How Do I Motivate My Kid to Do Homework?
Students are finding it hard to focus on school in the midst of a pandemic. But laying a good foundation for how homework gets done is a skill that can be carried into adulthood. Lisa explains the psychological research behind two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Is it appropriate to reward kids for doing their work? Lisa discusses what parents can do to help kids self-motivate and stay on task. Lisa's October column in The New York Times: How to Do School When Motivation Has Gone Missing https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/29/well/family/teenagers-motivation-school.html For Children Everywhere - GoFundMe.org’s Covid-19 Relief Fund financially supports people impacted by the pandemic and organizations helping with relief efforts: https://www.gofundme.com/f/covid19-relief-cause-fund
November 3, 2020 | 28 min
Transcript | How Do I Motivate My Kid to Do Homework?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 13: How Do I Motivate my Kid to do Homework?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I feel like I’m working seven days a week, like harder than I ever have before.
LISA: I feel the same way. I feel like I’ve never worked so hard in my life as I am right now.
REENA: But you know what the frustrating part is? I feel like I can never get my kids to do what I need them to do.
LISA: Like you’re working triple overtime and they’re not picking up their own slack?
REENA: Triple overtime. That’s why I took some satisfaction in seeing this in our inbox from mom who wrote this letter, which just hit so close to home for me. It says: I’’m a new podcast listener and have been really enjoying your show. My question is regarding my five and a half year old who’s currently attending in-person all day kindergarten. He takes a bath after coming home and then it’s playtime or screen time until dinnertime. Bedtime routine starts after dinner. He’s been having homework with kindergarten that’s assigned Fridays and it’s usually due the following Friday. Previously I’ve been able to get to finish the homework on weekends so we haven’t had to worry about it during the week. The most ideal situation in my opinion. However the increase in homework load, we’ve been splitting it up to be done over a couple of days. He has been adamant about having his play or screen time first, then dinner time, and only then will he willingly do his homework. Here’s my gripe: doing his homework before bedtime when he’s already tired from the day, and number two, I’d like to establish the habit of work before play, but I also understand that he’d like to rest before doing work because come on, we adults feel the same way, right? How do I find a good compromise that sets a good habit without him developing resentment towards the task of doing homework so he’s not doing homework right before bed when it’s evident he’s tired?’
LISA: Okay this letter is amazing.
REENA: Right?It hits on so many things that I feel right now I’m struggling with.
LISA: Well and it hits on all of these sort of essential elements of kids and homework and routine and reward and rest, and what I love is you got this mom who gets it that even with a five-year-old we want to be thoughtful about the patterns and habits that get laid down around how homework gets done, and I love that we can take, you know let’s think it through for her kid, but then the things that we will think through and that she actually puts on the table really do stretch all the way up through you know middle school, high school, college and work life, you know beyond you know kindergarten and elementary school. It’s pretty remarkable, really.
REENA: First off, homework in kindergarten, wow. Can I say I didn’t even realize kids were getting homework in kindergarten, but to her point, like what parent doesn’t want their kid to come right away home, okay fine I’ll give you ten minutes have a snack but start your homework so none of us have to worry about this anymore.
LISA: Well and that is probably an adjustment that she should push for here, which is this idea of trying to get homework as early into the lineup in the evening as possible, and you know it’s all new still, they’re just transitioning to this idea of weekday homework so there’s room to work, but one thing I’ve definitely seen it work as a psychologist is at any age the later it gets that homework begins, the worse it all goes. So this is definitely an adjustment and she’s right and you’re right that it’s fair to give kids a beat when they get home from school, whether it’s a snack a little TV show, a little downtime, and then especially if we think about kids who are not leaving physically to go to school and don’t have maybe a bus ride to decompress or things like that it’s fair to give them a little rest and a little chance if they need it to just unwind, but then to push for homework to get going early.
REENA: But you know what’s that time, right? I mean do you give it an hour? Do you give it two? Look, at our house if my son wants to play XBox you’ve got to finish everything before you can log on, and as you you know, I say you’re the reason why we ended up getting the Xbox because socializing boys, he said it’s something they did pre pandemic you told us a few episodes back, and so he gets on with the other boys, and I feel like I see other moms are pretty much the same, all the boys have to finish their homework then they can enjoy that time.
LISA: Well so that’s a pretty good system, right? That there is a very highly desirable reward waiting for him when he gets his homework done. So maybe he gets a different kind of downtime, you know maybe just a little snack, a little TV or something like that, then hits the homework but the Xbox waits. And the other thing, I mean Xbox is a perfect example of that, if you feel like it’s gonna be hard to pull the kid away, right? A whole bunch of other kids are involved, there’s not a natural break because maybe those other kids could go on for a long time that’s probably not the right downtime before a kid gets down to business on their homework.
REENA: Is having that sort of reward system ever a bad thing?
LISA: No, actually it’s not, and this is something I took up in my most recent column, which also made me really psyched to see this letter from this mom around like motivation and kids getting motivation to do their school work, and there’s a there’s a pretty extensive body of psychological research on this and I want to unpack it a little because I think it hangs out too much on the academic side and it has so much to tell us on the ground real life parenting side. So when educational psychologists talk about motivation, we actually talk about two different types. We talk about intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, and the best way to think of these is to think of it as intrinsic motivation is almost a lot like fascination, where you’re just really drawn to something, it’s on like the book you can’t put down, it’s the the work that’s so engaging with the work itself is its own reward, and I mean that’s awesome if it’s happening. And then there’s extrinsic motivation, where we engage and do things because either we have to or else we’ll get in trouble, so lik the extrinsic motivation is like not getting punished, or it’s we’re doing it because Xbox is waiting for us we’re doing, or we’re doing it because we’re getting a salary to do the work, and so you know these are just two different mechanisms of motivation, and the only place I think where this can go wrong and this sometimes happens, especially in educational circles, is the sense that like the better one is the intrinsic one, you know it’s better if you have intrinsic motivation, and well I mean it is because it’s effortless and it’s you know nice to have intrinsic motivation, but you can’t always get there, right? Kids don’t always have intrinsic motivation or sometimes they love one subject more than another, or they’re really into something on Monday but not Wednesday, and so what I like to think about, and then we can get really practical about what this looks like, what I like to think about is stacking the deck for intrinsic motivation, and we know what we can do, but really helping kids think about these as two different gears that just move them down the academic road and that they, at their best, students learn to switch between these gears. Like when they’ve got intrinsic motivation they ride on that, and when the intrinsic motivation has dried up or gone or not showing up, they can switch into extrinsic motivation to still get it done.
REENA: So give me an example, like how do I make this work with school life for them?
LISA: Okay, so when we say stacking the deck for intrinsic motivation, because truly if you can get intrinsic motivation that does make everything a lot easier, the kinds of things that we know really matter are things like giving kids some autonomy, right? So it may be saying to your son, dude, you do have to do your homework but you can decide the order in which you take it on. Or you can decide where you do it, right? If you want to do it in the kitchen or in the dining room, or you know laying on the living room floor, I don’t care. So a degree of autonomy and say makes a difference in terms of kids being into their work. Support, praise, even though praise people are like extrinsic motivation, okay well it turns out that the right kind of praise actually supports intrinsic motivation, and when we say the right kind of praise, it’s got to be sincere, you want to praise effort, not talent. Be like I see how hard you’re working. It’s awesome, and it’s got to be supportive not kind of domineering, so it’s got to be like, you did such a good job. Not, you did such a good job, just like I expected you to. You know so as long as we’re in a good place and really kind of heartfelt and generous place with our praise and it’s real and it’s true and it’s really admiring the kid, that really helps. So those are the things we can do, and also making sure kids feel like they they have a grip on the work, like when the work is way too hard or overwhelming there’s not gonna be intrinsic motivation.
REENA: I want to back up for a second. When we’re talking about praise the effort not the talent, why is that so important? Not to say like, oh wow look at it you’re so great at reading? Why do you say it’s so important to praise like I like how hard you’re working on this reading. Why is that better to phrase it that way?
LISA: Great question. So there’s a super long answer that we might spend time on another episode around growth mindset versus fixed mindset, and I think some of our listeners will know that that’s the area in which I’m working, but the bottom line is praise what kids can control. So if you like, oh you’re such a smarty, right, it has that sense of like lucky you you’re super smart, and then when they’re struggling they can have this feeling of like, oh maybe I’m not so smart, but it doesn’t feel like something that they have say over. Whereas if you say, you know what you’re crushing and you’re crushing it because you are working. Then, when they’re feeling unsure or uneasy, they can fall back on something they have say over, which is how hard they work.
REENA: But I found when kids struggle with certain subject, they’re bad in math, sometimes they’ll be like, ugh I’m so dumb, I’m so dumb, I can’t do this, and you want to help build their confidence, right? I find the more you start doing multiplication facts and long division you get greater confidence, but you’re saying don’t focus on telling them how smart they are, even if they feel like they’re not smart at all?
LISA: Probably not, but here’s what you could do, right? So any kid who’s like, I don’t get math. I’m dumb at math. I can’t do math. What usually you can point to is some other domain of that child’s life where they didn’t used to know what they were doing. So you can say, ok but remember the first time you got your skateboard and you fell on your butt like 100 times and then you kept at it, kept at it, kept at it? Okay this is like that. So it’s true you do not know what you’re doing. It’s true you feel like you’re falling down a lot, but the same persistence that you used to figure out the skateboard is the exact same persistence that is going to come through for you here.
REENA: So to the topic of getting them to do this, like what really works as a motivator. What if what if there isn’t, like an Xbox? You know my son has the Xbox, my daughter doesn’t. So she’ll play for hours and hours and at the end realize, oh my gosh I haven’t done my homework yet.
LISA: So, okay so this idea of like if intrinsic motivation isn’t happening, which sometimes kids are not like, yay my homework, I can’t wait to do it, right? Which is often most of the time, they’re not like that, then like time to bust out the extrinsic motivation. And I really, like there’s no shame in that. And the first place I like to start, okay Reena, I have highly elaborate systems for making myself do work I don’t want to do, but what are yours, like I know you have, like if you have something that’s like, this is a beast I don’t want to tackle it, or I don’t wanna make a call or I don’t want to do this thing, what have you used in your career, and also your home life, you know to get yourself to do the things you don’t want to do?
REENA: Procrastination. It’s called procrastination.
LISA: You mean creating time pressure? Is what I’ll call it.
REENA: I like how you turn it into such a lovely psychological, even my struggles. You know, I read this book awhile ago, it’s like swallow the frog. You wake up in the morning and you do the thing you really hate to do the most, and I use the word hate, it’s pretty strong. I, in an ideal circumstance, love to work out in the morning. I know I’ve knocked it out, it’ll help me feel good. I’m not always motivated to work out or, you know, if I’ve got a list of things to do, it’s the one thing I’m really really dreading because I’m just not into that thing, I try to do that first, or by a certain time and I find the earlier I do, I knock it out I’m done, and then I don’t keep thinking about it and it doesn’t bring me down.
LISA: Okay, so you say procrastination but what you really describe is you grab the bull by the horns, do the nastiest job, and then you can relax into and enjoy the rest of it, is what it sounds like we’re describing.
LISA: So one way we could frame that up, and this is something you can then take to kids, is you actually use the intrinsic motivation for the work you want to do as the reward for doing the thing you don’t want to do. So, you have a bunch of stuff on your list and you’re like, okay here’s the one I don’t want to do, but there’s all the stuff I do want to do, so even tasks, and this is a really interesting idea, like even tasks and jobs things that are not obviously playful, can be rewards if you like, but I’m into those ones, those are interesting that will be gratifying, so you do that and we can actually show kids how to do that when they’re like, oh I can’t even start my homework. You can say, all right, which of this like do you find really interesting, and which of this is basically a slug? Okay, here one strategy is to put the slog stuff first, get it out of the way so you can get to the stuff you like, and use the stuff you like as a reward for doing the stuff you didn’t feel like doing. Now, I go opposite from you, okay I am, okay
REENA: That is true about a lot in life.
LISA: But it just shows you, like there’s a million ways to get it right. So I am like the queen of the to-do list. There’s little in life the gives me as much pure delight as crossing off the last item on a to-do list, and so for me I will actually put the gnarliest task last because I find it easier to get started on my work, and a lot of kids on this too, easier to get started if I do something I want to do, and then I roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, through my to do list and then I get to that ugly item at the bottom, and my wish to cross off the last thing is greater than my wish to not do that thing. And so I put the frog at the bottom.
LISA: And that’s how I get it done.
REENA: Wow. That thought would never have crossed my mind, to swallow a frog at the end of the day not the beginning.
LISA: But, okay, so these are the conversations we need to have with kids and when I say these conversations, I mean a much more open discussion of the fact that every functioning grown up has stuff they don’t want to do, and has already developed elaborate systems for hacking themselves into doing it anyway, and if we all do this this is going on all the time, I mean I I’ve got three other, four other wild strategies I use, which I’m very happy to confess, but what’s interesting to me is we carry on and get our work done this way, and a lot of kids walk around feeling like, oh and isn’t that so neat-o that that person feels like doing it and getting down to business, and then they’re like oh I can’t wait til that feeling drops on me that I want to do this. And it’s so much more useful to kids if we’re like, oh no no, I don’t want to do it but here’s how I do it.
REENA: It’s true and I have to admit, and this is so horrible to admit, like my daughter had a presentation about herself to make, and doing slideshows, and it’s like the morning of, it’s due and I’m helping her like empty it in so she can, you know get to school on time, and my husband like don’t be that mom who’s like doing the presentation for the kid, like I know, but I want this done it’s got to be finished and she didn’t finish. And I just feel like we’re all struggling with so much at home with work and doing things at home that, you know, just extra workload on that front, that we sometimes maybe cut corners or can’t figure out how to do this that’s going to set them on the right track for the future.
LISA: It is hard. I mean there’s that weirdness, first of all, like the overlap of life like life at home and our kids school work and our professional lives, I mean like it’s all sort of rolled up together in a weird way right now. And then, you know, I don’t know what was going on with your daughter around that assignment in particular, but I have to tell you, as much as this mom is talking about kind of garden variety stuff around how do kids do school and how to get them to do what we want them to do, or they should do. I have never heard motivation be as low for kids in school right now. I mean I’ve never heard it at these low levels, that here we are, it’s like basically early November and kids are like, I don’t want to do it anymore, and you’re like okay but the year just got rolling.
LISA: So it it’s compounded by how hard this year is and then for some kids it’s not even like in person and so then it feels that much more hard to get kind of, you know, invested in and get some juice for it, so I think a lot of families are feeling this right now.
REENA: But, you know, I love when our podcasts are just so relatable to our personal life as adults, and I just think that we’re in this like it feels like this black abyss, we don’t know what to expect, and the fact is it’s it’s going to get yuckier as we continue on, so what needs to happen? You know especially as some kids are lucky enough to be in school, others are remote, it is so much harder when you are remote. So what really matters in this point of, you know, is sticking to a routine important? Like how do you, when you’re talking about motivation, what needs to happen to have kids self-motivate?
LISA: Okay, so let’s think about it, like let’s come up with the recipe to support kids’ motivation and let’s think about all the ingredients. And I’m gonna try to rattle off as many as I can because you know how different every family is, and how different every kid is, and so I’m going to set myself a goal, like maybe I can come up with five or six ingredients for your kids motivation recipe, on the idea that some families will need a couple of these, some families will need other other ones of these. Okay so you said the magic word, a magic word, one of them routine, right? And this is part of what this mom is asking about, like should we change the routine? The answer is yes. So part of how we support motivation is having routinized nice times when the school work gets done. So if you’re in a position, or your kid’s in a position everyday, that when they’re like, I wonder when I’m going to do my homework today, like you’re already in trouble? So the first step the first ingredient in supporting motivation for kids is there should be a very predictable pattern regardless of how they do school, and I actually think for a lot of us it’s all about to get jumbled up again, even with the new schedules and new systems come down from schools as things get, you know, as the rates rise. Put in a routine and put in a routine time for when the work gets accomplished. Like that should not be up for grabs. So that’s one. Another one would definitely be praise. Like I actually think we owe it to kids so big right now. If they are upright and trying I think we should be like, buddy I see you. You are really working. I know you’re not into this. I know you don’t dig it. I’m really impressed. I think that’s huge. I think that’s huge. Okay, so we got two, Reena, right? Three, trying to support intrinsic motivation in other ways, giving them say, giving them autonomy. Okay that’s three. Four, being really open about her extrinsic motivation strategies, okay Reena, so you’ve got swallow the frog first, what else do you have? Like what other like rewards, treats, what else do you like?
REENA: Yeah like I don’t really believe in and giving, in our house we don’t really do allowances, but I guess we kind of have turned into it. We review at the end of the week and we pretend we haven’t e-bank and we give very little money, but money I say I really loved your behavior on this and this and here, and that’s been such a big motivator to you point of saying, you know, there are actions like applauding the actions can make a difference.
LISA: So, like an e-bank, so like if your son’s really buckled down or really, you know, dealing with the difficult situation we’re all in, you’re saying to him, like, I really see what you’re up to, I see how hard you’re trying. An e-bank like you give him credits for things?
REENA: It’s like three dollars a week that he sometimes uses to buy things on Xbox or whatever, and we say at the end of the month they can use that money towards something, and money is also deducted if they, you know, like hit their sister, or had of massive temper tantrum, didn’t do their homework or their chores, and we kind of look at the week, and see what we like and didn’t like.
LISA: Okay, so they’re sort of like a let’s look back on the week, and like what did you handle well and what did you not handle well, and how can I give you a carrot right to keep you going? So okay there’s that. So I think we’re on five. So there’s that extrinsic motivator. Another one that I think it’s kind of five point A, or they’re sort of connected is on asking kids what they find would find motivating, so you’ve kind of done that, right? You know that he wants these e-credits. I am always amazed by how creative kids can be, and this especially gets to teenagers, when they’re struggling, if they’re having a hard time getting their work done, one of the things I learned from teenagers is a lot of them use, or some of them use, they were telling me, they’re like oh you just pull up a YouTube study buddy. And I was like excuse me? So if you go to YouTube and you Google study buddy, yeah what comes up are all of these videos of these very earnest looking college age students in beautiful libraries, hard at work, and there’s a timer so you can time how long you study alongside them. Some of them have music, some of them don’t and so like what what they’re offering is companionship while you study, you’re not by yourself, but it’s also not a friend who’s gonna distract you because if they FaceTime with each other they often end up chit chatting.
REENA: What a relief. I thought it was going to be a different kind of friend you were going to be introducing us to.
LISA: It’s like a total stranger who never meet, but boy do they look studious. So stuff like that that grown ups would ever think of, I’m hearing from teenagers works really well. Sometimes, I’ve used this personally but teenagers will do it to, like going to a place that somewhat public to work, you know, probably not a coffee shop right now, but if it’s nice like going outside, or in a library if it’s big enough and safe enough, because I think there can be the sense of, like it’s a little embarrassing to like you know sort of social media if you’re in the library because somebody might see, sort of shames you into just focusing. So let’s just call the six, like really really asking kids what would work for them, so putting forward our own ideas about extrinsic rewards, and then saying you know I know this is not what you want to be doing or I know you just can’t face one more project tonight, like what would help? I mean do you want to tell me what you want for dinner and if I have an in house all to make it happen, or do you want me to sit with you? Do you want me to bring my laptop and sit next to and I’ll just work quietly, but really counting on the inventiveness and creativity of kids and and then of course like wrapped up in that idea is making it very clear that we’re totally at ease with the idea that they need this kind of scaffolding to get the work done not making it a shameful thing.
REENA: That’s really great advice. Before we go I wanna talk a little bit about our For Children Everywhere, it’s charity that we always like to plug, and this week we decided to plug the Gofundme account for COVID-19 relief fund. I know it can be so uncertain right now but what we do know certainly is people need help, so be sure to check out our show notes and we’ll have a link there as to how you can help people who are still suffering in a big way from this pandemic. And we also announce we’ve got a special upcoming episode dealing with getting into college. Tell us about that, Lisa.
LISA: Okay so we’re going to have our first guest, Reena. I’m very excited. It’s Jeff Selingo, who is the author of this recent really big book called “Who Gets In And Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.” He did an unbelievable job of reporting on really what happens inside college admissions and he’s going to join us to answer questions. We’ll call it like Ask Jeff that week instead of Ask Lisa. So what we want people to do is send in your questions to asklisa(at)drlisadamour(dot)com about college admissions, and if you have young kids you can send in questions about like what should we be doing now if that’s on your mind. If you have late high schoolers or high school age kids, send them in, and Jeff has graciously agreed to basically do a speed round with us to answer as many as possible, so send those questions in, that episode will drop late in November.
REENA: Can’t wait for that. He’s such an expert so great to have him on. And to wrap it up, what’s your parenting to-go this week.
LISA: Okay, so my parenting to go something I have been using a lot in my own home lately and it was given to me, unfortunately I don’t know her name, but this wonderful mom that I encountered shared this with me about how to get your younger kid to pick up their stuff. Back into motivation. So maybe this works better with girls and boys but I but there’s another way that would just as well with boys, but she taught me to refer to all of the detritus that my younger daughter leaves around the house as sparkle.
LISA: Yes. Honey, your sparkle is everywhere. I need you to pick up your sparkle, and you can easily imagine what word is really in my mind when I’m saying that.
LISA: But there’s something so funny and delightful about it that it just takes some of the heat out of it, and actually might my almost ten year old daughter is, we use we sometimes nicknamed her like the sparkle fairy, and like it’s really well-meaning because she is, she’s got this bubbly huge funny personality, but then it makes it that much more germane for her when we’re like, honey, sparkle fairy, your sparkle is everywhere could you put it away?
REENA: I love that sparkle. I could use that in my life. Great advice. We will wee you next week, and I want to remind everyone to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @ asklisapodcast. Thank you so much, Lisa.
LISA: You bet. See you next week.
REENA: See you next week.