What’s In It For Me

I am forever in search of what motivates my children at home to do what I ask them to do the first time. To have a joyous reply, rather than ‘but’, whining or selective hearing. This is not to say that my children avoid my requests and are non compliant. My search has been more in how to avoid the nagging, reminding and threatening as well as the frustration when having to repeat myself over and over until the said task is complete.

I have the most trouble in this area with my 6 year old daughter. My 3 year old is yet to master the art of procrastination and has not yet worked out that by ‘helping do jobs’ he’s actually being conned into less than pleasant tasks. My 6 year old, however, has lost all enthusiasm for menial tasks around the home. In particular taking responsibility for her own belongings, as well as tidying up any mess that she has had a hand in creating. I rather suspect her creative personality limits her ability to actually see the chaos around her, as often she is caught in magical moments and big ideas. Having to stop to clean up a mess surplus to requirement is an interruption and far more of a chore than she would like to commit to.

So rather than continuing to nag, to threaten and to hound…..I started to think about ways that I might be able to motivate my children (in particular my 6 year old) that would keep my sanity levels intact. While ideally it would be best if the children came to their own conclusions about how doing what Mum asks the first time will work for them in the long run, developmentally this level of intrinsic motivation is simply unrealistic. Children will do something to get something. There must be something in it for them – particularly at such an egocentric stage of their development. So I started down the track of the tried and true sticker chart. Every time they responded to my requests immediately, they earned a sticker. At the end of reaching an agreed amount of stickers a reward ensued, having being negotiated with the child before beginning the chart.

The problem I faced though, was firstly keeping it simple enough that the reward was easily achievable. Initially, I expected my daughter to earn far more stickers than her memory allowed her to remember. Another complication was the need of my 3 year old to have his own sticker chart…..resulting in me having to remember to reinforce them separately throughout the day. It simply became too difficult, and because of this, unmanageable.

So Plan B ensued…..cue the introduction of the Ladder of Certain Doom. Nigel Latta advocates this method to earn a decrease or increase in bedtime. Initially this worked with my daughter. It was motivating to an extent that she felt quite special being able to stay up longer than her little brother. A bonus, too, was having 1-1 time with her, something rare when racing around after a 3 year old all day. But this relied on our ability to consistently ensure she was in bed at a definite time. Something unrealistic in our household. While we have very rigid bedtime routines, the timing is often responsive to the days activities and whether or not there are one or two parents in the house as the bedtime wind down begins.

Plan C was finally established last week……with amazing results. The key has been the motivating factor – the TV. The kids enjoy watching the children’s channels at the end of the day while waiting for their dinner. I usually meet a lot of resistance when stating that the TV will not go on until rooms are clean, toys away, pyjamas on etc. But since introducing the Family TV Time chart this is no longer a problem. The children work throughout the day earning up to 6 puzzle pieces on their ‘TV’ in order to be able to have the privilege of TV time at 5pm. Equally, if they don’t do what they are asked, a piece gets removed…..with the option to earn it back when their behaviour turns to the positive once more. So simple, yet so effective. The chart is cleared at the beginning of each day and the children start again to earn their pieces.



This morning, the children were playing so nicely together. They were so engaged in their game and it was a lovely beginning to our holiday Monday. Both my husband and I had rewarded this with three pieces to the puzzle. The sense of satisfaction in their faces confirmed to us how well they had ‘bought’ the new system. But tides can turn in an instance, and suddenly we were faced with conflict – 3 year old saying he will never be his sisters best friend again, and 6 year old visibly puffing smoke from her ears. With no clear cut culprit, and a stand off set to last for hours, I suggested that they were both not being kind to each other and as a result would lose a piece of their puzzle. They were reminded that when we could see and hear that they were being kind once more, the puzzle piece may be reinstated. This consequence was accepted as fair and the conflict ceased. We were quick to reward with the piece as soon as we could hear genuine kindness again to each other.

As a behaviourist I am so aware there are many factors needing to be understood by parents in order for rewards and incentives to be successful in shaping children’s behaviour. And yet, despite this knowledge, it has taken me several attempts to find the right ‘fit’ that will motivate my children into behaving as I would expect. When trying to shape our children’s behaviour patience, reflection, and trial and error seem to be the stand out skills needed by parents. Most importantly, though, teamwork amongst the significant adults involved in the child’s life. Without that, children will not see what’s in it for them.

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