Understanding the Motivation Equation


Does this sound familiar?

“I told you to do that 30 minutes ago! Why isn’t it done?”

“If you don’t finish that homework you’ll never be able to…”

“You used to love (fill in the bank). Why do you want to quit?”

And the common response from your child is, “So what? “ or “I don’t know.”

In your mind you may be thinking, “Why is this kid so lazy? Why doesn’t she care? Can’t he see he’s hurting their future? She should know how to do this by now.” Overall, this kid is not motivated.

Understanding lack of motivation in your child takes some unpacking of the assumptions that surround the concept of motivation.

When we feel our kids are unmotivated, we often assume that not completing the task we see as important means they don’t care or are they are willfully disobeying us. Then we get angry and start down a path of consequences that will be levied for not complying with our expectations.

Let’s be VERY CLEAR: Consequences rarely motivate.

Now, I’m not saying there should be no consequences for inappropriate behavior, but understand that those consequences are only ONE-THIRD of the motivation equation. To better understand the dynamic between you and your child regarding motivation, a mindset change is in order.

I firmly believe that no child (or adult, for that matter) goes through life hoping to disappoint those around them. Calling a child lazy or unmotivated assumes that a choice has been made to NOT DO what is asked. If we switch our mindset to one where we assume our children want to be good, then the problem comes back to us as parents to investigate and teach rather than blame and punish. When you can make that mindset change, then you will likely see the change you’re hoping for in your child.

Think of the motivation equation like this:

Motivating my child = Teaching(Investigating+Instructing) + Incentive + Consequence


Teaching has two parts: Investigating and instructing. A mistake we often make as parents is focusing on the instructing before the investigating. Investigating means looking at the task you’ve assigned and examining each part to make sure your child understands it. And if they don’t understand or even know all the parts of the task, you need to provide step-by-step instructions. When I say parts, it means really looking at the task at hand and breaking it down into every action required and the mental planning process required to get the task done.

Let’s take the example of room cleaning. You tell your child to clean their room and it doesn’t happen. Let’s break that task down into all its parts: agree to clean, pick a time to clean, look at the room and decide where to start, figure out how to complete each element (picking up clothes, putting away books, making bed etc.) take a break if needed, check work, complete the task. Each of the elements of the cleaning could also be broken into chunks, e.g.: how to fold clothes, how to hang up clothes, what does an organized bookshelf really look like etc.

Somewhere in all the elements of cleaning up a room, there are likely underdeveloped skills requiring some instruction. Sometimes the skill may be for something physical, like folding clothes, but more often than not, the instruction will be teaching a mental process. That mental process is often a skill related to something called Executive Function (EF). EF is essentially the ability to plan and organize the appropriate steps to complete any task. No matter where the breakdown is, when we can’t figure out a path to completion, overwhelm sets in making the task seems insurmountable and consequently it isn’t completed. You as the parent will need to teach your child some of these steps, even if they seem painfully obvious to you. Check out my February 11, 2019 post for a deeper dive on Executive Functioning including all the mental parts of a task to examine.

WARNING: You may discover several underdeveloped skills contained in one task. This is your indicator that the task you’ve assigned is either too advanced for your child (regardless of age), or you will need to adjust your timeline for success while you make your way through teaching each skill.


Though we all want our children to recognize the good feelings that come from completing a difficult task as enough of a reason to see the task through to completion, for the seemingly “unmotivated” child, it’s just not enough. Children who struggle with EF often need external motivators to help them work on those underdeveloped skills. Here are some guidelines for creating incentives to use along the way.

  • The incentive should be tied directly to the skill you’ve taught, not the larger task you’re working towards. E.g. incentive for getting started when asked to clean the room rather than cleaning the whole room.

  • Offer incentives that are achievable in a short period of time.

  • Track the progress in a way that’s accessible to your child such as a chart, a checklist or a calendar.

  • Choose an incentive with your child so it’s meaningful.

  • Praise and recognize all movement towards the goal.

  • Celebrate like crazy when the goal is achieved.


Consequences are the last part of the equation. Consequences for action or inaction are a part of life and it’s important children learn that, but once again, be clear that consequence will likely not be the motivator for your child’s behavior improvement.

Some guidelines for consequences:

  • Make sure your child is clear what the consequences will be in advance.

  • When possible, give the two-option-choice before levying a consequence—see below.

  • Make the “punishment fit the crime.”

  • Give the consequence calmly and ALWAYS follow through.

The two choice option can be used in lots of ways. It’s a tool to give some power to your child when they’re learning a new behavior while still retaining control of the situation. When thinking about consequences, it goes like this: “You can do this now, or receive consequence.”

I’ve attached a generic chart you can use to track progress towards earning an incentive. Click HERE

Comment below and let me know how it goes or post specific questions you have about the process.

Happy Motivating!