When taking care of children, who hasn’t wished for some way to magically elicit certain behavior? Whether you’re a parent or a nanny, the scenario is often the same. You want the kids to perform a particular act that you know would be in their best interest, and you get nowhere when you ask them to do it. While it’d be great to be able to converse with a child on the same level you would an adult, there are reasons this doesn’t work. The emotional development of children causes them to reason differently than adults. Instead of appealing to their logic when you want to instill healthy habits, try the following alternate approaches that can resonate more effectively.
Praise is not a tangible incentive, but don’t underestimate its power. How often do we hear stories about kids acting out simply because they want attention? Praise (when given appropriately) has been shown to have a positive impact on young ones’ self-esteem, motivation and sense of self. So how do you go about administering the right kind of praise? The key is to be specific.
Begin by identifying what healthy habit you want the child to practice. If it’s brushing her teeth before bed, first encourage her to do it. Once she complies, specifically praise what she did well. This could be something like, “wow, Jenny, you did a great job brushing all the way to the back teeth!” When you hone in on something particular, you give her something to feel proud about and want to repeat. Generic praise like, “great job!” leaves her not knowing what she’s done well, or why she’s deserved a compliment. You can apply this sort of specific praise to children of any age, as long as you make sure what you’re keeping the kudos age appropriate.
Dole out Prizes
Incentivizing with physical rewards is another approach that can work to encourage desired behaviors. It’s important to be cautious with prizes, as you don’t want to create an environment where kids become excessively materialistic.
If you’re struggling in a particular area to help a kid embrace healthier habits, incentives can be effective. Let’s say there’s a young girl who is overweight and experiencing negative health issues as a result. Instead of making her feel bad, find out what she likes to do. Could she race you around the block? Or if she hates running, maybe you could set a timer and both do laps in the pool? However you figure it out, let her know that physical activity is important to you and you’d love it if she’d participate with you. Once you’ve completed your daily exercise together, offer another bonding experience as a reward, like letting her choose a new movie on demand that you can watch together. This way, the prize is real and enticing, but she doesn’t feel like she’s being forced or manipulated.
Make it a Game
From apps to marketing campaigns, there’s a growing movement in the business world centered on ‘gamifying’ certain processes in order to achieve desired results. Just as it works with adults, you can also use this same strategy with your children. Basic game mechanics like points, badges, leaderboards and levels cater to human psychology and serve to drive specific behavioral outcomes.
Game mechanics like these can be applied separately or jointly to increase healthy habits. For instance, if you want a competitive teen to start doing chores, create a leaderboard. Assign a certain number of points to each task, and keep it in a public place. Since he’ll be able to see where he stacks up against the rest of the family, he’s more likely to take on extra work simply to stay in the winning spot.
Games should be tailored to the child’s age, and should always be prefaced with guidelines (i.e. no taunting, follow specific rules, etc.) that will ensure everything remains friendly and fun.