It was 9:30pm on a very average Tuesday night when I found myself full-on wailing while swinging in our porch hammock. I just stormed out of my 4-year-old son’s bedroom in frustration, told my husband he was on deck for bedtime and that I needed a minute.
Turns out I needed about 30 of them, as I ugly sobbed over how much I was “clearly” failing as a parent. It was the culmination of several long and disastrous days: We had just gotten back from vacation with family a few days prior and we were all trying to adjust to routine again. My son was, without a nicer way of putting it, a total terror from the moment we arrived home. Every morning, meal time and bed time was an ordeal. Constant whining, constant not listening. And by this point after he fought me for over an hour on going to bed, I convinced myself that this was all just an immediate reflection of my poor parenting.
The thing is, my son is really smart. Like, impressive, too smart for your own good smart, so I’m now embarrassed to admit that I thought his behavior was... calculated. I took personal offense to it and thought that the only reason he was being like this was because he was indignant. And his seemingly intentional assholery drove me to screaming. We both were stuck in a toxic cycle and it was something I had no intention of making a habit of. So I opted for a stereotypically millennial move: therapy.
I started talking to her about the situations that lead me there and how desperate I felt to regain some control over my home *without* losing my cool. She suggested a “star chart;” I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.
She explained to me that a “star chart” is just like the reward system that we all had in kindergarten. With our son, we would set positive goals for him and every time he met one, a star went on his chart. All of this would work toward a reward, like a toy or an outing at the end of the week. I admittedly balked at the idea.
“Won’t that teach him to do the right thing for only his own personal gain?” I asked her.
My therapist then reminded me that my son is, in fact, just four years old and has zero internal motivation. His brain isn’t even capable of being calculated; it’s all emotionally driven. So when feelings are big, they are explosive. It’s part of what makes kids so frustrating and so wonderful simultaneously. She further explained that the only way he can start making those patterns, ones where he does the right thing because it’s right, is through extrinsic motivation with a goal of working toward internal motivation (or a moral inner compass). The rewards don’t have to be big, either. They can be simple things like staying up an hour later before bedtime, or perhaps dessert before dinner. Whatever we chose to do, she instructed that it had to be positive, and he had to be excited about it.
I discussed it with my husband and we agreed it was worth a shot. So one day as we were playing with his Avenger’s action figures, I asked what he thought about maybe having a good behavior chart. When I explained our intended system, that stars he earned throughout the week could go toward a big goal, he was emphatically all about it. We went to the craft store and got all the necessary supplies. We made the chart together, decorated it, and set goals together. We tasked him with our biggest pain points: bathroom, bedtime, and getting ready for daycare. He beamed at all the potential stars he could earn. I remember even through all of the laughing and playing we were doing making this chart, there was no way my stubborn, headstrong boy was going to yield to this goofy poster board.
When I tell you that kid went to bed and did it with a smile on his face that night, I was just as stunned as anyone might be. The first week was an utter *dream.* My kid transformed from this raging ball of feelings to settling into a routine. The following week, we added some more “challenges” like rewarding for being polite and for cleaning up toys. The key, my therapist reminded me, is to make sure to keep changing the goals and moving the markers and being really, really enthusiastic about his wins. Let stars be harder to get, goals more longer term, and in doing so it will keep him engaged.
I am super pleased to say the amount of knock-down-drag-out fights were immediately cut in half. And in turn, I’m less of a crying, pushed to the point of a screaming mess. We have a tangible marker of “success” and are in complete control of what that looks like, including our son.
Our star chart isn’t blind spoiling. It’s a recognition that growth and development is freaking hard on everyone. It was a reminder I really needed. There will always be seasons of feast and famine with kids, in that one day they are angels and the next they are terrors. It’s just how it goes. But what I can do about it is lead with empathy, and find a way to work on the problems we face as calmly and kindly as possible.
Our son’s small wins are worth celebrating. I think it reinforces that he is a really vital member of our little family, and that doing our part to work as a team makes for a happier household. At the core of it, that’s all I want. A healthy, happy, loving home that gives space for its inhabitants to fail, try again and know that we are always on the same side.
Lauren Gordon has been an editor and writer for 15 years and a mom for 4. Her passions, besides her family, is an intersection of plants, art, and angsty fantasy YA novels. While her toxic trait is thinking she can DIY anything and crying when she's angry, ultimately she's a fully transparent author who isn't afraid to share the raw, honest truth about motherhood.