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My son is 8 and has always been argumentative and basically lazy with doing ANYTHING since he could talk.

If he has homework that takes ten minutes, he will take two hours due to just leaving the desk or putting his head down, or simply refusing. This part has been going on for 3 years.

I have tried having a hard line with this, and also helping him but it always turns out the same; he will claim something is "too hard", which I know is not true because it is just usually copying down words. He just doesn't want to do it.

Regarding chores, all he has to do is keep his room basically tidy (which he always cries about and it turns into conflict), and clean the cat box every few days. He always needs constant monitoring when it comes to completing anything.

Even taking a shower and brushing his teeth, he needs to be watched and if not, he will not wash well or at all. He will brush his teeth in 30 seconds and with a tiny dot of toothpaste.

We have tried praise for every little thing done right, rewarding him (gets 5 $ a week for allowance if he does them without too much arguing). We have also tried cutting off xbox privileges, etc. Nothing works and nothing motivates him. Is there ANYTHING I can do to kickstart some interest in him?

Even sports are an issue because he has tried everything, and if he cannot master it right away, he gives up or has a bad attitude, despite our encouragement. I'm afraid he will never grow out of this and of course I want him to be productive and have a fulfilling life! (BTW, he is a loving, happy and sensitive boy otherwise, and a mediocre student that does not cause problems at school besides talking too much once in a while. No abuse issues/family problems, no diagnosed disorders of anyone in family.)

Thank you for your input.

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7 Answers 7

Oh gosh. You want your son to be motivated by rewards, rather by the intrinsic value of something? (Basically, your child has a stronger sense of dignity than he has an interest in whatever rewards you are offering. I'd be thanking my lucky stars.) Besides, What happens when he is an adult? How will he keep his room clean if no one is there to give him reward? When he has a job, how will he know if his performance is up to par, if no one is giving him stickers or praise?

Praise is actually counter-productive. Excessively praising a child leads him to wonder what is so wrong with him that the adults around him have decided he needs personal cheerleaders? Particularly if you are calling him "talented", "smart" a lot, then at the first time of initial difficulty he is going to be wary of trying if the very act of effort might cause him to lose this image. This could well be what is happening around Sports.

And, conversely, punishing him doesn't actually teach him anything except that you are mean. Think back to a time when you were punished, what did you learn? You probably thought you would find a way to get back at them (rebellion), or that next time you wouldn't get caught (resentment) or that you must be pretty terrible (resignation, not helpful either).

I run my classrooms without rewards or punishments and instead teach my students, and reinforce, the skills necessary to participate in an inclusive, collaborative, respectful classroom.

I strongly, strongly encourage you to check out Carol Dweck's work for further information into why praise is not only useless, it is harmful.

Instead, try encouragement (not praise). Help him to see and reflect upon himself.

  • "How was that for you?"

  • "I noticed you gave your sister a smile today." (called non evaluative statements ie just notice him without judging him, let him do the reflecting)

  • "What does it feel like when you try something new?"

Basically, you want to create space for him to discover and practice life. Connect with him. Ask him questions with genuine curiosity about his process.

I would really read Positive Discipline. You want him to develop personal hygiene habits for the sake of being clean and healthy not because you are dancing around with a reward at the ready. Why will he clean his teeth at 25 when (I am assuming) you will not be there to raise his allowance?

Instead, I would make it part of the bedtime/morning routine. "In this family we brush our teeth so we can be healthy. How would you like to arrange the order of your bedtime routine? What should we put on there?"

Teach him skills, don't just do things for him (including prioritizing things).

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I should add, I am happy to teach you how to teach him the necessary skills, but it seems beyond the format for this site. In the meantime, I would really recommend reading that blog because it is an easy way to see what the alternatives might look like before you get too overwhelmed. –  Christine Gordon Oct 30 '12 at 21:46
Another suggestion is "How to Raise Self-Reliant Kids in a Self-Indulgent World" which is all about this issue/challenge. –  Christine Gordon Oct 30 '12 at 21:53
I noticed that you've mentioned Carol Dweck before. I'll have to check out some of her work. Your answer has some major parallels to Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards. While I find that book to have some major flaws, I think some of the premises are quite good. If you happen to join us in Parenting Chat, I may try to pick your brain a bit :) –  Beofett Oct 31 '12 at 12:44
I read Kohn's book a few years back. Unfortunately, it's written like somebody trying to convince a very stubborn opponent and so he gets a bit long-winded at times. I really liked the ideas, though. By offering a reward, you are implying that the task is not intrinsically good -- it is only an obstacle to what you really want (...and thus best avoided). –  Brian White Oct 31 '12 at 14:34
yes exactly, like those reading programs with all the rewards, it actually decreases a child's interest in reading because they decide reading must be pretty crappy if all the adults are going to such lengths to convince me to do it! –  Christine Gordon Oct 31 '12 at 14:38

@Cara, this is not a problem with him, it's a problem with your parenting style. It sounds like you are trying to control every aspect of his life and smothering him with advice, demands, rewards, and punishments. He is confused and frustrated at not being able to control anything about his life, so he does the one thing that gives him control: he refuses to cooperate. You want obedience, but what you really should be looking for is cooperation.

You are making decisions for him rather than allowing him to make them himself. Some children will deal with this by cooperating, but others rebel. My advice is to back off and give him some freedom. Give him choices, not of what he is going to do (homework or not), but how he goes about them: rather than tell him to do his homework now (or else), give him a choice between doing his homework now or after something. Does he want to do his homework in his room, or at the dining table. He's still going to do his homework, but he gets to chose where, or when, or even which pen he's going to use. That makes a big difference.

Try using expectations rather than rewards and punishments, because if you reward or punish everything they become meaningless. Set the expectation, then trust he will get it done and leave him to it. Express disappointment when he does not, but only punish when he does something really bad, and reward when his behavior is above expectation. Learn to live with it when his behavior is in between, as it is going to be hard to have a good relationship with him if you're always having an argument. Pick your battles, don't make everything a battle because with some kids if you are always looking for a battle you'll get one!

It sounds like he's got spirit, so channel that by challenging him to solve his own problems rather then coming down on him for everything he does wrong. If he forgets to clean the cat box simply say "I see a dirty cat box." or "This cat box needs cleaning, you have said you will do it and I expect you to be a man of your word." Give him the chance to rectify it. Let him know that you are relying on him and you trust him to do what he says. Write it all down if you need to, and stick to it. Try to make things a learning experience, and let him learn the lessons with your help, rather than you telling him the lessons.

Also, try not to set your expectations too high. He's an 8 year old boy, you can't expect a paragon of cleanliness and virtue, believe me! You also can't expect him to always do things right. He's going to disobey - often, and skirt around the rules as much as he can. There will be times he disappoints you, but there will also be times he amazes you with what he can do, but only if you let him!

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"You want obedience, but what you really should be looking for is cooperation." Its like you read my mind! What's your background? –  Christine Gordon Oct 31 '12 at 13:57
As a parent I've got a 3 year old and a 9 month old. I spent a couple years as a not very good camp councilor and learned a lot from the experience! Professionally I'm in IT. I take it you're a teacher from your post. Well done, we need more of you! –  GdD Oct 31 '12 at 14:12
Heh, thanks, I'm not a teacher, I worked in afterschool programs in inner-city schools with the kinds of kids nobody wants :) At the end of the day, it is all about relationships. Now I do consulting to help more people figure out this 'magic'. –  Christine Gordon Oct 31 '12 at 14:19
We need even more of that! There are so many kids who need that sort of help. –  GdD Oct 31 '12 at 14:23
I rebelled in the same way the OP's child does. I did it because I was protesting a parenting style of authortative control. (I didn't know why I was doing it at the time) –  Gabriel Fair Feb 3 at 22:36

It is convienent when they are young for a child to be motivated by punishment and reward, but in the long run no child is honestly motivated in this way forever without it winding up hurtful in the end. Even though you feel especially challenged by this now, be grateful as your child is motivated by something inside of himself instead. Christine Gordon's answer does a good job of outlining the pitfalls of punishments and rewards, so I won't bore you by repeating her clear and detailed answer here. Instead, I will offer up one hypothesis about something that MIGHT be going on here.

You mention that your son gives up if something doesn't come easily to him right away. This MAY be indicitive of a perfectionistic personality. Something that is very common amongst gifted and advanced children but exists throughout the population as well. Because of all the work I have done with twice-exceptional kids (kids with both a gifted area and a learning, emotional, or behavioral disability, I have had a very large number of encounters with perfectionistic tendencies and it is a tough challenge.

Does your son have a specific talent in which things have always just come easily? Is he really hard on himself when he gets something wrong? Is he particularly sensitive and becomes emotional easily? Did he have an easy time in school up to a certain age and then the avoicance of doing his work began? If you answered yes to a number of these questions you may havea perfectionist on your hands. The challenge for these kids is that they are so afraid of messing up or doing something wrong or just not being immediately good at something that they'd rather fail by not trying than try really hard and still not find success.

If this describes your son, you very likely have a tough road ahead, but the objective becomes about convincing him that his effort is more important than the outcome in many circumstances and that there is value in the learning takes place in the effort. You may find my answer to this question also helpful as it outlines a number of techniques you can use to create an effort focused environment and encourage your son.

Include non-evaluative statements (described by Christine) about his effort. "I noticed you got four questions wrong and instead of being upset you went back and redid them."

"I noticed you went and asked your coach for extra advice about kicking the ball."

"I noticed you spent the first 15 minutes while you worked on your homework taking some notes about what you were reading"

I also suggest trying to give him more options and more say in what he does. Let him choose which order he does his homework in and even where he does it (to some extent). By giving up a little control, you are helping him to be a happier, more well-adjusted, independent young man capaable of learning from his own mistakes. I'd suggest Parenting with love and logic to learn more about how to relinquish control while still setting the parenting boundaries you need to set as his parent in addition to the texts already mentioned by Christine.

Finally, Let him fail a little. For example, if he doesn't get his homework done, it will only hurt him. He is eight so better to fail now than when he is in high school and the grades count. Let his teacher have to discuss with him why he didn't get his work done. Let him get a couple of F's for not having done his work and then have to do the make-up work. While he is behind on his work, he also can't go do anything that costs money or have anything new. Don't warn him about this, just let it happen, again, not because he is being punished, but because as a child his job right now is to do his schoolwork and a couple of simple chores. People that don't get their work done, don't get to keep their jobs and when you don't have a job you don't have money to go see a movie, go out to dinner with friends, or by gifts for others and go to their parties. When he gets caught-up he can start doing these fun things again. (That way hopefully, he doesn't fail his grade level entirely).

If he can't keep his room clean - friends can't come over (no one wants to spend time in some one else's mess). You get the idea.

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Have you seen Carol Dweck's work on kids that are told they are smart vs praised for their efforts? It seems pretty relevant to your work. I find it fascinating. –  Christine Gordon Nov 1 '12 at 23:06
I don't know that I've read exactly what you've read, but I know the concepts. I've read TONS of stuff about parenting and done so much reading I simply don't know all of what I've read anymore. I've definitely added the name to my list of things to look up. It seems as though you and I have some things i common. –  balanced mama Nov 1 '12 at 23:11
Yeah for sure. I know the feeling! –  Christine Gordon Nov 1 '12 at 23:15

I have an 8 year old daughter who is extremely motivated to her own agenda, and a 5 year old son that struggles with getting mad quite often. I've found timeouts, lectures, (most) rewards, and punishments to be problematic. I've gotten myself into some bad patterns over the years as I learn how to be a parent for the first time.

My answer is to keep trying new things, track the results, and keep yourself motivated to improve. You're modeling this for him, keep him involved in your process.

We hold family meetings every week and have for about 5 months now. These meetings are somewhat like a sprint retrospective. We discuss the following:

  1. What was good about the period between now and our last meeting?...examples include: I learned how to ride a bike, or I went to the zoo, etc.
  2. What was bad about the period between now and our last meeting? ...or what did you struggle with?...or what was in your way?... examples include: bullying at school, anger that somebody got something he did not, etc.
  3. What improvements can we work toward during the upcoming period?...examples include: listening on the first try, keeping a positive attitude, making our beds in the morning, etc.

We get moderately good insight into their perspective for the preceding few days. They usually can't recall much beyond that unprompted.

I write down everything that is contributed and it becomes a part of the next discussion as well as a sort of family journal. I believe it's of critical importance that they see this as a pool of effort into which the entire family pours contributions.

We try to keep the meetings under 20 minutes, and unless we're chaining on a discussion about an upcoming change/event we have gotten pretty successful.

Afterward I distribute an allowance that is not directly tied to any one performance metric (e.g. chores, homework, attitude), but is meant to help teach them the value of money and the concept of saving. Unless there are extenuating circumstances during the week, I like them to think of this as independent of punishment and reward.

You mentioned a couple "chores" that other answers (I'll link to them when I can find them) on this site have likened more to baseline expectations. I agree in that I feel a chore is something that helps the household, and is above what's normally expected of you. Examples may include: some yardwork, setting the table, emptying the home's trash cans, etc. I bring this up because sometimes more responsibility can be motivating. I notice this when I give them opportunities to learn tasks outside of their normal work.

Finally I'll end with a few confounding observations that simply highlight the amount of gray area informing this endeavor. Also, I'll reiterate the point I made about trying new things and tracking results by sharing a quote that is serving as our family's current improvement target:

If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right - Adm. William H. McRaven

  • I awoke this morning to the sound of my two children "secretly" emptying the dishwasher. I hadn't asked them to do this. When asked what their motivations were, they simply replied they thought it would help the morning go smoother.
  • My daughter despite being practically immune to certain types of reward/punishments would do practically anything for a piece of candy.
  • My son has a similar "trap door" that we can use when all else fails, and it happens to be video games.
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This is definitely an answer rather than a comment, and a good one at that. I have taken the liberty of framing it as such. –  superluminary May 22 at 14:17

I am a behavior analyst, and I can assure that praise is totally alright to do and in fact has been shown time and time again to be effective--IF praise is a motivator for the particular child.

There is nothing wrong with you as a parent, and there is nothing wrong with your child. However, as the adult (teacher, or parent, or etc), it is up to you to ask and/or find out what IS motivating to them---extrinsically (like toys, or candy, or reading a favorite book) and intrinsically (like praise, or giving them a responsibility around the house, or feeling accomplished). Students, especially young ones, will naturally move from wanting extrinsic and external rewards to intrinsic and internal rewards--HOWEVER, even as adults, we get reinforced extrinsically naturally by our jobs (i.e., a paycheck)... so there is also nothing wrong with extrinsic reward. I do understand where you are coming from.

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I see nothing wrong with this answer, why the downvotes? –  superluminary May 22 at 13:39
@superluminary It originally had some tone issues (criticizing other answers as unqualified). Downvotes aren't always removed after an issue is fixed. –  Erica May 22 at 13:58
@Erica - Ah, looking at the previous versions I see why this was considered rude. –  superluminary May 22 at 13:59

Different kids are motivated by different things.

You say he is not motivated by rewards, well what have you tried? You have certain things that you need him to do. My eldest really likes money. My middle child: iPad time and stickers. My youngest: sweets on Friday.

There are lots of different reward schemes you might try. I know someone who has a monkey that moves up and down a pole. Nice things happen while the monkey is at the top of the pole.

We had different sized stars on a chalkboard for a while. The kids would do practically anything for a super-mega star.

All of these schemes lost their power over time. We had to continually adapt and become more sophisticated.

When my eldest won't help me with something I sometimes say "well OK then, I'll do it" (huffy, disappointed voice). That usually gets him out of his seat pretty quickly.

Companionship can be motivating. Working alongside someone can be bonding. Loading the dishwasher together can be fun. Tidying a room as a team can be a family activity. Later he will learn to do it on his own.

Different kids have different psychologies

When I was younger my dad was often angry with me because all I wanted to do was read books and muck about with computers. Now I'm an IT consultant so it worked out quite well for me.

It's very easy to mistake something like ASD for laziness. Is he particularly focussed on one thing? Does he like doing anything at all? Perhaps that's the thing to put effort into.

Sensory issues could also be confused for laziness. Perhaps he doesn't want to grasp a thing because it feels yucky. You say he dislikes brushing his teeth. Could there be a sensory issue there? Is he a fussy eater? Is he bothered by unfamiliar clothing?

Depression is also a possibility. Is he listless, slow, bored?

Allergies can cause tiredness. I remember being terribly tired as a child. Turns out I had a cat allergy. Remove the cat and my energy improved dramatically.

Failing that, some kids are just a bit spoilt

Is this a possibility for you? Are you imposing adequate discipline, making him work for things, etc? Is his life too easy?

There are lots of possible reasons why a child might behave in this way and it's hard to say which one applies here. Hopefully this thread has given you some ideas. Best of luck with it.

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I am currently dealing with the same thing, and have been for a while now. The comments are harsh judgements like you think the asker was given a parenting handbook and that the information provided here is something that only idiots and bad parents don't know. I hear child development and education backgrounds, maybe some psychology/behavioral health. YOU should know this stuff, yes. Is it something that a normal run-of-the-mill parent should? No. Not unless they bury their face in books and can decide to agree with one of the many conflicting theories of "good parenting".

Some of us have no "good" examples of how things are supposed to be done and are just trying to not make the same mistakes as our parents. The advice seems valid and well delivered but did it really have to be preceded by implicit scoffs and 'How could you be so stupid"-like comments?

Expectations are not set too high when you expect your child to do simple tasks without every day being an argument...for EVERY task.

Well let me tell you. I have been dealing with my 10 y/o son not showing interest in ANYTHING and dragging butt about everything in his daily tasks. I have tried everything. I STARTED with explaining why it's important to brush teeth and take a good shower everyday. I asked the exact preferences that were listed here:

"Do you want to shower at night or in the morning?" "Do you want to brush your teeth before or after breakfast?" "Do you want to play for a little while before you start homework?" "How about after a snack?" "Do you want to do your homework at the breakfast bar or table?" "Do you think it would be easier to stay focused or more comfortable if you had a desk in your room? Let's try and see."

I have provided encouragement, enforced consequences, provided positive reinforcement, and taken things away. We have time-outs for when either of us get frustrated and we both go to our own spaces to reflect and regroup. I have tried a LOT of different ways to skin this cat. What works for some does not ALWAYS work ALL of the time. I find that as soon as I find something that seems like it is working, it just doesn't and I have to change methods. That has been going on since he was 2 or 3.

I also have an 11 y/o daughter. I have used the same parenting style with her from the beginning. She is autonomous, successful in anything she tries, and interested in everything. She is smart, has great friends, and has great confidence. Different cat.

The problem with some of the comments is that they seem abrasive and sound condescending. Why not ask questions like: "What kind of encouragement have you tried?" "Which tasks are the most difficult?" "Have you sat him down when not trying to get him to do something and just asked how he feels about each thing? Why does he think or feel like he does about fulfilling his responsibilities?" "There have been no "diagnoses" in the family but have you considered taking him to speak with someone anyway?"

Talking to someone that is trained to communicate with children can be helpful. Sometimes it is just an issue of parents not knowing how to communicate with their child. I am still trying to figure it out myself. Kids can be 10 different people by the time they reach double digits.

I say (a couple of years too late) good job for caring enough to seek guidance. We don't have all of the answers and sometimes it takes the wisdom of the village to survive the parent-child relationship. That being said, the villager should be able to ask for the wisdom without feeling attacked. I understand that the asker may have not read the responses that way but I did. So may others that stumble upon this post. All I typed in the search engine was "how to help my child find interests".

How about trying to build up or encourage the parent? Do we not still need it? Or, is it a good idea to criticize someone that may already be feeling less-than great about how they're doing in one of life's most challenging tasks? People don't grow out of needing support.

By the way, my son has outgrown the fighting me on things. Most of the time he just complains and whines about everything or will do bare minimum at best without me staying on him.

One thing to help with brushing teeth that parents can try is using the pre-rinse that stains the "yuk" on teeth so they see how they're doing. The first time they get it all off before you check is self-rewarding for them. Also, the timed electric toothbrushes help them realize how long it really takes. We use the Sonicare for kids by Phillips. It beeps every 30 seconds letting them know when to switch sections. They can pause it to spit and you can hear it go throught the cycle without having to watch them like a hawk. The vibration tickles for a few days but they get used to it. Another good thing about it is that if they don't put a lot of physical work into it, the toothbrush still gets the job done as long as they actually move it to each part. I'm not endorsing that specific brand, I just don't have knowledge of other brands' features. It is definitely more expensive than regular toothbrushes but for me, worth it in what I save at the dentist. Huge improvement in dental health after the switch.

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It generally isn't useful to spend a significant part of your answer on arguing with and/or insulting other contributors; burying your good advice that way can risk your answer getting deleted. We're pretty much all "run-of-the-mill" parents on here; if you feel a specific Answer is overly critical, then comment directly on it. –  Erica Jan 23 at 12:37
Welcome to the site @Tbobay. This is a little different to the normal discussion forums you may find around the place. The goal of this site is to answer the question. Once you get some upvotes you can then comment on other people's answers in the comment boxes. All the best. –  superluminary May 22 at 13:38

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