New Year's Resolutions: Getting Kids To Follow Through

By Christine Carter

It is one thing to make New Year’s Resolutions—and quite another to keep them.  Never is this more true when we make resolutions for our children.  Because let’s face it: we need our kids to make some changes in the New Year.  Specifically, we need them to do more around the house.  Rare is the eight-year-old who will resolve to keep her room more clean, or to empty the dishwasher without complaint.

This needn’t stop us from improving our habits as a household in the New Year, however! We just need some new tools for lighting a fire under our young ‘uns.

Fortunately, research gives us solid techniques to motivate our children to do those often boring but necessary tasks. Techniques that won’t backfire in the long run, like rewarding them with stickers or money or sweets will. 

The key is to activate kids’ intrinsic motivation, or their internal drive to get stuff done, rather than relying on external rewards, threats and punishments. 

Here are five things that research suggests we can do to tap into kids’ intrinsic motivation:

1) Turn work into play. “Kitchen time” in our household, for example, is a continuous creative activity.  One child is lead cook, the other lead DJ.  Emptying the dishwasher is often part dance-party; cooking can produce more creative-kid-concoctions than recognizable foods (last night Molly “invented” honey-lemon-spiced cider); clean up often involves roughly one million times more soapsuds than necessary. 

It’s not fancy, or particularly efficient, but definitely fun.  I heard my daughter Molly say to a friend the other day, “Come to my house for dinner – my mom will let you cook AND do the dishes!”

2) Invent new challenges. Emptying the dishwasher could be frustrating for my kids because they’re too short to reach most of the cabinets; this makes a boring task nearly impossible.  So I let them stand on the counter in acts of daring to put the wine glasses away, which they think is great fun. 

3) Make it different.  Each kid has to cook at least one dinner per week at our house, but they can’t cook the same meal twice in the same month. This forces them to plan their meals, which makes it a creative activity rather than a routine chore.

4) Tie it to a greater purpose. When kids are allowed to participate actively in something that is larger than themselves—their family and household—their sense of purpose in life grows.  I can often be heard emphasizing the kids’ important roles in our family: “As a part of this family, you get to help plan our meals.”  Or, “In our family, kids get to make their own lunches, because you know what is healthy.”  Or, “Thank you for helping out.  Our family makes a great team.”  A clean kitchen after a particularly messy dinner?  High fives all around.

5) Give them autonomy.  This is the most important one, and it is the most difficult for me.  (My brother often threatens to have a t-shirt made for me that reads, “I’m not bossy; people just need direction.”) Unfortunately, and ironically, my bossiness is very de-motivating to my kids. 

Letting kids give input where they can is essential in preserving their autonomy, and the more independent they feel, the more motivated they will be.  The key, for me, is not to use controlling language; instead of just telling them what I want them to do, I need to say things like “It would be extremely helpful if you…”  or "What I propose is…" or "If you choose to…"

If you are like me, you are probably thinking, “That is not going to work with my kids!!” I also thought that my kids would reject the task if it was framed in such wishy-washy language. 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.
You are now armed with an arsenal of techniques to stimulate your kids’ natural desire to get things done. May 2012 be productive for your family, and may your resolutions be kept!

Christine Carter, Ph.D., teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.  She is the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents