#AskMegan My daughter doesn’t want to do anything (how to motivate a child)

Question: “How do you teach a 10-year-old responsibility? This is frustrating me to no end. When I don’t do her laundry, she wears dirty clothes or takes her sister’s. She had to go to school today without having her work done and she’ll get an F for the assignment. Her progress reports are atrocious. We’ve talked to her teacher and got nowhere. I told her that I would have to start going to school with her and sitting in class all day just so I know what she is doing. She isn’t stupid… she is advanced on all her state testing. She just doesn’t like doing work of any kind.” ~ Carolyn

This question was part of a conversation I was privy to, this morning. There were more elements to the story, but I believe that the above quote represents the situation adequately.

I thought long and hard about this question, because though Carolyn asked about teaching responsibility, it looked more like a compliance issue (I answered a similar question last week). But on further thought, I realized the real issue here is motivation, which might be compounded by a self-confidence issue. Carolyn’s daughter is not meeting the demands placed on her at school and at home, and when a behavior happens in two or more environments, it’s usually indicative of a something a little more complicated than its immediate contingencies.

Just as with any behavior, in order to find out how to motivate a child and stop her from doing nothing, I would first look at managing the As (antecedents) then the Cs (consequences) to implement a change in the behavior (or set of behaviors arising from the same issue). See my post about the ABC’s of behavior if you’re unfamiliar with this.


What are some of the antecedents that may be causing this behavior?

At 10, Carolyn’s daughter is right-smack in the middle of Erikson’s psychosocial stage, Industry vs Inferiority, which is the stage when school and peers play a crucial role in the healthy development (and behavior) of a child. Along with some of the suspected tween angst, chiefly brought about by the onset of hormonal changes, there may be quite a few culprits causing her drastic behavioral change.

  • So the first place I would look is her friends and her peer situation at school: Does she have the right friends? Is she being influenced in her behavior by others, in other words, is she copying others’ inappropriate behavior? Is she being teased for being advanced and is reacting by neglecting her work?
  • The second place I would look is media and cultural influences: Did she read something or watch something that influenced her behavior? Is she being unduly influenced by media?
  • The third place I would look is the schoolwork itself: Is she neglecting her work because of its difficulty or, the opposite, because it is too easy and not challenging enough?
  • Since her neglectful behavior is also manifesting at home, I would wonder if her neglect of household chores is because she is unhappy at school and her unhappiness is also manifesting at home as a continuation of the same behavior?
  • Lastly, the standard question to ask is: Is there anything different in the home environment that may be causing the behavior change? A big change in family dynamics, though not an obvious one, usually affects a child’s behavior in the most routine of things.

I would start by talking to her. Not yelling, not making demands, not complaining about her noncompliance and attitude, or threatening to take away things and privileges (which apparently Carolyn has already been doing, to no avail). A talk that starts with “how are you doing and what is going on with you?” followed by “can you explain to me why you’ve changed so I can understand and help you?”

It may be necessary to bring in a third person, a mentor-figure or someone whom Carolyn’s daughter admires (and whom Carolyn trusts)  and might be more likely to confide in, into the mix: he/she will help break the cycle with a novel addition to the equation but also boost her confidence. Since up to this point Carolyn has not been effective in engaging her on her own, I’m leaning towards this as having a strong possibility of success than having Carolyn try to get through to her daughter on her own.

The bottom line is that if there is anything in her environment that is affecting her behavior, that stimulus needs to be identified and addressed for her behavior to change. By changing the antecedents (in this case maybe changing classrooms, friends, monitoring her TV time, etc.), changing the behavior would be automatic, if the precursors to the behavior are no longer there.


How to motivate a child through the consequences of behavior?

If managing antecedents doesn’t do it, then comes the work on the consequences. And again, since punishment (removal of privileges, food, or clean clothing) is not working, it might be time to do a behavioral contract, sort of the big guns of behavior interventions. Here’s an online sample of a behavior contract that can be modified for the occasion. I would preface this exercise by presenting as a fun project that I have full confidence that she can do, easy-peasy, because I have full confidence in her intelligence and abilities. If that fails, I would present it as a bet :)

A behavior contract works exactly as the name implies: it’s a contract between Carolyn and her daughter:

  • Define as precisely as possible what behaviors Carolyn’s daughter needs to work on. Ex: wear clean clothes to school (instead of “being tidy” or “dress well”)
  • Define as precisely as possible the criteria for acceptability and completion: Ex: I will complete my daily assignment (again, instead of just “doing my homework”)
  • Define the rewards for meeting the goals
  • Some behavior contracts have a response cost (consequences for not meeting the goals)– I wouldn’t use them in this case, because Carolyn’s daughter would be better motivated by purely positive consequences. If she doesn’t meet the goals, she gets nothing.
  • Make it official by having all parties sign the document.

A few tips on making the best of behavior contracts:

  • Follow the terms of the contract very closely. If the document says that you will check on her room every day, then do it.
  • Deliver the rewards as agreed and in a timely fashion, the more immediate the better.
  • Don’t change the terms mid-contract. If this is your first time using one, then make sure that the duration of the contract is not lengthy so you can follow-up with an amended second contract, if needed.
  • Start small with big results: Small demands and big rewards are the best way to jolt a behavior and implement rapid change. You can gradually increase the demands and the delay to obtain the desired rewards in subsequent contracts.

How would I do it? Since this situation seems to have escalated over a period of time, I think a big gesture is in order to shake things up and shake up the situation from its status quo. So… since my daughter loves American Girl, I would take her to lunch, one on one, at the American Girl and have our “meeting” and contract-signing there. I would not buy a thing, just subliminally suggest all the fun stuff she could get if she earned them the proper way (by meeting her school and household demands). Of course, Carolyn should use whatever thing/venue happens to be her daughter’s most favorite activity (or taste or preference), but you get the gist of it.

 What do you think, dear reader? How would you advise Carolyn?


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i remember when I was younger I went threw the same thing. I was a straight A student and my parents usually had no problems with me. Then my parents went threw a pretty bad divorce and we were caught in the middel and my attitude and grades reflected it. after a while my dad asked a counsler about and she offered to see me. Talking to someone that didn't judge me or expect anything of me helped me so much and before i knew it grades were improving as well as my attitude!!! maybe you should have to talk to a counsler. see if the school has one ours did

Nicole Becker
Nicole Becker

I believe that peer pressure has soooo much to do with a child's behavior. Definitely look at the friends they are hanging around first. Thats what I would do.


Excellent advice, Cami, thanks for sharing. My understanding is that there aren't any new family issues but talking to an impartial professional is always a good idea!


The number one source of influence for teenagers is peers (way more than parents, teachers, clergy, and other adults). I totally concur with you, Nicole. Thanks for reading!