toddler sitting on a brick path by a lawn looking sideways, holding a large green pushbroom

Cooperation without Coercion: How to Motivate Children (5 Things to Try)

Children love to cooperate, but they also love showing their independence

At a homeschooling mom's meetup this year, one mother asked, "How can I get my teenage son to do his school work?" Heads around the room nodded in sympathy.

"You can't make anyone do anything," said another mom. Looks of surprise.

She explained: You can ask nicely. You can explain why you think it's important that your son does the work. You can lead by example (by doing your own work). But—outside, perhaps, the use of coercive force—you can't make anyone do anything.

As William Stixrud and Ned Johnson wrote in The Self-Driven Child (read my review):

"At times, we can stop children and teenagers from doing things we should not want them to do by physically restraining them or coming up with onerous consequences. We can physically do things to them, like carry them to the dentist's office kicking and screaming. We can try to reframe the proposition in an effort to get their cooperation or buy in. And we can try to motivate them by offering incentives or making threats. But the reality is that you can't really make them do anything."

But what about school work, chores, eating vegetables?

That conversation at the mom's group led in two directions. First, how to motivate children to do what you want them to do, even when they are incredibly strong-willed—more on that below. Second, how to build self-discipline (and how to help children develop self-discipline), which will be next week's subject.

Developing autonomy and responsibility

Stixrud and Johnson warn against coercing children into always following your will—even if you get short term compliance, there are generally negative long-term consequences. Attempts to assert control over a child often triggers a determination to assert control right back, leading to a battle of wills and probably a lot of hurt feelings. There's even a name for this psychological phenomenon: psychological reactance.

Developmentally, babies don't start out knowing that they are separate individuals from their mothers. It takes 6 months to a year for them to begin to understand that they are separate little people. Then, during the toddler years through middle childhood and adolescence, children will increasingly assert their agency, autonomy, and existence as individuals separate from their parents—behavior that often manifests as non-compliance with a parent's wishes, such as ignoring, resistance, negotiation, defiance, and refusals.

Stixrud and Johnson frown on both autocratic/authoritarian parenting (which emphasizes obedience) and on permissive parenting (which lets the child walk all over you), recommending a middle ground that is increasingly recognized as the best path: authoritative parenting, which aims to be supportive but not controlling, with set limits that are reasonable and non-arbitrary, emphasizing self-direction over obedience, encouraging cooperation through liking and respect, and understanding that children need to have responsibility in order to develop greater ability to be responsible.

Authoritative parenting practices can go hand in hand with a skillful approach to helping children develop good habits, helping them see the value of pursuing excellence over success, and why we ought to approach life with sincerity.

In fact, Stixrud and Johnson recommend parents help their children discover what they're passionate about and what motivates them, and then, let children practice being intrinsically motivated and in flow while pursuing their strengths and interests. Let children practice having autonomy and responsibility. This practice develops motivation and discipline. Help children develop their own long-term goals. Let them explore. Let them be curious. Help them see how their activities now will enable them to reach their long-term goals.

How does this long-view approach mesh with getting the short-term cooperation you want, especially with regards to developing good habits? (Those vegetables won't eat themselves.) Here are five things to consider.

1. Consider your assumptions

First, consider your assumptions. Why do you feel it's important for your child to do that particular activity at that particular time? What is the purpose of the activity? What do you want your child to be learning from it—and is this method the best way of getting that message across? Some things may be negotiable or flexible. Some aren't.

For example, perhaps you think your child needs to build a habit or develop a virtue. Perhaps you wish you had developed that virtue when you were younger, or you know your child will need it to succeed. Perhaps you have a rule about a behavior—is it a reasonable rule? What assumptions led you to make it? Must it be inflexible? Or is consistency key here? Choosing our battles is half the battle.

Consider your expectations about your child. Are your expectations in line with what's reasonable for a child of that age in the modern world? For example, are we expecting a young boy to sit still and be quiet for longer than a boy of that age can naturally sit still and be quiet? (The struggle is real.) Are you expecting a level of compromise, negotiation, and interpersonal conflict resolution that's developmentally beyond the ability of the child? (Children under the age of 8 generally need help.)

You may think that following rules rigidly is the key to developing self-discipline. Rules can give us freedom to grow. Practicing self denial can develop virtue. But don't forget that a key way children learn self-discipline is through play—e.g., by voluntarily opting in to systems of rules that they create themselves.

2. Asking and explaining

Some children respond well to explanation: here's why I want you to do the thing. Here's why you should want to do the thing. Eating peas helps you grow big and strong, and keeps your body healthy. Eating cookies for dinner, on the other hand, would give you too much sugar, which can make you sick.

Reminding children of consequences can also help: Last time you went to the park without your snow pants, you got cold and sad. How about wearing the snow pants today?

Use stories to help children understand the importance of an activity or of developing a habit or virtue. For example, we have William J. Bennett's The Book Of Virtues For Young People, which has stories and poems illustrating virtues such as responsibility, courage, compassion, honesty, and friendship. Many folktales and myths are full of morals and lessons (Aesop's Fables, anyone?). Stories make the benefits and consequences of virtue and action real.

3. Connecting and cooperating

I remember an unschooling mom on Twitter sharing how one evening, her teenage sons decided to clean the entire house—no coercion required, they just decided to scrub and mop until midnight.

Peter Gray has written about letting toddlers be involved in work around the house and yard. In cultures where children were both allowed and encouraged to be involved in all aspects of housework, they normally and naturally stayed involved. They picked up on the expectation that everyone contributes (it's not all mom!), and that it's just as much children's work as adult work to clean and take care of the space they all live in.

Being invested in a place, knowing that it is your place, your home, gives both children and adults incentive to take care of it. (We may have different standards for cleanliness and clutter, of course.)

We try to take inspiration from these ideas. Our children help with chores—often voluntarily. Sometimes those chores take longer with their help… but it's a long term investment! We're the weird parents who got our son a long-handled duster for his fifth birthday, because he loved getting spiderwebs from high-up lights.

I take inspiration from many peaceful parenting, gentle parenting, positive parenting, and mindful parenting practices. These practices tend to be about connection: connect with your child, then they'll cooperate because they want to.

From a social psychology standpoint, it makes sense: Humans as social animals. We are, by nature, attuned to social emotions and motivated by them: shame, gratitude, embarrassment, guilt, empathy, pride. The parenting practices that are often most effective capitalize on our social human nature—our desire to be loved, to belong to and contribute to the family group, to be helpful, and so on. Our two-year-old gets mad when she wants to help, but someone else helps first.

young girl in stripy pajamas shoveling dirt out of a hole
Helping plant trees.

4. Consequences

Consequences are meant as reinforcers, to either reinforce desirable behavior or deter undesirable behavior. There are probably as many theories about the best kinds of consequences to use and the best ways to use them as there are parents.

One book that applies behavioral psychology to training and teaching suggests that most punishment should be avoided. Instead, catch children when they're being good. Use praise at those moments, but sparingly, as a conditional reinforcer. To maintain behavior, use praise intermittently—as the mobile gaming industry and the social media industry have learned, intermittent rewards do wonders for reinforcing behavior. Importantly, pay attention to where your attention is (inattention can inadvertently be a negative reinforcer), and also to the timing of any punishments/rewards you use. Getting the timing wrong will reinforce the wrong behavior.

When you praise children for behavior, consider whether you're praising their action ("that was a helpful thing to do") or their character ("I guess you're the kind of person who likes to help"). As Adam Grant discussed in his book Originals, praising people's character strengths instead of their actions can nudge them toward choosing behaviors that make them people who have those strengths—it nudges them toward incorporating those character strengths into their identity and reinforces their identity as having certain values or embodying certain traits. Then, when considering an action, people are more likely to think about their values and their answer to the question "What would a person like me do in a situation like this?"

You can also consider using natural and logical consequences for behavior—there are plenty of examples online if you search. The gist is, don't punish children arbitrarily if they act undesirably (e.g., not letting them have dessert if they don't share toys with their siblings). Instead, let them experience either the natural effects of their decisions (e.g., being cold if they don't want to wear snow pants), or the logical effects (e.g., a toy being put away because they kept throwing it at their sibling). Consequences unconnected from the activity don't teach anything.

Related to this, Stixrud and Johnson, and others, have argued that it's a great idea to give children responsibilities—they get practice being responsible. This works best if the failure mode of not being responsible is connected naturally or logically. For example, we ask our children to help pick up toys at the end of the day so I can sweep the floor (and so I don't trip on stuff if I'm up at night with the baby). If they don't help, I may put the toys away for a day or two (so I don't have the same problem the next day), or I may not be available to read as many books at bedtime because I'm still cleaning.

5. Setting examples and expectations

Children, like adults, persist at and practice the things they think are important. One way to show them what's important is to do those things yourself. Children also happen to love imitating the adults in their lives—there's a reason play kitchens are so popular. Children play to understand; they play to learn.

Lead by example. Work on your own projects, your own learning, your own chores. If you want your family to have a certain routine, start by going through the routine every day yourself. My children know by now that I'm not coming to read bedtime stories until I've finished my kitchen cleanup and sweeping the house—and they can facilitate the process by helping pick toys up off the floor.

One bit of parenting advice I've come across is to be consistent in the limits you set, and when you're not consistent, have good reason not to be. It's okay for limits and rules to change (happy families adapt!), so long as you acknowledge to your children that the rules are changing.

When you're considering what activities or behaviors you want to encourage, remember that we all know different things. We have different strengths, different interests. We all forget stuff; we all took different educational paths. As parents, we can do our best to expose our children to what we think they ought to know and what we think might interest them, and hope they pick up useful knowledge, skills, and habits along the way. Show your own passion and joy in what you do, and maybe they'll share in it, or find their own.

Learning as we go

I'm still figuring out the best ways to help my children build good habits, follow their interests, and contribute to the well-being of the household. Perhaps there is no best way—after all, each child is different—different personalities, more compliant, more defiant, strong-willed about different things. It's a fascinating, ongoing challenge.

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