The most dangerous stickers out there are the ones you see on sticker charts. Yep, you heard that right. Sticker charts can actually do more harm than good. Why you might ask?
Research based on the work of Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck has found that sticker charts, rewards, and bribes actually manipulate kids, create reward/praise junkies, steal a child’s pleasure, decrease motivation or interest and — with respect to academics — reduces achievement. And, stickers are not the only dangerous means of getting children to do what we want. There are marble jars, ribbons, stars, trophies, and sweet treats that are equally at fault.
So why do parents use sticker charts? Quite honestly, those that I see use them have not had the opportunity to try other means of supporting or encouraging their children. Many parents are winging it and rely on the practices of the good ole days when mom or teacher used a sticker chart with them. I too had a sticker chart! My sticker chart was used way back in Mrs. Robb’s 3rd grade class when I won a trip to Chuck E Cheese for filling up my star chart, and it was awesome!
The problem is I cannot remember what I did to earn those stars for some reason. The point I am trying to make is that kids get focused on the prize, and the lesson or skill we want to establish or reinforce is lost. The stars or stickers are just external motivators that get kids to do what we want, but do not help encourage our kids to be the kind of people we want them to be.
I think it comes down to two questions: What are you really trying to teach and what is the message you want to send? Is the lesson “you must have all your toys put away when I say so” or is it “you need to learn to take responsibility for your own belongings”? Based on my experience working with hundreds of families, I would argue that parents really want their kids to learn to be responsible.
Unfortunately, a sticker chart cannot teach that. It is a short-term solution to gain compliance, but not a long-term strategy to instilling the traits, characteristics and qualities that we want to engender in our children. The research has found that kids who are raised on rewards and sticker charts are more self-centered, materialistic and are more easily influenced by peers, money and recognition.
Sticker charts can actually work against you, making them an even more dangerous means of getting kids to comply. Stickers or rewards can backfire and end up draining both your time and energy. One of the messages we are sending when using rewards and stickers is that you get rewarded for doing the things I want you to do. And this creates room for negotiation.
When children become sophisticated enough about your practices, they often will reply to your requests with, “What are you going to give me or do for me if I ….?” or “Why should I?” There is a real “What’s in it for me” attitude that tends to develop. And they also become skilled negotiators because when we use a reward or sticker, there is a negotiation taking place. “If you do what I want or ask you get a sticker!”
One of the most common complaints that I hear from the parents of school-age children is that their kids continue to negotiate and manipulate and it drives them crazy. Well, guess what? These kids were not born with this skill — they learned these skills from the adults in their life.
So if you don’t want your child to negotiate and manipulate you constantly, you need to stop modeling and teaching negotiation and manipulation to your children. When you take a step back and look at the use of sticker charts with a wider lens, it is easy to see how using sticker charts is actually a means of teaching the fine art of negotiation.
Parenting is hard work and requires our constant involvement and attention. Tools like sticker charts, rewards or bribes are shortcuts that can get our kids to do what we want, but they do not get us to the end result we really want. The ideal end result being respectful, thoughtful, responsible and empathetic children. Rewards will produce short term results like clothes being put away or teeth brushed. But even those results can and will quickly disappear once the sticker or praise is removed or is no longer provided.
So, what is a parent supposed to do if sticker charts are not the most effective way to help and teach children? There are lots of ways to help children become respectful, responsible young people. Here are just a few strategies and ideas that you might find helpful:
1) If you are concerned about getting kids to bed and getting them out the door in the morning, using routine or responsibility charts can help kids become responsible for themselves by acting as a tool to keep themselves on track.
2) If you need kids to follow through on a request made, how you ask can make all the difference. Check out ideas for how to encourage follow-through.
3) And if you find it challenging to get your child to be respectful, use their best manners or feel empathy when they have hurt another, you may be using a common ineffective approach. There are a handful of responses that will not only teach children how to handle strong emotions better but will also lead to actual empathy. Here are a few ideas to try out instead of pressing your child to repeat an empty “I’m sorry.”
Ultimately, you want to have a plan in place that reflects your family’s values that includes tools, strategies and responses to anything your child brings you. This plan is most effective when it is well thought out and is delivered by a parent who can be both kind and firm. Staying connected, calm and respectful is the key to any parenting response. We don’t actually have to make kids feel worse in order for them to do better. It is just the opposite: kids do better when they feel better.
In addition, when they feel good from the inside, based on their own moral compass, they can do extraordinary things. Give your kids the opportunity to be successful and they will amaze and delight you!
About the author
Melissa Benaroya LICSW is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She co-founded GROW Parenting to provide parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. GROW Parenting offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out GROW Parenting's blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!