Getting Kids To Do Things: The Foot In The Door

Helping Kids To Do Things They'd Rather Not

Posted Jan 04, 2015

As I've written previously, my son frequently lives with severe pain.  He has migraines,  One of the many, many things that means for us as a family is that I spend a lot of time trying to get my son to do things he knows he has to do, but doesn't want to or just plain thinks he can't.  These things aren't complicated.  But when I say he doesn't want to, I mean getting him to do them is like getting a mule up a ladder backwards.  The kid invented passive resistance.  And he's a master of the active form.  

The things he doesn't want to do can be mundane things like getting out of bed.  Getting dressed.  Taking a shower.  Going to school.

They can be tedious but necessary things.  Doing homework.  Emptying the dishwasher.  Feeding the chickens.  Bringing in wood.  The kinds of things no kid really wants to do even when they're feeling fine.

They can even be fun things.  Going out for a hot dog.  Walking on the beach.  Watching a movie. 

Nobody likes to fight with their kid, and fighting with a child who has a migraine is not only painful to you both, but counter-productive.  So I've had to find other ways to help him do what he needs to do.  Because part of my job as a parent is helping him get stuff done and continue to live his life.  

A Foot In The Door

One of my most useful parenting tools is one familiar to anyone who has ever taken social psychology: the Foot in the Door technique.

The Foot in the Door technique is named after the sales technique used by door-to-door salesmen.  They'd knock on your door and ask if you were interested in their brushes or vacuum cleaners.  They'd ask a few simple questions.  If they could get their foot in the door, odds were, they could make a sale.

The principle is simple.  Every time someone asks you a question and you say 'yes', it increases the likelihood that you will say yes to the following question.  One person who called me recently to give money to a charity was a master at this.

Is this Nancy Darling?

Yes.

Hi, I'm calling from (well known charity).  We provide services to people who have disabilities. Do you know anyone with a disability?

Yes

You can imagine the rest of this conversation.  They asked me about my acquintainace, asked if they used services, asked if they might be interested in the services provided by the charity . . . Then they asked if I might be willing to email my congressman to support their cause.  Everything they said was designed to get me to answer a simple question - preferably with the answer 'yes'.  And every time I did answer, it made it harder for me to refuse to answer, to say no, or to hang up.  In other words, it increased the odds that when they finally asked me for money, I would say 'yes'.  

In charity work, studies have shown that asking people to first express support (e.g., signing a petition) prior to asking for money markedly increases the likelihood that the person will make a donation (Schwarzwald, Bizman, and Raz, 1983).  Interestingly, this is true even if the request for donation occurs two weeks after the petition was signed.  

Why does this work?  Researchers have argued that the primary reason is that saying 'yes' to the larger requests makes it easier for the person to remain internally consistent in their self-beliefs.  So if I say I believe in a charity's work, it would be internally consistent with that belief to support them financially, and make me feel I was hypocritical if I said I supported them but did not donate money.  In addition, each 'yes' helps to build a social connection between myself and the person making the request, although research suggests that this is less of a motivation than my own desire for internal consistency.

The Foot In The Door and Kids

This technique works for anyone - it is one of the most robust findings in the psychological literature.  It even helps when persuading kids to do things they need to do but would rather not.  

I used it this morning to help my son take a shower when he was in a huge amount of pain.  He had been in bed under the covers, because the light was bothering his eyes and sound was painful.  He wanted a shower, but it was too overwhelming.  So we started small.

Can you just sit up?

Yes (He sat there for a minute.)

Do you think you can stand?

Yes

How about just walking to the bathroom?  (He made it that far.)

I'm going to close the door.  Do you think you can get undressed and take a shower?


Twenty minutes later he was showered.  And feeling a little better.

He could not just get up and take a shower.  But he could take little tiny steps, each of which was manageable.  And even though the steps got bigger and bigger, every small step he had taken made it easier for him to tackle the next one.  In fact, after his shower, he not only got dressed, but did get that hot dog and walk on a cold, wintry beach.  Not bad for a kid who didn't know if he could sit up in bed.

The Door In the Face

What makes this an example of the Foot In The Door technique is that I started with small requests and each subsequent one got a little larger.  

But if we stepped back another minute, this could be an example of another successful technique for gaining cooperation: the Door In The Face technique.

Come have a hot dog with me and we'll go for a walk on the beach.

No, I can't.  

Can you take a shower and get dressed?

The Door In the Face technique is simple.  You ask someone to do something big (going for a hotdog and a walk) that you know they will refuse.  When they say no to that, you make a much smaller request (taking a shower).  Starting with a big request that is refused increases the likelihood that they say yes to the smaller one.  Not as much as if you did the Foot In The Door, but more than just asking for the small request alone.   Some research has found you et 100% compliance with Foot In The Door and around 80% for the smaller request in Door In The Face.  

Increasing Effectiveness

The Foot in the Door works best when there is a little time between the first and second request.  In other words, if I first said, "Can you sit up?"  and then immediately said "Can you stand?"  my second request would likely get a "no".  A little time between requests helps, because it gives them time to think about what they've done and internalize it (I'm sitting up!  I can do it!).  Then when you make the new request, the belief that they can do things is more consistent with saying 'yes I can stand up' than with 'no I can't stand up'.  

It Works For Homework Too

This afternoon - now that we've been out for that hot dog - he'll start his homework the same way.  Starting with asking if he can find his books.  Then finding his assignments.  Then working for 5 minutes.  Then finishing the first page.  At some point I know he'll be lost in what he's doing and won't need all the little prompts. 

But starting with very small commitments is an incredibly useful tool when the big ones just seem too overwhelming.  It's an alternative to both yelling and to ineffective nagging by asking the same question over and over and over.  And it might make both of you a little bit happier.