For a long, long time I thought we’d never do sticker charts at our house.
Many years ago we had a summer reading club chart. It languished and was neglected, and Bea just really didn’t get the concept. She was too young, and too unfamiliar with the idea of “earning” rewards by doing certain behaviours.
Well, fast forward a few years and reward charts are making their way into my repertoire of parenting tools. I didn’t want to accept it, but there comes a point when you will accept whatever works and isn’t blatantly harmful. And now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I can see how sticker charts work better for some kids and in some situations than for others.
Sticker Charts Motivate Externally-Oriented Kids
This seems kind of like a no-brainer now, but when I realized this it was like the big lightbulb switched on over my head. Different people are motivated by different things. Externally oriented people like external rewards – money, food, or things given to them by someone else. Internally oriented people prefer internal rewards – the pleasure of figuring out a tough problem, doing what you said you were going to do or doing the right thing because you know it’s right. What this means is that a sticker chart may work better for your outgoing, extroverted child than it will for a quiet, introverted one. There are probably other personality traits at play here too. But some people are much more influenced by external rewards than others, and the idea of earning a tangible reward will be far more motivating for them than an internal reward.
Behaviourist Psychology Still Applies (to some extent)
When I was a first year psychology student I dreaded my behaviourist psychology class. It was all rats and pigeons pecking levers and getting food pellets or electric shocks. I knew there was more to psychology than that, and I was right, but that still doesn’t mean that all those behaviourist principles don’t apply anymore. The truth is that the human animal responds strongly to rewards, even though there are many other layers to our psyches. Rewards alone are not enough to mold a person in any way you wish, as Skinner famously claimed, but they do motivate some people in some situations.
A Non-Coercive Reward Chart?
The reward chart in our lives at the moment records the number of times Beatrice brushes her teeth without being asked. When she has brushed her teeth twice a day for 30 days without being nagged then we will go and buy her a toy that she asked for. Is this coercive? We came up with the idea and the terms of the agreement together. She is not being asked to do anything other than what she has always been expected to do. The main difference is that I am not nagging her endlessly to brush her teeth – with this new system she cheerfully goes off to brush her teeth, behaves as if she is in full control, and looks very pleased that I’m not asking her to brush her teeth.
The truth is that some part of me doesn’t really feel completely comfortable with the reward chart, but I can’t argue with the results: 28 days later, toothbrushing is no longer an issue in our house. I still feel strongly that external rewards are dangerous when over-used, as Alfie Kohn writes about so well. I also know for myself that I am very much more motivated by internal rewards than external ones. This makes it possible for me to live the life I do, low on external rewards as it is, but I’m starting to accept that not everyone else is, or should be, like me. What a revelation!
Do you use reward charts at your house? Why or why not?