Sometimes it’s hard to motivate kids to develop good habits and follow house rules. The technique that is easiest for us, nagging and lecturing, only works (at best) for a short time. Our instinctive response to just lecture longer and louder doesn’t help and can make things worse. To make any lasting changes, we need to look to what I call the doctrine of logical consequences.
There are many things that we need to teach children that are in their best interests. They need to clean up after themselves, they need to do their homework, they need to get enough sleep. Those rules are best for them and their future, not to mention our sanity. I used to think that I could use reason to motivate my kids. Then I learned that until kids’ brains fully develop (sometime in their early 20s), they seem to be unable to process even our best advice. We think that we are being particularly eloquent; they hear the “wah-wah-wah” immortalized in Charlie Brown cartoons.
So we have to turn to letting them learn from experience, which is the way that most human beings learn best. The doctrine of logical consequences holds that children learn best from living with the natural consequences of their decisions, so the best way to teach them is to make whatever consequences we impose mimic real life as closely as possible. Furthermore, we should do more than wait for those occasions to arise. Whenever we can do so safely, we should actively engineer logical consequences.
Once you start thinking in terms of logical consequences, you will discover all sorts of techniques. For example, with some kids I could connect allowances to school grades, not only motivating them to do homework, but also getting them used to the principle that their income is pegged to how hard they work. Other kids were not motivated by money, but we could limit their electronics for low grades, explaining that obviously they needed fewer distractions from homework.
Sometimes, all we have to do is stay out of the way. If a child waits until the last minute to do a science project, a bad grade may be a good lesson about the dangers of procrastination. Other times, we need to be more proactive. For example, if a teenager forgets to take the trash to the outside can, putting the bag in his room will be a better reminder than a lecture. As I explained more than once, I want to move the trash bag to a place that it doesn’t annoy me, but I don’t want to do their job for them.
You always have to keep the consequences safe for the child. We want them to have a preview of the real world, not full exposure to all the bad things that can happen to them. Part of keeping the preview safe is the need to pick your battles carefully. Your children may or not be able to deal with average child-level problems. You have to learn which issues to deal with today and which ones to deal with later — or never. For example, allowing an average child who forgets his lunch money to be hungry for a few hours will be a good lesson in planning ahead for his day. For a child who has experienced food insecurity, on the other hand, missing a meal can trigger all sorts of trauma. For that child, you will need to find other consequences.
I have seen many benefits from using logical consequences. First, those sorts of results teach the child what to expect from the world when they are adults. Second, they get me out of the never-ending arguments. When I can just let events unfold without my fingerprints, it forces my child to look at the situation rather than blaming me. Finally, logical consequences motivate children and help them develop good habits better than any lecture we can give. The next time you need to motivate your child to make a good decision, look long and hard at what would happen in the real world, figure out which of those consequences will motivate your child, and use your creativity to replicate them safely in your child’s life. I guarantee that you will be surprised at how well the technique works.
For more discussion about this principle, check out my book, Raising Other People's Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family.