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