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Motivation and Sticker Charts (part 2)

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.

playing with bubbles

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?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Erin October 2, 2013, 1:20 pm

    We use a star chart on a blackboard for my son staying in his bed until his clock turns green (wake up clock that we set for a certain time). It’s in intermittent use right now, but when we were sorting out his sleeping, it was a big deal. It worked really well for that, and for the most part it’s not really an issue. We talked a lot about the process before it started. We don’t use charts for anything else, though he has a home reading book from his montessori preschool which we write the name of the book in it they send home with him. They make a big deal of it when he gets to 100 books, which is near the end of the school year, but he doesn’t really ever look at it other than that. I don’t mind using a star chart for a limited time to get a particular habit to stick, like brushing teeth – I’ve used the technique on myself for exercising or healthy eating!

    • michelle October 3, 2013, 10:09 pm

      Yes, I think that it’s useful as a way of keeping track of how often you’re doing something over a limited time. I know when the dentist asks me how often I floss I think I’m flossing way more often than I actually am. Maybe I need a sticker chart! Then I wouldn’t have the advantage/disadvantage of a rosy memory… ;)

  • Stephanie October 2, 2013, 7:34 pm

    Wow! When I logged on to your blog today, your title set me back a bit. As a current SAHM and previously an elementary school teacher, I am familiar with Pavlov and subsequently behavior modification philosophies. I have very strong opinions about it all, much of which I won’t get into now. What I really want to tell you is that your entry… the perspective you offered (describing the introvert vs the extrovert) is incredibly stimulating! You have left me asking myself new questions. Thank you!
    I am a new reader and I love your writing style as much as I love the content!

    • michelle October 3, 2013, 9:56 pm

      Thanks! It’s so exciting to think about things we know well in a totally different way. :)

  • Maura October 7, 2013, 2:24 am

    Hi Michelle, great post. We have used stickers – infrequently – to reinforce positive behavior and they work a treat! Its ye olde carrot and stick story. Personally I find it better to reinforce the positive than break out the stick. I don’t think it coercive to do that – the nagging (hands up, guilty) is far more coercive in my view. As a parent i think part of my role is to encourage and praise the behaviors which will help the girls function well (physically, emotionally, socially etc) and if they need little rewards to embed positive behaviors then so be it. Usually it’s only a short term thing and we fade it out as the behaviour becomes embedded.