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Not All Kids Love Sticker Charts

It’s become one of the ubiquitous symbols of modern childhood: the sticker chart.

Girl Using Sticker Reward Chart

Kids have reward charts at home, at school, at daycare and preschool and, as we discovered last week, at the public library.  When we staggered up to the checkout desk with our books, the librarian suggested that Beatrice sign up for the summer reading program.  So we did.  But when we got home, we discovered she has almost zero interest in colouring in the symbols that represent each 15 minutes of reading time.  In fact, I can barely convince her to do it.  I haven’t tried that hard, but still.  This reward chart isn’t doing anything to motivate my child to read.

So why do so many people in charge of caring for and motivating children continue to use reward charts?  It could be that my child is unusual in the way she doesn’t care whether or not she gets a sticker for reading.  But other parents I have talked to say that reward charts did nothing to convince their kids to poop in the potty or eat their dinner in a timely manner.  Children are motivated by many things, but filling in charts doesn’t seem to top the list.

Alfie Kohn has written extensively on the topic of motivating children, and his thoughts on the matter are what motivated me to stay away from using stickers, treats or other types of reward programs at home.  In our house, we don’t usually reward reading because we don’t have to.  Reading is full of rewards as it is: cuddling up alone with mom or dad, listening to an exciting story, looking at interesting pictures, receiving undivided attention and learning about interesting things.  No wonder Bea doesn’t want to colour in a chart to prove she’s done this.  The promise of a plastic library token is a far cry from all the rewards she’s already getting from reading.

Some things are inherently motivating to children, like loving attention, food, approval, affectionate touch, smiles and eye contact.  However, these are precisely the things we should avoid using as rewards and punishments with our children if we want to show them our love is unconditional.  Sure, I get cranky when my kids don’t do what I want them to, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less.  I have been known to remind my daughter that there were cookies at home to encourage her to leave the park, but that’s kind of a grey area, I think.  She’d likely get a cookie at home whether we left the park quickly or dawdled , but the idea of them helps get her feet moving.

I suspect that sticker charts and other systematic forms of rewards for children are something we are choosing to train our children to respond to, whether consciously or unconsciously.  Much of our adult world is based around systematic rewards for expected behaviour, such as getting paid for showing up at work every day, and kids do need to grow up and enter the adult world of employment eventually.  However, there are many, many other meaningful things in life don’t have any kind of reward or recognition and people still get a lot of satisfaction out of doing those things for themselves.  I believe kids will learn about the importance of earning money as they grow up, whether or not we train it into them with sticker charts.  Learning how to find the rewards buried in the activities you love is a bit trickier, but knowing that you are doing what you love and being able to figure out how to make a living that way is priceless.  That is what I want to teach my children, and that is why we don’t often use sticker charts.

Image credit: abbybatchelder on Flickr

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  • Amber June 29, 2010, 10:11 pm

    We don’t use sticker charts, either. I am a big fan of Alfie Kohn and Naomi Aldort and Barbara Coloroso, and so we steer clear of rewards and punishments in general. It works for us.

    HOWEVER, I think that the trick to the sticker chart isn’t the stickers. Most implementations I’ve heard of give you a separate reward for a certain number of stickers. Like in potty training, you get 1 star for a pee and 2 for a poo and when you get 10 stars you can have a new toy. And when you’ve been toilet-trained for a week you get a big trip. Stickers alone aren’t the deal. Although I still wouldn’t do this, and I know people who’ve had it backfire, it’s an important distinction. And I think it points out my issue even more – it becomes a game of upping the ante without end.

    And the cookie thing is totally different. I’ve reminded my daughter that there’s a pony ride at the end of the grocery store. It’s not a reward or punishment because we ride it no matter what, unless it’s broken. I think that’s the distinction between manipulation and not – whether there’s an implied threat or incentive.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Calling People Nazis is Uncool =-.

    • Hillary February 21, 2011, 12:00 pm

      Great post and I want to echo Amber’s comment about the pony rides. I get tempted here and there to say, “Oh, so you won’t do it my way, well, I can take away the pony ride.” It’s so easy to abuse our big person power.

      NOT cool! (on my part ;-) I really try not to do this.

  • Lauren @ Hobo Mama June 30, 2010, 3:40 am

    We fill in the library summer reading chart for Mikko, because he couldn’t care less about the steps required. As you say, reading has its own rewards. We’re filling in the chart for the reward WE want, which is a family pass to a museum we want to go to. I guess rewards work for adults in our family. ;)

    I agree with your post entirely, and I think you can extend it even further to say that working for money is a type of motivation that’s not that well related to sticker charts. Or, at least, in the best sort of jobs. I’m not sure exactly how to say what I mean, but I don’t want my child (or myself) becoming an adult who’s motivated to take a job only because of extrinsic rewards. I know when I’ve done so and concentrated solely on the rewards (money being one, praise being another), I didn’t feel satisfied, or fully mature. If my kids grow up not being well suited to the standard world of employment but have developed into individuals who are creative enough to find healthy ways around that (starting their own business, working in nonprofit, etc.), I’d be really proud of them, you know?
    .-= Lauren @ Hobo Mama´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday- Flour power =-.

  • janetlansbury July 2, 2010, 8:06 pm

    I totally agree! It’s so important to do all we can to preserve our children’s inner-directedness. The intrinsic reward of our accomplishment — or just the joy of the process itself — is what we all instinctively value most, but out of fear we steer our children away from that… I love what Alfie Kohn wrote in “Punished By Rewards” about the Library Book Reading Contest in which the big prize was a pizza. Children who might enjoy reading — just for the sake of reading — become suspicious. How can reading be fun if you have to be bribed with a pizza to do it?
    .-= janetlansbury´s last blog ..Can Babies Love Too Much – Teaching Children To Give Affection With Respect =-.

  • Imogen @ Alternative Mama February 24, 2011, 2:00 am

    I’ve never liked the idea of reward charts either. However, recently I caved and tried it because my sensitive 3 year old son is having trouble potty training (ie he CAN do it but doesn’t WANT to do it)…. and it didnt work, lol. I don’t push the issue of stickers, just remind him that he’ll get to put one on the chart if he uses the potty, but no dice.

    Chart is now in the bin, lol.

  • Nena March 16, 2011, 10:35 pm

    My son (who is 2) also has zero interest in reward charts. As we approached “acceptable potty training age” he was given a myriad of sticker charts, pirate hats with skull stickers, talking dolls – you name it. The first time he went to the potty and I asked if he wanted to put a sticker on his chart he looked at me like I had three heads.
    Needless to say, this pleased me to no end. I am so happy that my son takes pleasure in learning to do something because he wants to learn, rather than just to receive the reward that goes along with it.
    Thank you for this wonderful post!