I've got two kids, 8 and 17, and they both struggle to learn from their mistakes, making the same mistakes again and again and again, despite the consequences. For example, they're both huge procrastinators. I'll pick specific goals with them ("Finish your chapter 3 math assignment for Ms. Gretland's class before 10pm tomorrow, if you do, X happens, if you don't, Y happens") with clearly defined targets, rewards, and punishments, and they'll have input on the deadline and definitions we use.

I've tried any number of rewards for finishing their schoolwork before their deadlines, up to and including new phones. They still wait until the last minute to get started. The same goes for punishments, with anything from missing hangouts with their friends to beans-only meals (they hate beans) to months without electronics. They cry and clearly suffer (it breaks my heart) when they start late, miss deadlines, and take their punishments, but then they make the same mistake again. It's like operant conditioning is broken for them.

Discussing this with my wife, it seems I'm also prone to repeating the same mistakes again and again, but it seems I made it through alright. Perhaps it's genetic? I'm really worried that we're causing them undo hardship in trying to teach them things they need to know, but with very clearly defined goals and both very big rewards (iPhone 12 and a one-week trip to Cape Canaveral come to mind, she loves rockets) and very big punishments (2 weeks of beans, 4 weeks without your car, 10 weeks without your phone), it just doesn't stick.

Is there a common problem responsible for this situation, and what is the typical resolution?

  • Are there any learning difficulties in your family? Is the homework neglected only in a specific subject they hate, or all subjects? what about the subjects they like? Have you considered just leaving them (especially the oldest) to do their thing and let them deal with the consequences of not doing their homework or leaving it to the last minute?
    – stan
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 19:20

5 Answers 5


First, those are some really harsh punishments. Punishment rarely works, and now that you've seen for yourself that it doesn't with your kids, please stop.

I don't know if there's a good English term, but you've reached what pedagogues in Sweden call the method ceiling, we're your current methods are no longer working. At this point we usually escalate our methods, like you've now escalated punishments in desperation to rather extreme levels. For those who employ corporal punishment, this is where they feel compelled to escalate the violence because they don't achieve obedience. When you have one tool and it's no longer working, it's easy to default to just applying it with greater force. This is silly. You never want to do more of what's not working. Do less of what isn't working. You need to find yourself a new set of tools.

Second, children don't generally learn from their mistakes. Learning from mistakes is how we fine tune our skills, but children are more often in the process of acquiring skills. We learn from the instances where our expectations are not met; where we are surprised by an outcome. As adults, succeeding is the norm for us in many tasks, so mistakes are notable and informative. We can compare them to what normally works to see what went wrong. To a child, not succeeding is often the norm, and another failure doesn't carry meaning to them. If the infant trying to take their first steps would learn from their mistakes they'd learn that they couldn't walk, and stop trying. But they're in skill acquisition mode. They don't expect to succeed. They keep on practicing. Children learn from their successes. If we want to help them learn, we must first help them succeed.

The switch to when they start learning from their mistakes varies from child to child and from task to task. But learning to plan ahead and avoid distractions and perform unmotivational tasks to a fixed schedule is hard. And the punishments are so harsh they'll overshadow anything they might have learned. If you want them to learn from their mistakes (which, again, they may not be ready to) you want the failure to be the bad outcome. "We procrastinated so now we missed the deadline". I don't think they'll even notice the missed deadline, because they'll only be able to think of the punishment. If anything, they'll learn that they are growing up in an environment where there are draconian punishments associated with failure, which is out of their control, and develop coping strategies for that. I really think you're setting them up for failure.

Third, rewards are something you typically might employ when trying to get over a threshold. Something that, once acquired, the child won't regress on. Exceptional things. If rewards are a part of daily life, it is more like any salaried job. With that comes inevitably that, a) the child will make an economical judgment on whether or not the goal is worth achieving, rather than being motivated to the goal in itself; b) there will be an inflation (just like you might expect an occasional salary increase for continuing to do the same job); and c) that you'll have to keep this up: we often have an idea that once the desired behaviour is reached, we can phase out the reward, but again, imagine if your boss tried that on you.

And for all the effort I could put down arguing, my point is something you've already noticed: your tools aren't working for you. You, the adult, can learn from your mistakes, and stop relying on rewards and punishments if it isn't working.

Instead, you want to foster cooperation. Assume they're doing their best. If they can't focus on a boring task, or abstain from a distraction, then work on helping them, rather than punishing them for their shortcomings.

If they fail, assume you've set the bar too high. Claim ownership of the problem. If you think they are the problem, then you've rendered yourself powerless. You can only hope they'll change. If instead you choose to see that you have a role in setting them up for success, then you can work towards that as much as you want.

  • 3
    This is a great answer. What I'd like to add is a bit of emphasis on a point that's somewhat more between the lines here: Check the goals. If the goal "finish the task at a specific time" provably doesn't work, "start the task at a given time and keep focus" might be a better goal. Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 17:08

You must be tired and frustrated. Using reinforcement method it is so hard, because before a behavior disappears it tends to become more frequent or high in volume. At this stage parents can feel so angry or frustrated. But after you decide to use this method, if you give up when child at the resisting period, the behavior persists. Secondly rather than positive reinforcement or punishment, try to use negative reinforcement, so after they do good, eliminate something they do not like. When it comes to punishment or reward, you need to look at carefully. First, the behavior and the results should be related. For example,"If they do not finish their main food, they cannot eat dessert." Schoolwork and phone are not directly related in your example. Second, The reward or punishment should be important for your kids. Third, especially with the punishment, timing is so important. The punishment should come right after the behavior.

They are the things about reinforcement, but the research shows that reinforcement methods are tend to kill someone's intrinsic motivation. So, they stop wanting to study because it is for approval. I recommend looking at "self determination theory." They look at how intrinsic motivation develops,.


I am a procrastinator, and my kid is too. Couple of approaches that help me

  1. Break it down into smallest chunks of tasks. For the math homework example:

    i. Place the worksheet, scratch paper, pencil, eraser on the table for studying.

    ii. Read the first problem.

    iii. What is it asking for.

    iv. What is the information given.

    v. What is the overall technique to use (addition/ multiplication /etc).

    vi. Write down in numerical form (ex: (6x23) + (7x41))

    vii. Calculate each part.

    viii. Calculate final answer.

    ix. Check if the answer makes sense. (This may be ambiguous, but going over to see that there are no mistakes is a good habit to develop.)

    x. Write down the answer on the worksheet.

Phew! It is tiring to think of so many steps. And then the process has to be repeated on each problem.

  1. Another approach is to work on it for a predetermined time - say 10 mins. Take a break - say 5 mins. Repeat 10 min work - 5 min break again and again.

For my kid who is in the same age range, I break the task down and work with him on it. For example, I am physically with him, making sure that he is working for 10 mins, and starting work again after 5 mins break.

It is exhausting. Especially on work which he does not like doing. We generally watch a movie of his choice at the end of the week if we are caught up on work.

He already sees that these work for him, and asks for me to sit with him while working on some tasks. My hope is that he'll learn to use these techniques by himself as he gets older.


Perhaps your view of punishments has desensitized them to the point of them just accepting their fates. The point of a punishment is to cause inconvenience for an inconvenience they cause to others. It doesn't matter what it is, what matters is how they perceive it in terms of proportionality. That's what you gotta sell them.

When it comes to procrastination, it's like a 3yo hitting his head on the floor for attention. They're only inconveniencing themselves. You shouldn't punish it, in fact, you should ignore it.

What you need to do is teach them not to procrastinate, without letting them notice. Here is what I would do: Try asking them this next time they have work to do: "What would you need to get started on this assignment?" - most likely the answer is "I don't know" (at least, I always get that from my 8yo) or something like that and that's when you have them take out the work and sit with them to help them get started. BTW, that also works with cleaning the room, outdoor tasks and the likes. For cleaning their room, just help them put a few things away so they get started and they will keep it up. Assignments are no different, help them write a few lines or solve a few problems, etc.

Also understand that things like hard work are talents, not skills so you might have to repeat the process over and over and over (essential until your time comes) and also, as you've likely learned by now, kids are not politicians, they can't be bought.

I have 0xp with a 17yo so it might be too late/inapplicable. I was mainly referring to my xp with an 8yo here.


That sounds very frustrating. Using extrinsic rewards can be helpful, but the reward should immediately follow the desired behavior and the best rewards somehow have a connection to the behavior. I am a big proponent of natural consequences for behaviors. When you go outside without your jacket, you are probably going to get cold. That is a natural consequence for choosing not to wear a coat. Natural consequences for not doing school work is a little trickier, but you could talk to your children about the importance of school, learning and the opportunities they might miss if they don't learn the material.

To help your children avoid procrastination, it is going to take a team effort. Create a routine around homework. Pick a specific time where everyone sits down to get their work done. You will need to be involved helping your children make a plan to get their work done - check lists could be very helpful here. Sit down with your children and help them through the process - be a cheerleader and encourage them along the way. Celebrate when they complete their work and ask them how it feels to be finished. This will help develop the intrinsic motivation to start and finish their work on their own.

Instead of offering really big rewards - offer small rewards immediately after the work is complete. Talk to your children about what they would like to earn or do after they finish their work - a special snack/treat, watching a movie, video game time, etc. Perhaps plan for a bigger reward when they have a streak of work completion.

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