Apr 17

Motivating Your Kids to Do Things On Their Own

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio
Source: Karol Molina

I have little children. And, as they grow and mature, they spontaneously make up their own minds...which sometimes do not follow my own ideas. (Raise your hand if this has happened to you!) My friend, Karol Molina, the Program Director at Jump Immersion, has shared the following theory with me, the "Theory of the Coin."

"Theory of the Coin" At a glance

Plastic Gold Coins
  • Who: Ages 4 and up, roughly.

  • What: Pick 2-4 areas that your child needs reinforcement on.

  • How: Using positive reinforcement with direct & clear instruction.

  • Why: The goal is to get your child to do what you want...without a reward system ad finitum.

  • How long: Just a few short weeks.

The intent is to start working on an area of weakness or a certain objective. The difference with this Theory of the Coin, is that when you achieve the goal, you stop, or better stated, taper off, the experiment. Otherwise stated, you do not want the goal linked to the assistance/tangible encouragement. Some might call it bribery, I choose to call it "encouragement."

Depending on your child, the whole experiment may take 1 month (or more, if the child is older), for a few specific areas that you would like to see some improvement in. Then, sporadically and spontaneously, you will reinforce the behavior. For example:

"Maggie, these last two weeks, you have not needed any help in completing your homework; you are completing your tasks; following instructions the first time stated and I am noticing this. You did a great job. Here is a reward, because I have seen your good choices!"

[Parent is observing, from a silent distance, while the child is self-policing her actions.]

Read on for a more in-depth explanation.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks--the How

1. Make Some Coin!

The parent will gather/buy/make some "coins." They can be large plastic gold coins, home-made wampum, or perhaps one dollar coins or quarters. Karol has used the plastic gold ones. The monetary value is not what is key; the significance given to the coin will be the key.

2. Trading

What, Dear Parent, are we trading these mythical gold coins for? Pick 3-4 areas that you know your child is attracted to. "Maggie," a 10 year old, could be attracted to Minecraft gaming, extra reading (but only if this is a true passion, otherwise, with a reluctant reader, this will backfire miserably), roller skating, etc. As the parent, you know the best areas that captivate your child. Like bees to honey...

3. The Written Reminder for the Fridge (or Signage)

A. The Trade

Parent, list a few items/areas to work on. This is not the time to "kitchen sink" it.

Some examples could be:

  • Put clothes either in the hamper or folded in drawers [not "clean your room"],
  • Make your bed,
  • Brush your teeth (if your child is prone to cavities or is a reluctant tooth brusher),
  • 20 minutes of focused homework,
  • 20 minutes of independent piano practice, focused,
  • No talking back
  • Listening to Parent the first time
Child doing homweork

It may be a good moment to include some examples of desired/undesired behavior, particularly if you have a little lawyer-in-training in your household. For example," it is good to ask questions to clarify any instructions from Mom & Dad, but if you are asking questions to procrastinate or weasel out of a chore, this is not the goal." I have heard one child say, "Dad, you just said to 'put your clothes away,' not 'take your clothes to your room and put them in your drawers.'" See what I mean? Be clear and direct.

If your child is 4 or 5 years old, they are not reading full sentences, so you may need to use some images or "clip art" to get the point across.

What is essential is to be clear and direct, for the ears of a small child/tween.

For example:

Mom or Dad Says Child Hears Meeting of the Minds?

"Behave & listen"

Wah Wah Wah (said in the voice of the teacher of Charlie Brown) No
"Pick up your shoes &
put in your closet"
"Pick up Shoes & Put in Closet" YES!
"Do your Spanish homework
to get ahead in life"
Wah Wah Wah No
"Do your homework with a 'happy face'" [meaning a positive attitude] "Do my Homework with a Happy Face" YES!

Furthermore, the child should be able to verbalize the desired behavior. This will come into play in a short while.

B. Frequency of the Reward/Recompense

The adult decides the frequency. It should never be daily. Depending on the child's age and maturity, it could be 1x a week, or 1x every two weeks. A four year old cannot sustain this type of good behavior for 2 weeks; she will forget what she is supposed to do. On the other hand, one week may be the "just right" amount, with recognition of daily progress to keep the child on task.

C. The Coin

One coin = one reward. After the desired amount of time has passed, with the desired behavior followed. Scenario: "Maggie" has done her homework daily, for 20 minutes of focused work, right away, without procrastinating. The script could follow this:

  • MOM: "Maggie, I am taking out & giving you one coin because of your good behavior. What good behavior am I talking about?"

  • MAGGIE: "Mom, doing my homework right away, focused."
    [The child has linked the desired behavior with her concrete behavior.]

  • MOM: "Maggie, you listed 3 favorite things: an extra hour of Minecraft, an extra 30 minutes of reading before bedtime, and a pack of Pokemon cards. Which will you choose in exchange for the coin?"

  • MAGGIE: "Oooooh, such a hard decision...Minecraft!"

Another scenario could revolve around tooth brushing:

  • MOM: "Katherine, I am taking out and giving you one coin because of your good behavior. What good behavior am I talking about?"

  • KATHERINE: "Mom, brushing my teeth in the morning and at night."

  • MOM: "And you have done this for 5 days without any reminders." Katherine, you listed 3 favorite things, a Barbie doll, some colorful washi tape, and some nail polish. Which will you choose in exchange for the coin?"

  • KATHERINE: "Oooooh, such a hard decision...the nail polish!"

D. Next Steps: Lengthen the Timeframe when Successful

If your four year old put his blanket on his bed for 3 days straight...then lengthen the next timeframe to 6 days. If your six year old brushed her teeth for one week, then lengthen it to two weeks. If your ten year old did her homework for two weeks, then lengthen the timeframe to three weeks. You tell the child of this permutation, and remind them of the "coin" [a/k/a the secret goal.] The lengthening of the frequency will depend on when your child "conquers" the task.

E. The Twist: Surprise them Early!

So, little Katherine has brushed her teeth successfully, day and night, from 5 days to 2 weeks and she's working on the third cycle. Here is where you "blow their minds." Before the end of the third cycle, you give them the coin early.

  • MOM: "Katherine, you have done so well, brushing your teeth day and night, without any reminders...I am giving you the coin EARLY in recognition of your hard work. I am proud of you and your hard work." [Remind them you are proud of their efforts!]

  • KATHERINE: "What?" Oh, THANK YOU, Momma!"

Why is the Parent giving the Coin early? For two main reasons: (a) more concretely, to avoid a relapse given the longer timeframe; and (b) more abstractly, to show the child that she is being observed constantly... and yet, she is choosing to engage in this positive behavior while she thinks she is unobserved.

Three Important Lessons

Does this all sound sneaky? Perhaps but you are teaching your child important lessons:

Lessons Learned (1) Following through
(2) Staying on track
(3) Doing things on their own

If that doesn't get the handkerchief for the Valedictorian Acceptance Speech, or the Oscar, I don't know what will. (Smile.) I am trying this out next week and reporting back!