True Self-Motivation

True Self-Motivation

When you hit the wall trying to get your child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do, check your strategy. Are you trying to change what your child wants?

“Of course you want to brush your teeth. You don’t want them to fall out, do you?”

To your credit, this strategy shows an awareness of what motivates people — wanting. Every parent knows that if only their children wanted to brush their teeth, the kids would be at it in seconds!

Wanting is our natural motivation.

That’s one of the reasons we want to validate what our children want, not confuse them by telling them they want things they don’t and vice-versa.

As parents, our job is not to change what children want; it’s to help them harness their existing wants as an internal source of motivation. CAN DOs do just that.

For teeth-brushing at night with young children:

SWYS: “You want to read three books…”


Boundary: “…and you need to brush your teeth.”


CAN DO: “Must be some way to do both! I bet you can find a way to brush each and every tooth and get to the bedroom in four minutes, so we have plenty of time to read! Here’s your teeth-brushing timer! I’ll watch.”


SWYS: “Look at you squeezing the tooth paste onto your brush. Now brushing both front teeth. You even got that one in the back! No teeth can hide from your brush…!”


STRENGTH: “You did it! Three minutes on the teeth, and now you’re in bed and ready to read; all in four minutes! You know how to get things done!”

Staying with young children and giving a play-by-play of their progress as they brush their teeth or do other routine acts of self-care adds the warm fuzzy feeling of connection and makes it a pride-building experience for children. Not only do these activities help children meet their need for connection and power (often highest at night), but they also create positive mental and emotional associations that last for life.

What if your child wasn’t raised that way? What do you do if he’s 12 and won’t brush his teeth without coercion?

With older children, you need to find the STRENGTH in their resistance and acknowledge that first. A “real” conversation might sound like this:

SWYS: “For years I’ve been bugging you about your teeth, telling you they would fall out and other things to get you to brush them. I’ve been treating you like you are still five and don’t know how to take care of yourself. You’ve even said that, and I couldn’t hear it. So instead you’ve had to show me by standing up to me and not doing what I say.”


STRENGTH: “Well, I finally get it. Those are your teeth, and you are in charge of them. You know where the toothpaste is, and, the same way that you eat when you are hungry or cover yourself with a blanket when you are cold, you will brush them when you need to. You’ve never wanted them to fall out! You like having a nice smile. I just need to get out of your way, so you can!”


CAN DO: “Let me know if you want any reminders. I’m well-trained in that; in fact, if my old ways kick back in, you can remind me to let you take charge.”

To gain the confidence to really let go, it might help you to make a mental list of all the little ways your children take care of themselves, despite the narrow range of choices left after proving you wrong. Once you see your children want the right things for themselves, it’s easier to support their efforts. Point these out as STRENGTHs, and your children will take them on even faster.

Step out of the trap of force and into the ease of coaching by starting with what your children want. Don’t forget to apply it to yourself, too. Wanting is the true source of all motivation.


  1. Thank you Sandy for some older kid strategies, I like how you can empower them to take charge and step up.

  2. PS I LOVE being Right!

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