IntroParents make many seemingly reasonable requests, such as “clean your room,” and “do your homework.” We find it obvious that cleaning helps a person enjoy his property and studying is essential to mastering subjects. But, children often prefer making messes and goofing off! Why don’t explanations that make so much sense to parents work? Are parents and children bound to win-lose conflicts until the children grow up? There is a way to often side step that confrontational approach; parents can help a child to discover the short-term, concrete benefits that will appeal to his rational self-interest. In essence, they can ask themselves what is one benefit of this activity that my child might love right now or one he is capable of imagining happening soon?
While it sounds good to have children happily cleaning because they see a benefit they want right now, what benefit could possibly be so exciting for cleaning their rooms? Finding lost toys can be powerful! Finding Pocahontas behind the bookshelf after she was lost for two months can be an extraordinary experience for little ones. Even if a child isn’t missing something (or aware of missing it), finding it easy to locate items quickly when you want to grab them is fun. No kid likes searching for the fifth Yahtzee die when friends or family are waiting, or missing out on an impromptu baseball game because he can’t find his glove in time. It’s also nice to have a space ready for coloring or lego castles or other new projects without needing to clean up first. These are things that children can notice and thus they’re cleaning because of a benefit they want, that they see as in their best interest now.
Arithmetic over video games? Spelling over lego wars? How could a parent ever appeal to a child’s immediate self interest when it comes to homework? Since we’re not talking about distant goals like getting into college and getting a good job, how can we expect a young kid to do homework because he sees the benefit now. Parents can help a child imagine the near-term benefits of a homework assignment. For example, calculation skills offer more independence with managing money to get a desired toy. Vocabulary opens up a wider range of fascinating books to explore. History is filled with exciting stories of what people have done and what has or hasn't worked from which children can find inspiration and explore dilemmas like whether to appease or to take a stand against a bully. Parents can also use their own creativity to make make a challenging topic more immediately fun. For example, if a child doesn’t understand negative numbers, a parent can make a game to move the child’s body along an imaginary number line: plus two, minus six, plus negative three, minus negative five (and of course it’s cool to switch off too so the child can direct Mom or Dad). Spelling words can be incorporated into goofy paragraphs and typing practice into software games.
While no tool works in every situation, it is easier to avoid parent-child conflict when parents focus on benefits that children find engaging now. Their cooperation is then motivated by their own self interest. With practice, tasks seen as chores (cleaning a room or studying for an exam) can become enjoyable as children recognize the immediate benefits. Over the years, the longer-term benefits become more and more evident too, but with a few less battles along the way.