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I Use TV To Motivate My Kid, But Not In The Way That You Think

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Teaching a child something new is a delight. Seeing your kid master a new skill and watching them take pride in what they can do is one of the best experience a parent can have.

Until it’s not. It’s an amazing feeling when your child reads their first word, but you start pushing them to keep learning and put their nose to the grindstone, it turns into a fight. Kids love learning, but they hate it when their parents make them focus and try to make it part of their routine.

For our son, it’s piano. He started lessons with a love for the instrument, but as reading music and playing with 2 hands got harder, lessons became battles. Most ended with him slamming his face into the piano, unwilling to go on.

At first, we only saw 2 choices. We could take the loving parent method and let him move freely on to his next interest, or we could be Tiger Moms and yell at him until he did it. Parents, we believed, had to choose between hard work and happiness. Children couldn’t have both.

There is a better method, though, that I learned when I started listening to something that has more parenting experience than I’ll ever have: television.

Dora the Explorer Is The World’s Greatest Teacher

Every kids show is the same these days. Your kid might watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Little Einsteins, Super Why or something else – every one is just Dora the Explorer repackaged with a different character.

Every show follows the same format:

  • The hero has a problem
  • They ask the kids for help
  • They solve 3 challenges
  • The kids are thanked for their help
  • The heroes celebrate


Dora’s format caught on because it works. Preschoolers can sit down and watch the same Dora episode 100 times in a row and they still won’t get bored. Even when Little Einsteins goes on about the subtle differences between “adagio” and “andante,” kids are still completely entranced by the lesson.

What parents don’t realize is that we could be using this formula, too. When you need your kids to sit down and put their nose to grindstone on some math problem or sight words, it can be every bit as fun as Dora the Explorer.

Kids Will Do Anything For Their Favorite Cartoon Character

Our son is obsessed with Jake And The Neverland Pirates. He would do anything to be a part of Jake’s crew. When I tell him it’s time for a piano lesson, he acts like he’s been sent to prison – but if I tell him Jake needs his help, he’s all ears.

I started a lesson with a story as an experiment. Captain Hook, I told him, had stolen Jake’s skateboard – and he needed to get it back! The Neverland Pirates started their role call. Jake had his sword, Cubby has his map, Izzy had her pixie dust – and when I prodded my son on, I got him to say, “I’ve got my magic piano!”

We drew up a treasure map and raced after Captain Hook – but he was too fast. The only way to give our pirate ship the boost it needed was to play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with 2 hands – and he had to play it 3 times before he caught up to that sneaky crook Captain Hook.

“Oh no!” I told my son. “Captain Hook locked the door to his secret lair. The only way in is to read the secret code – and it’s written in music notes!” Jake and The Neverland Pirates were doomed. Jake didn’t know how to read sheet music – so who could help them now?

My son got a serious, stoic look on his face. He stood up tall, his fists held at his hips like Superman. “Me,” he said with the grave weight of a man taking on a great responsibility. “I can do it.”

It was an incredible success. He took pride in his accomplishments in a way I’d never seen. When I told him that Tick-Tock Croc chased Captain Hook away, he was so wrapped up in the story that he actually cheered. And when it was done, the only bribe I had to give him was to tell him that he added 9 golden doubloons to his team treasure chest. His reward was imaginary – but he’d earned it, and he was as happy to get it as any piece of candy.

It Actually Works

I’ve used this trick every day since I came up with it. Whether I want my son to study phonics, math or piano, I can get him to do it eagerly if I give him a story. He’ll work for hours at a time and he’ll keep trying when his work gets challenging as long as he knows a cartoon character’s life is on the line.

Adding a story takes a bit of time and energy – but a lot less than yelling at your child does. And it gets much better results than just letting your kid do whatever they want. My son’s learning grit and he’s feeding his imagination at the same time.

Like all gimmicks, it’s bound to stop working eventually. So far, though, it’s worked a lot longer than any other gimmick I’ve tried. Kids have seen these cartoons before, and they respond to seeing their parents try the same tricks.

For the first time, lessons end with my son saying, “Can we do another one?”

Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher and father whose been featured on Yahoo,, and The Onion.