Our brains are designed to seek pleasure and steer clear of displeasure, so it could be argued that there is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. One thing that gives children great pleasure is getting attention from their parents. That is why our paying attention to children’s good behavior and rewarding it results in more good behavior.

Recognizing your child’s pro-social behaviors with stickers, tokens, or privileges is one way to give your child the attention he or she needs and wants from you. Such tangible rewards have the added benefit of engaging and developing your child’s thinking brain, so he or she can learn to weigh the pros and cons of behaving in certain ways. Without a specific plan to reward behaviors, it can be easy to fall into an unconscious pattern of criticizing more often than praising, and criticizing is a form of giving attention that invites the unwanted behavior. It is much more effective and rewarding to pay attention to the behaviors that you want to see repeated.

The next time your child doesn’t jump up at the suggestion of cleaning her room, remember that may just be a brain-normal reaction because there is no reward. A simple change of emphasis can alter that—and even create a “pro,” as your child weighs in on what he or she will choose to do. Change your threat into a promise. Rather than rant, “If you don’t clean your room right now, there will be no _______ ,” create a possibility instead: “If you get your room cleaned up by noon, you can _______.” Such a simple but important shift will tap into your child’s brain and its desire to find pleasure.