I knew I was in trouble at my very first kindergarten class playdate. A fellow mom casually invited me to a lecture on “parenting without coercion and bribery."
“No thanks,” I replied, “buzz words like coercion and bribery are really just code for attacking my professional field, and if I went, my head would probably explode.“
Two things happened that day:
1. I ruined any chance of making friends with said mom and
2. I learned it is not hip to admit to using — let alone advocating — sticker charts.
Luckily, I don’t care about being hip. I am here to tell you that sticker charts can make a huge difference. In grad school, I used them to encourage children with autism to speak for the very first time and I have seen them fix problem areas in our household in less than 24 hours. They are not just a way of "bribing and manipulating" your kid and they certainly are not dangerous.
There are decades of research on this. See the work of Alan Kazdin, for example, or every third article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (I exaggerate, but only slightly).
Now, I know what you may be thinking. Perhaps in your family you don’t resort to sticker charts and your kids are well-behaved and self-motivated. To that I say, great! Keep doing what you are doing. Most kids do well with whatever parenting style is comfortable to their parents. I even agree the ideal is for kids to do something because of the naturally occurring reinforcement rather than the external reward of a sticker chart. (Heck, we all want our kids to do homework because they love learning!) However, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the intrinsic motivation isn’t enough.
In that case, I would argue that that it’s better to provide kids with a framework to build the desired behavior rather than leaving them to flounder. Think of sticker charts as training wheels. Nobody counts using training wheels as actually riding a bike, but sometimes is a very helpful step along the way.
A common criticism of sticker charts is that they are just a short-term solution, that the child will revert right back to his original behavior once you take away the reward. If the chart is used correctly, this is not the case. How many children do you know who want their training wheels back after mastering riding a two wheel? The point of a sticker chart is to temporarily provide extra motivation for a behavior that the child is not currently doing.
For example, it is very typical to use sticker charts during potty training. Stickers are novel and exciting and encourage your child to try this new, somewhat scary skill but eventually the natural rewards of being diaper-free take over and your child no longer cares about the sticker. This should be the case with all behavior support charts. The goal is to provide enough incentive so that your child actually does the behavior and then contacts the natural reward. Once the child experiences the inherent benefits, you can fade the stickers.
A good sticker chart is not just throwing bribes at your child. It is a careful plan to encourage and support an area of struggle or growth. Just like training wheels, once your child seems to be getting it, you give her a chance to try the new skill without the extra support.
Are sticker charts always the right solution? Of course not. Different situations need different approaches. But please feel safe keeping them as a tool in your parenting toolkit. Sometimes they absolutely are the best choice for a child or family’s unique situation.
At the end of the day, we are all just parents trying our best to do what is right for our children. And most of the time, what is right for our children is to utilize parenting methods that make sense to us and feel comfortable to us. But sometimes, our children need extra support and that is when it is nice to have a wide variety of tools at our disposal.
Tips to help ensure that your sticker chart is a short term support that leads to long term growth and change:
- Reward small steps. Often parents make the reward so far away that the child gives up before she even begins. If you are trying to help your child stay dry at night, let them put a sticker on every morning and when they get two stickers in a row, have a bubble blowing party. If you are trying to encourage your child to read at night, start with 5 minutes and then the next night, see if she can do 6. Don’t start with the whole 20 minutes. Keep in mind, your child will be more motivated if she is successful.
• Make your rewards small, yet motivating. A giant reward can be counter-productive. Remember, in the end you want your child to be motivated by the naturally occurring incentives. So if your child’s teacher does not give them a new toy every time they share, I wouldn’t do it either. For my kids, often just putting a sticker on is motivation enough. We’ve also earned one extra story at bedtime or staying up 5 minutes later. It is amazing what tiny things will motivate your child.
• Make sure to plan on the sticker chart slowly fading into the background. Pay attention to your child. Usually when you start a chart, the child is really interested and reminds you when she earns a sticker. Eventually as she gets more practice at the new skill, she might forget to ask for a sticker. This is a great sign! It means the inherent reward is taking over and the fading is occurring naturally. If this doesn’t happen, you may need to take a more formal approach to phasing out the sticker chart. Tell your child how proud you are of her for working so hard and now she only needs a sticker every other time she does X. If you phrase it right, she will be excited at her accomplishment and ready for the new challenge.