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My daughter is motivated to paint. I, on the other hand, am not. What I mean is, I don’t want her to paint.

From the time I had my first little artist, I’ve been a nervous wreck whenever the paints were the educational tool of the day. My desire to have all the beautiful paint colors unsullied together with my insistence that non-paper surfaces remain dry and paint-free have turned me into a terrible art teacher.

Out of guilt, this year I had a “real” art teacher do a painting class for my daughter’s sixth birthday party. I shared with the teacher my angst about the messiness of paint, sure that she would commiserate with me. Instead, she smiled and looked closely at my face as if trying to determine what was wrong with me. She said the mess didn’t bother her a bit. That might be because she doesn’t have children paint in her house! But I digress.

In the course of avoiding art lessons as often as possible, I have unwittingly used a motivational truth to my disadvantage. It is this: limiting a child’s time on a pleasant activity will increase motivation for that activity.

We all know this intuitively, but do not use it to our advantage as often as we might. By avoiding art (and specifically painting), I had my daughter constantly begging me for it. Why does limiting something positive create an even bigger appetite for that something? When we put up the candy, unplug the video games, or turn off the reading light, why do our children cry for more?

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that one reason is that we perceive anything that is restricted as more valuable. My daughter may surmise that painting must really be fun if Mom doesn’t want her to do it very often. Painting has become a “limited edition” activity for her.

A second reason kids want more of what we say ‘no’ to is our innate rebelliousness. If God hadn’t forbidden the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, it would have taken Eve a lot longer to be interested in eating it.

I’ve learned how limiting pleasant activities can be used to make life miserable for me, but how can we use this strategy to motivate our kids?

  • End an activity that you want to encourage BEFORE your child tires of it. If you’re trying out a new math curriculum and junior actually seems interested, insist on quitting while he is still excited. Yep, it’s hard for us homeschoolers to do this, but we’ll be glad we did.
  • In the same vein, set TIME LIMITS on the activities you want to encourage. Your son may look at you funny when you say to please spend no more than ten minutes doing something that is clearly educational, but do it anyway. If he asks why, say something like, “We can’t spend all our time doing the fun stuff.” Try to do it without laughing.
  • Limit the activity you want to encourage to JUST ONE CHILD at first. I admit this is sneaky, but here’s how it would work. Show your child who is already enthusiastic about a certain subject the new book, game, or website you have. Make sure your reluctant child is within hearing, so he can benefit from the appreciative comments of his sibling. When he comes over and asks what you’re doing, say something like, “I wanted to show your sister a neat thing she can do for reading/math/science.” Let him ask if he can join in the fun and when he does, be a little reluctant. “I didn’t think you’d be interested in this” or “I got this for your sister, but maybe I could do it with you if you really want to.” If you’re homeschooling an only child, this works beautifully when you have a friend’s child over to play. When I paint with my daughter, all the kids want to paint. I’m going to start hiding.
  • Use language that clearly indicates the VALUE of the activity you want to encourage. Rather than saying, “It’s time to get to work,” try saying, “Let’s take a break for something new/interesting/fun.” My daughter would never consider painting school “work” even though that’s exactly how I see it!

In another post, I’ll share how we can discourage activities we’d like our children to do less of– like painting. Just kidding.

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