Reward systems and sticker charts are everywhere, but are they successful longer term or are they a cop out? If you’ve ever asked yourself, “should I use a reward chart?” then these thoughts may help you make up your mind.
My daughter and son are 12 months apart. Irish twins, they’re called.
Early on I decided my 1 year old should go ahead and get potty trained because two in diapers was Just Too Much and I could already tell she’s an overachiever. I decided to potty train her using the sophisticated M&M’s reward system. Basically, pees or poops in the potty are rewarded with a treat.
This worked about 3 times and then… well… she started asking for the M&M’s before she had a victory. She’d squat for a second and stand right back up with her hand out.
So I put up the potty, ate the M&M’s, and decided that for basic behavior and responsibilities I won’t use incentive based reward systems. Unless of course you consider not getting into trouble an incentive. In our home, we expect our kids to do what we ask. If they don’t do what we ask there are consequences. This is both okay and right because:
We are not unreasonable.
We have their best interests at heart.
We don’t have sticker charts or reward systems and we don’t keep track of their behavior across a short, medium or long term. (Except in goal setting which I mention below). We use a good ole fashioned rule of thumb that says: if and when we ask you to do something we expect you to do it. Since the vast majority of the time the kids operate in their own spheres of freedom and independence, this is not unreasonable.
Reward systems are just too close to bribery
We’ve all been there. Our kids are acting nuts and we’re trying to rein them in so we promise something special in exchange for obedience. From time to time this won’t hurt anything, but if the primary way we garner cooperation from our kids is a treat of some kind we are setting them up for a life of disappointment.
Reward systems seem different then bribes because there is a succession of behaviors before a treat, but it’s the same principle. If you obey my instructions 10 times you’ll get a treat. The incentive is a treat. I believe a child should do as their parents direct as a matter of respect. And I’m not talking about dictatorial parenting here either. Here are some requests from today. Requests that I fully expected my kids to obey.
“Don’t rub poop in your eye, please.“
“I know he’s cute, but no you cannot sit on your baby brother.“
“Push in your stool before leaving the counter.”
I’m not a dictator, ladies. These are simple things.
Reward systems are the opposite of the real world
In the real world you aren’t rewarded for doing basic things. You’re punished for failing to do them. When you pay your light bill on time you don’t get a congratulatory message or a hug. But if you don’t pay they’ll shut your lights off. Your boss doesn’t recognize you for arriving to work on time each morning, but he may dismiss you if you’re late too often.
Why? Because society doesn’t reward us for carrying out basic behaviors and complying with culturally agreed upon norms. We are simply “punished” if we don’t.
Some reward systems discourage initiative
If I reward my kids for doing the basic and nearly effortless, what will motivate them to work hard? To put in that extra effort? The truth is, sometimes doing the right things in life gets you nothing. No reward. No recognition. No pat on the back. In fact, doing the right thing can often have unpleasant consequences. This is why our compass should be internal, not external.
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There’s a much easier way
Instead of superficially rewarding our children for obedience, why not just expect it? If our kids don’t do what they should, let them experience a logical or natural consequence. There is still incentive to do right, but not in the form of something special. Plus, you can stop the tracking, the stickers, and the inevitable sibling performance comparison. It may not feel as “positive” but it’s gimmick free. And in the long run it’s much easier.
You can still shower praise on your children for good attitudes, first time obedience, and for being helpful and kind to one another. By praising your children with your words you will attach intrinsic value to certain actions. This builds long term character in ways a sticker chart cannot.
How you can encourage responsibility without “bribing”
One way that you can get your children to participate in household tasks or chores is to encourage Buy In. This means giving them options (within your guidelines of what must be done) and letting them choose. We do this with printable chore cards that cover the gamut of household tasks.
Here are printable chore cards you can use to help children learn to contribute.
Here’s how that works:
- When it’s time for chores, you get out your chore cards (or a list you have).
- You can determine which things must be done in general, and then let your child choose which chores they prefer.
- Teach your child how to perform that tasks and require obedience.
- If they do not carry out the task, use a consequence.
It’s really that simple.
That said… here’s how reward systems can work well
That said, there are times when reward systems can work. I do not believe they’re helpful in the day to day basic behaviors for kids, but they do work in the following ways.
- Goal setting. Rewards are a great way to help motivate your children to learn a new skill or to work hard to earn money for something expensive.
- Classrooms or situations where there are multiple children (not your own) and you need to encourage participation and compliance.
- As a bridge towards a new method of discipline. If your children previously did not comply with your word, using a reward system can help put the family on track until better behaviors are established, then expected.
- Behavioral therapy, particularly for children with special needs.
- For “extra” positive reinforcement. My friend Becky uses a reward system when her kids do something out of the ordinary, nice, or unexpected.
- To correct long-standing undesirable behaviors. My friend Kelly used a sticker chart to help her daughter sleep through the night after years of broken sleep. This is similar to goal setting.
Instead of seeking to reward my kids with trips, treats, or more household clutter, I encourage them the old fashioned way. With specific praise, lots of affection, and plenty of talking about why we do what we do.
It’s not as flashy as a sticker chart. But I’m not a flashy gal.