Your kid doesn’t want to do it. Clean his room. Finish her book report. Practice violin. Whatever the impossibly hard thing of the moment may be.
As a parent, you might be tempted to resort to nagging, but that will just make everyone more frustrated. A better way to motivate kids, according to research from the University of Queensland, is to have them imagine how their future selves will feel.
The hardest parenting lesson I had to learn was to stop telling my kids what to do. It was much easier for me to bark out orders than to let them figure things out on their own. Doing so took time and patience, neither of which I had in abundant supply when my daughter and son were younger.
As an adult, you probably do this naturally. “It will feel so good once I cross the finish line at the 10K this weekend/give my presentation without using any notes/open my doors to guests and they see a floor that isn’t littered in crumpled socks.” Episodic foresight, which refers to the capacity to envision the future, is a skill we all can work on.
(Designer Debbie Millman assigns her university students a fantastic exercise in which they write out, in extreme detail, what their lives will look like in 10 years. And then they must read it every year and see what happens. “It’s magic,” she says.)
It turns out that kids can develop episodic foresight at an early age. Greater Good Magazine pointed to the study by the Australian psychologists, which examined whether the anticipation of “future feelings” could motivate young children to practise longer for an upcoming event.
Researchers presented 150 children, ages six to nine, with three skill-based games and told them they would be tested on one of them. Half were asked to imagine how they would feel if they were successful on the future test, while the other half were simply asked to imagine being successful without any mention of emotions.
The results: The kids who thought about how they would feel in the future practised 60 per cent longer than those who didn’t. Eight- and nine-year-olds were the most motivated by the extra prompting from the researchers.
How do you help your kids imagine how their future selves will feel? Talk to them about how they felt in the past when they were successful at something. To encourage her kid to practise his instrument, Lifehacker health editor Beth Skwarecki is planning to show him some before-and-after videos of how he’s progressed over the past year and emphasise how good it feels to see improvement.
You might create a vision board with your kid and discuss how the people in the images feel as they’re scoring the winning goal or singing on stage, and then have them imagine themselves in their shoes.
You can adjust your language with day-to-day activities, too: For instance, in motivating your kid to pick up their toys, you might say, “Let’s think about how it will feel to have a clean room that your friends can play in.”
Later, when they finally do the hard thing, make sure to have them pause and revel in the moment. “You did it,” you can tell them. “See how good it feels?”