How to Get Your Kids to Do Exactly What You Want

April 5, 2013

Voodoo DollTired of nagging your children to do the things you want them to do? Like doing their homework and reading more, or cleaning up their stuff and completing other chores?

And even when you nag, it still doesn’t get done, or isn’t done well?

This is a common problem for parents, and in our house it was a particular challenge on weekends and holidays. Compared to school days, which have a built-in structure and rhythm, I struggled to find a good way to get my kids to do their tasks on days which lacked that structure, that rhythm. When the whole day was free, and things could easily be put off until later, how could I motivate them without becoming an ogre?

For a while now I’ve been making use of a simple strategy that has largely solved the problem—well, at least until my kids are older and stop listening to me entirely. :mrgreen: Of course, I can’t guarantee that this method will work for every family. Like much of parenting, a lot depends on the particular children. But I can tell you that, on weekends and holidays, Lulu and Roy now do everything we ask them to do, right after breakfast, and we rarely have to nag them at all.

No, this doesn’t involve voodoo, really. (The little voodoo dolls I made weren’t nearly as effective.) It’s simply a matter of creating that necessary structure and rhythm…

A “to-do list”?

Like many adults, I scribble a “to-do list” each morning. Even when I barely make a dent in it—sometimes writing a new to-do list basically amounts to copying over my old to-do list from the day before—I’ve long found that such a list provides structure and rhythm to my day, and helps fuel my motivation to complete these tasks. (It’s silly, I know, but I get a real sense of satisfaction from crossing a task off my list!)

So I wondered: What if I started making individual to-do lists for the kids on weekends and holidays? Would that help provide the kind of structure and rhythm that seems to be lacking on these days? Would that motivate them more than our nagging?

And that’s what I did, and have done ever since. Let me explain in more detail…

Tasks for the day

Right now, it’s still spring vacation in Japan—this is the break between the end of the old school year, in March, and the start of the new school year, in April. (The kids will be back in school on Monday, with Roy entering first grade, and Lulu entering third, at our local elementary school.)

So every morning, at breakfast, I cut a sheet of paper in half, grab some markers, and make each of them a colorful to-do list for that day. For us, a typical list consists of about six items and includes these kinds of tasks…

  • Do English homework. (See Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine.)
  • Read a book in English. (Or part of a book, depending on its length.)
  • Do Japanese homework.
  • Read a book in Japanese. (Or part of a book, depending on its length.)
  • Write a letter to (a certain pen-pal).
  • Write a story or make a comic.
  • Clean up your things.
  • Practice jumping rope.
  • Etc.

And next to each of these items on the list—this is very important—I put an empty “check box.” Just as I feel a motivating sense of accomplishment when I can cross something off my own to-do list, I’ve found that my kids enjoy a similar feeling when they complete a task and check that little box.

Then I post their lists on the wall, set out all the materials they’ll need for reading or writing work (at least the things they can do on their own), and remind them that they can’t pursue the other activities they might want to do that day—such as playing in the park or watching TV—until they complete everything on their list to our satisfaction. (Or unless I give them permission to finish something later.)

After breakfast, they change into their clothes and brush their teeth, then they get right to addressing the tasks on their list. Some days, of course, we may have plans in the morning—yesterday, for example, we went shopping—but then the unfinished list awaits them after lunch or whenever we return home.

Largely self-motivated

This might make me sound like a “taskmaster” but that really isn’t the case. In fact, I had to be far more of a taskmaster before I made these to-do lists, as I was continually pressing them throughout the day to tackle one task after another. (It was tiresome for my wife, too.) Today, however, because they’ve absorbed the structure and rhythm of this method, their behavior has become largely self-motivated once the tasks are set. As a result of this shift to a more internal form of motivation, not only are they more focused, and more productive, I think the whole family is happier.

At some point, I’ll probably try having them make their own to-do lists for the day, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. (The “tasks” they would set for themselves now would probably consist of things like “eat candy” and “make Daddy buy us stuff at the store.”) This idea might be worth attempting with older children and teens, though.

So if you’re having difficulty motivating your kids to do what you’d like, why not give to-do lists a try?

If this doesn’t work, well, there’s always voodoo.

How about you? What do you do to motivate your children to carry out their expected tasks?

1 Susan Y April 6, 2013 at 9:53 pm

We actually did a to-do list today as well–DS (age 8) needed some extra motivation to get some requirements done for cub scouts. Unfortunately, he put down “go to judo practice” as one of his things to do, then judo was cancelled due to bad weather! Anyway, it seemed to work at first….I make chore lists for my kids on weekends or during school breaks. It certainly beats me having to remind them several times what chores they are responsible for!


2 Adam April 6, 2013 at 11:04 pm

And by creating that list of tasks, we’re also supplying our kids with another opportunity to practice reading. As I compose their lists, I’ll even try to include words that might stretch their reading ability. Thanks for your comment, Susan!


3 Tatyana April 7, 2013 at 11:19 am

Adam, it sounds like you are implementing the beginnings of agile parenting. Check this talk out It pretty much deals with the same topic and has suggestions on how to implement child input as well. Personally I can’t wait to try it with my family, especially bilingual goals, but the kids are too small yet.


4 Adam April 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Tatyana, I really enjoyed this video—thanks so much for suggesting it. It’s thought-provoking stuff and I was struck by how the speaker (and the family he mentions in his talk) have had similar success with creating to-do lists. The rest of his ideas, too, are well worth exploring in any family, I think, and I plan to pursue some of them with my own. Thanks again for the link!


5 Read Aloud Dad April 7, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Hi Adam,

This is great stuff. Great advice, fantastic post.

I will try some of it out – and I loved the TED talk that Tatyana mentioned in the comments. Thanks for sharing your fabulous family tips on your great blog.

Love it!

Read Aloud Dad


6 Read Aloud Dad April 7, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Oh, yes I forgot to mention that I have bilingual twins (5.5 years old). :-)

So I am enjoying your site tremendously.

Read Aloud Dad


7 Adam April 8, 2013 at 6:24 am

Read Aloud Dad, thank you for the kind words. And thanks, too, for all your efforts to share the importance and joy of reading aloud at your terrific blog Best of luck with your twins! I bet they’re a fun handful!


8 Josh April 7, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Hey Adam,
I don’t actually have kids but your website is great and your posts make me look forward to becoming a dad one day. Thanks!


9 Adam April 8, 2013 at 6:39 am

Josh, my friend, I’m happy to hear my site has offered some inspiration for fatherhood. I have no doubt you’d be a wonderful father. Just keep these wise words (from Reed Markham) in mind: “Being a great father is like shaving. No matter how good you shaved today, you have to do it again tomorrow.”


10 Anila Liaquat July 23, 2014 at 12:53 am

Hi Adam,
Your suggestions are always helpful indeed. I will try this out to make my kids work. I want to see them focused on their tasks. Can you guide me how to make kids writing a story with interest using attractive vocabulary.
Thanking you.


11 Adam July 23, 2014 at 5:19 pm

Anila, I hope this approach is helpful for your efforts at home!

As for writing in the minority language, please see the posts within the Writing category for a variety of ideas.

In addition, this thread on writing at the Bilingual Zoo is worth a good look, too.


12 Alana - eSpectacularKids October 14, 2014 at 8:36 pm

I think this is a great idea…well, says me who is a big fan of lists. I think lists are a good way to make your tasks more visual, and being able to tick them off can give kids a sense of achievement. Many may also appreciate showing their parents (or teachers) the list. And occasionally, maybe they can turn in their ‘completed list’ for a fun activity :) but I’ll keep voodoo as a plan b.


13 Adam October 15, 2014 at 5:29 am

Alana, I agree with these points, and second the idea of having kids turn in their “completed list” as a sort of ticket for a small prize or privilege. In our case, it’s a stick of gum. (For my kids, gum has the magical power to motivate them.)

But when gum is no longer so effective, I’ll improve my voodoo. :mrgreen:


14 Laura March 6, 2015 at 7:21 am

Very helpful, as are all of your posts! Just a question about implementing this: what are the consequences for not doing the items on the list, or not doing them right away?


15 Adam March 7, 2015 at 8:37 am

Laura, at this point, my monkeys are basically “trained” to work on their list before they do other things, so this tends to head off any difficulties or consequences before they even arise. However, I do regularly give them reminders that they can’t watch TV, or engage in some other activity that they want to do, until their list of tasks is complete.


16 Eugene July 21, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Nice tip!

I’ll definitely give this one a try. How old do you think that the kids need to be to start using this system?


17 Adam July 22, 2015 at 6:54 am

Eugene, I started doing this with my kids from around the time they entered elementary school. It could be instituted with younger children, too, I suppose, making the number of tasks more limited and maybe offering an appealing incentive for completing the list.


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