My oldest child is almost 8 and my twins are 5. None of them listen to a goddamn thing I say until I swear, yell, threaten or do all three at once. Getting out of the house each morning is typically a nightmare. Getting ready for bed is just as bad. I am doing little more than asking them to brush their teeth and have on seasonally appropriate clothing, yet the struggle is always real.
As I micromanage their every move, I often ask myself how I got to this point. What did I do wrong as a parent? And how can I make this better? I don’t want to be the parent constantly raising their voice and giving ultimatums.
Enter sticker charts.
I don’t believe my kids should be rewarded for doing the right thing and what is expected of them. But I had heard testimonies from parents that chore and sticker charts worked in their house, and I really wanted some relief, so I gave it a try.
Except as it turns out sticker charts don’t work with my kids, which is fine, because they are probably bad for their social skills in the long run.
Before I jumped to a reward system for our morning and nighttime routines, I printed a visual checklist with images of children doing the things they needed to accomplish before school and bed each day. This worked for a few weeks. Instead of nagging and reminding them to do basic, need-to-know life skills like dressing themselves and brushing their teeth, I was able to just point to the chart and my kids would get their acts together. Then the novelty wore off. They didn’t care about checklists and visuals anymore and I was back to nagging and reminding.
Then I thought of those parents who seemed to have it so easy with the fucking stickers and reward systems. Do this, get a sticker. Get enough stickers, get a prize. Despite disagreeing with all of this, I was desperate. I just wanted my kids to do what I asked of them. I wanted the mornings and evenings to be less noisy, less chaotic, and more punctual. And the friends who had kids who did well with sticker charts told me that I could look at it as helping them create healthy habits. Over time the action will just become part of the day and will not necessarily be motivated by stickers, points, or rewards.
Psychologist Erica Reischer says that is exactly what we are doing, though. We are shifting our homes into “reward economies.” This is where children understand that they can trade good or desirable behavior for a prize. Instead of just doing what is right, kids start to do things to get what they want.
“Whatever the system, reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to ‘give it away for free’.”
And I can personally attest to this in my own household. After a few weeks of trying a reward-based sticker program that relied on my children completing tasks either before school or before bed, I saw this happen. If I asked my kids to do anything, they wanted a sticker in return. Or they would offer to help me or one of their siblings if it meant they could earn an extra sticker to get closer to a prize. I said no, so they often refused to help. We weren’t establishing any healthy habits. We were just fueling the desire to purchase more plastic stuff.
They eventually lost motivation to do anything even with a reward dangling in front of them, so the charts went away.
Now in addition to reminding them and nagging them to get their shit together, I am teaching them that they are part of a family that expects and deserves their respect and kindness. That means chipping in when necessary and taking care of themselves so the group doesn’t suffer due to their lack of participation and laziness.
In an Atlantic article, Reischer explains this: “The problematic attitude of children raised in a reward economy—“What’s in it for me?”—is a predictable response to the collision of social norms (the invisible forces that shape how humans act) with market norms (a system of payments, debts, contracts, and customers).”
Instead of raising kids who do things out of goodwill and a moral compass of what is right or wrong, we are instilling in them an idea that if they pay enough or manipulate a system enough they can get what they want, often without thinking of their impact on others.
I don’t want my kids to ever be so focused on their own desires or materialistic rewards that they become desensitized to human decency and connection. Every one of our actions causes another. We can achieve good by doing good. We can create respect by being respectful. Those are the real rewards. And yes, it’s a pain in the ass to get my kids to put their socks and shoes on in the morning, but I will not reward them for it when they do. My time is valuable; so is the time of the people who are waiting on them: teachers, coaches, friends, and some day employers. I want them to think of more than themselves as they navigate their day and not what they will get out of goody box later.
Sticker charts are a slippery slope into looking at relationships simply as business deals. They may be a quick fix to some of the drudgery of parenting, but if there is a chance I am just encouraging my kids to do things with an agenda instead of social awareness and thoughtfulness, then I don’t want to take the risk. I’d like to say I will be better about natural consequences, but while my kids are little, I will probably resort to what works: nagging and empty threats. We can’t be perfect after all.