Home > John's Blogs, Parenting > Encouraging Children with Small Steps

Encouraging Children with Small Steps

I’ve been reading Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.  One of their suggestions is that encouraging people with small steps can be helpful in influencing them to take bigger steps (and they cite a study to support that claim).  The idea is to make a small request first, and a larger request later.  The smaller request prepares people for the larger one and increases the positive response rate for the larger request.

Then they apply that principle to children.  Read what they say, see my experience with it, and see what you think:

Such an approach can also be applied to two of the most resistant influence targets that you’re ever likely to come across – your children and yourself.  Resistant children who easily find excuses not to do their homework or tidy their room are more likely to be persuaded if they’re first asked to take a small step in that direction.  This could take the form of asking them to spend a short period of time with you working on their homework or requesting that they put a cherished toy back in its box when they’ve finished playing with it.  As long as they feel they’ve said yes to the first small request voluntarily – rather than through coercion – the psychological momentum should propel them toward scholastic awards and cleaner living quarters in which to place those awards.

Umm…  Didn’t work for me.  I have a large apple tree in my back yard.  It sounds great – but only if you don’t own a large apple tree in YOUR back yard.  I estimated one year that I have to clean up a few thousand little apples every year.

So, what’s a good homeowner to do?  Bribe his child, of course.  So I offered my son 50 cents to sweep them off the deck.  (We’re also starting to teach him the value of work and money, so this is about more than just my laziness.  But it’s a little bit about my laziness.)  It’s an easy job, and he’s done it when asked.

Then I asked him, for 2 dollars, to pick them up off the lawn.  It’s a much harder job.  He got it half-done just once, and has declined ever since.  He’s not declining because of the money because he has very little idea of the difference between 50 cents and 2 dollars.  The fact is, the job is just more than he wants to do.

Is he on to me?  Or does this technique not work on kids?  Have you ever tried it?  Did your parents try it on you?  Do you think it should work, or not?  Is it just wishful thinking on my part?

Categories: John's Blogs, Parenting
  1. Amy O'Keefe
    September 17, 2009 at 10:43 am

    hmm…..I’ll be trying it today! I’ll let you know how it goes. As for the apple tree? This is our first glorious season with our THREE apple trees cut down – makes for a much cleaner deck!

  2. John Lemke
    September 17, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I’d cut the tree down, but it blocks our backyard neighbors and we’re very private. So I’m quite torn!

    On the other hand, quite seriously, it has been a good way to start training on the value of work and money. He has other jobs, but this is the first time he’s been paid. It’s been interesting to watch! And the job is hard without being difficult – for a six year old, I wanted to find the right mix.

  3. September 17, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Your approach is better (for a kid’s POV at least) than my dad’s was when I was a kid. We had a large apple tree in our yard too and it was the job of my siblings and I to pick up all the apples and dump them in the field behind our house. We didn’t get paid one cent, but it was worth it to not incur the wrath of our father. Apparently fear trumps scientific persuasion.

  4. Kathy Smith
    September 17, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I would give him just a section of the lawn to start with. Say, “If you clean up just this area, then you will get $1.” Once he does it, pay him the dollar and take him to the dollar store to spend it for an immediate reward. Then see if at that point he’s willing to work more for more money. Looking at the entire area is just too overwhelming and he won’t know where to start. I do the same thing with my kids for their bedrooms when they get out of control, for example, I have them just pick up one type of item (Legos, dinosaurs, cars, whatever) at a time. Then I have them do it again with the next item. So yeah I agree with the article that breaking it up into smaller bites leads to accomplishing a larger goal, at least with kids!

  5. John Lemke
    September 17, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Steve, I think I have a few memories of taking out the garbage for that very same reason!

    Kathy – the whole point of sweeping the deck free of apples was to introduce him to a manageable task. Perhaps you’re right – I might have started him on the wrong thing. BTW, I taught him to ride a bike by breaking it up into manageable daily tasks, and we were able to do it without frustration or falling. So I guess I won’t say it never works!

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