little app has saved a lot of anguish in my family.
The Chore Bank also acts as a savings account.  If your readers are interested, they can get more information at my website:  http://www.datajedi.com/choreBank
Thanks for all the great tips on parenting!
Ashley

Ashley Kayler | 1:30 pm, July 16, 2009 | Link

 

Since my children were young I’ve always pushed on personal hygiene and now they will not begin their days without combing their hair or brushing their teeth, and it’s the same with bedtime. I’ve learned that if you are consistent they will be too. Getting your kids to do boring things might be hard at first, but it will get better.

Christine Medifast | 8:26 pm, July 29, 2009 | Link

 

@Beth, perhaps giving a specific choice would be helpful rather than a window of time, (“Would you like to set the table now or in 5 minutes?  In 5 minutes?  Great, let’s set the timer for 5 minutes.”)
I find that the empathy piece works great throughout our days, not just at chore or task time.  The practice makes it come a lot easier when a meltdown is nigh.  (While out shopping and he wants a toy, ‘that looks like a really fun toy, did you bring any money?  How about you ask for that for your birthday?’ Or, ‘frozen yogurt sounds delicious, but we are not getting any today.  The next time we get to go I am going to choose strawberry/banana with lots of fruit on top, what will you choose?’

Stephanie | 8:39 am, August 1, 2009 | Link

 

for wonderful examples of ERN the old fave is Faber and Mazlich’s “Talk so Children Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk”
Thanks for the blog and post!

Caroline | 8:01 am, August 3, 2009 | Link

 

I’m a high school English teacher and I discovered this site while researching information about psychology and the relationship between parents and children for my senior English class, “Psychology in Literature.” I’m also a new parent. I have to say that I have found this website just as valuable for teaching as well as parenting.

I really have few discipline problems in my class, and I believe it’s because I work the 3 points mentioned above into my classroom approach (and didn’t even know it!). And I have to say, I did it as a matter of survival. I firmly believe that lot’s of mediocrity is hidden behind the words “We need to do this for the kids,” when we should be asking ourselves, as teachers, does this feel right in my classroom? Do I like the atmosphere this is producing? Do I enjoy working with your students? Does my classroom environment reflect the workinf environment I feel good walking into every day? Empathizing with students, providing them a clear rationale for what we’re doing as a class, and providing choice (or the “illusion of choice”) I believe is so much more respectful of their humanity and provides me with the opportunity to teach them how to interact with others.

I must sound a bit preachy–my apologies!!–but I wish more teachers–and ARNE DUNCAN and any other superintendent who refers to himself as a friggin’ “CEO”–would read this website & blog rather than a lot of other stuff that’s marketed towards educators.

Any other teachers out there who feel the same way?

Judi | 8:05 am, February 4, 2010 | Link

 
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