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How to Motivate the Unmotivated Child

What are you afraid of?



Going bankrupt?

Getting cancer?

Disappointing people?

Close your eyes and really think about that for a moment. What would you really run away from? What pops into your mind when you think about being afraid?

Now, think about what you love. What do you run toward?

Is it money? Respect? Relationships? Good food? Jesus?

There are a million answers to either of those questions, but what I really want you to evaluate is this. Are you more likely to run away from your fears… or toward your desires?

For almost every person on the planet, the answer is toward their desires.

There’s a reason shows like “Fear Factor” are possible. Some people run toward money, which means that their craving for money is greater than their fear of whatever might be thrown at them on the show. They might be terrified of eating cow brains, but not as much as they want fifty thousand dollars.

When I was in high school, I had an extreme fear of disappointing my parents. But I’ll tell you right now that my fear of disappointing them was not as powerful as my desire to skip school twice a week and go home to take a nap.

Children are no different. Although many parents believe they can scare their children into obeying, human nature truly is more motivated by its desires than by its fears.

Instead of using fear as a tactic to motivate your children into doing the right thing (fear of disappointing you, fear of getting a spanking, fear of losing a toy, etc.), why not try figure out what they would run toward? What do they love? What would they work hard to earn?

I hear a lot of people say, “We’ve tried sticker charts. They don’t work.”

If that’s the case, then you probably haven’t found the right rewards for that sticker chart. Or maybe the chart is too complicated or too basic for them.

Or perhaps it covers too long of a time span (where they become unmotivated while waiting to earn their prize), or it covers too short of a time span (where they really don’t have to work that hard, or change that much, to receive their prize).

And, contrary to popular belief, the “prizes” don’t have to cost money.

My oldest child, for example, is six years old and will work hard for tablet time. She’ll also work for extra time to stay up after her sister, time to snuggle with mom, one-on-one dates with dad, or a chance to choose what we do during our family time each weekend.

There are so many ideas on free rewards out there – you just have to get creative!

My youngest has completely different interests than her sister (besides tablet time because who turns that down?), but we have still found some things that motivate her. She loves verbal praises, trips to free playgrounds, candy, and time to be outside.

We don’t deprive our kids of necessary developmental time, but what’s awesome is that they want to earn it all on their own.

If you have to withhold outdoor time for one day, their developmental growth will not be stunted. If you have to take away reading one Saturday because your child loves to read but refuses to clean his room, that’s okay. He will still know how to read.

Their ability to manage their emotions, control their impulses, and do things that they don’t want to do is more important than their ability to read or write or add numbers.

Because if they can’t keep from throwing a tantrum when they have to do something that isn’t entertaining, how are they ever going to keep a job? How are they going to maintain relationships? How are they going to stay caught up on homework? Or keep from being lazy and entitled as an adult?

(We’ve all met one of those – NOT enjoyable people to be around!)

Once your child’s emotional control is at an age-appropriate level, you’ve found a great time to work on academic stuff. Just don’t let the world convince you that having an intelligent child is a more prioritized goal as a parent than raising a well-adjusted child.

(Side note: If using outdoor time as a motivator is not an option for you because you have a kiddo who needs LOTS of outdoor/running time, then use something else as a motivator. For example, they might be able to have their outdoor time regardless, but maybe they earn a special outdoor toy or a game of catch with dad if they meet their goal.)

It doesn’t really matter what you use to keep track of their behavior, so long as it is at the right pace for them, and it’s something they don’t think is dumb.

Older kids will think stinker charts are babyish (they’re not wrong), but you can use other ideas instead. I saw one parent create a chart with chore slips physically attached to money. Once the chores were done, the money was collected. Then the kids had purchase their rewards with their earned money.

For example, each chore might only earn a quarter, but a date with dad might cost twelve quarters. Or time on the PlayStation might cost six quarters. Or time outside, time to read, time to talk on the phone, etc.

Not only do these motivation charts give them a reason to work harder toward their behavioral goals, but they also give kids real-life practice at having to work hard to get what they want. It teaches them that instant gratification can’t always happen!

In a world full of instant-purchases, live-streaming videos, and drive-thru restaurants, this isn’t a bad skill to learn at an early age.

You’re the only one who can figure out what your kids will run toward, but they all run toward something. Even the most difficult kids I’ve ever worked with have been motivated by something. It might’ve taken three months to figure it out, but we eventually got there.

If you need help figuring out what your kids are motivated by, you can try using this “Forced Choice Reinforcement Survey” written by PBIS.

It helps you see what your kids would rather have in any given circumstance, which allows you to understand how to get them moving. If you need help figuring out what pace they should be moving at and how big each of their rewards should be, please let me know.

I would love to help!

Everyone wants something … What about you?

How to Motivate the Unmotivated Child

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2017). How to Motivate the Unmotivated Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 15, 2018, from


Last updated: 5 Nov 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Nov 2017
Published on All rights reserved.