Focus on the Family

Dealing With Lazy Teenagers

How can I motivate my two lazy teenagers? They won't help me around the house, and they consistently wait until the last minute to do their homework. As a single parent, I usually don't have the energy to make them get down to work. Is there a way to break this negative pattern?

You may think this sounds like a simplistic answer, but there’s really no way around it: the best thing you can do for your teens is to establish clear house rules on chores and homework, and then follow through. You’ll need to be consistent and firm, even when you’re tired or frustrated. If you’re not, you’re basically teaching your kids that it’s okay to be selfish and irresponsible.

Unless you make some major changes in your parenting style now, your children are going to have a difficult future ahead of them. In just a few short years they’ll be out of the house and living in the “real world.” If you haven’t taught them personal responsibility and self-discipline, how are they going to succeed in college or hold down a job?

How can you do this? One practical method involves something that psychologists call Premack’s Principle (a principle of operant conditioning originally identified by David Premack in 1965). Premack’s Principle states that preferred behaviors can be used to reinforce unpreferred behaviors. In application, it means that a less desirable activity needs to be completed before a person engages in a more desirable activity – as in “You have to finish your vegetables (unpreferred) before you can eat any ice cream (preferred).”

Here’s how you might apply this principle with your teens. As their mom, you probably know what their favorite activities are. Hold a family meeting with them, perhaps after dinner when everyone is in a good mood. Tell them how much you love them. Then explain that, as their mother, you are responsible to prepare them to be successful in life. Admit that you haven’t been doing a very good job of that lately and make it clear that you’re going to try to rectify that by establishing some new household rules. One of those rules will be that all homework and chores must be done immediately after school, before your kids are allowed to engage in “fun” activities, such as talking on the phone, chatting online, watching TV, listening to music, or going out with friends.

You can also build in some extra incentives using a point system. Each time your teens complete a chore to your satisfaction or receive a good mark on their homework, they earn points. These points can be cashed in for privileges or enjoyable activities like going to a family-friendly movie on the weekend or a trip to the mall.

Remember that it’s not enough to set up these rules and establish this point system. Everything depends on your willingness to follow through. Stick with it even when you don’t feel like being tough. And don’t allow yourself to get sucked into arguments about the finer points of the new standards. To avoid this, we’d suggest that you put everything in writing. Draw up a contract that clearly spells out both the rules and the rewards. Each of you should sign your names to the contract and post it on the refrigerator. If you stick to the plan faithfully for a few weeks, you should start to see some positive changes in your teenagers’ behavior.

For practical tips on how to set up a workable system of rewards and consequences we recommend that you consult Dr. James Dobson’s book The New Dare to Discipline, which can be ordered via our Web site Resource Center. If you’d like to discuss this subject at greater length, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.



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