Reward Charts—From Candy to Corvettes

TafreshiFamily-Sept2015_045By: Aimee Tafreshi

I hazily remember lying in the hospital bed holding my third child, while my 21-month-old son and four-year-old daughter waited at home. The nurse gave me some sage advice about paying attention to the eldest children while caring for a newborn. “Do a responsibility chart for the four-year-old,” she advised. She explained that children that age did well with a sticker chart as positive reinforcement. Knowing I would need maximum resources in my arsenal with three small children, I took the wise nurse’s advice to heart.

Soon after, I ordered a personalized, fancy responsibility chart for my daughter with cutely illustrated tasks or goals on Velcro labels. Examples of such positively reinforced behaviors included “Eat My Veggies,” “Try Not To Whine” (nearly impossible!), and “Say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You.’” For parents facing other issues, the kit included blank labels for any other problem areas. We immediately wrote “Listen!” on a blank form. It’s shocking this behavior did not come standard on the chart. We labeled another one “Wildcard” to address any random behaviors that popped up.

At the end of the day, my husband or I would go through the five responsibilities of the week with our daughter, rewarding a gold star for achieving one, or withholding the coveted star if her behavior fell short. Every Sunday, we set a goal for a certain number of stars required to earn the weekly reward. At the beginning of each new week, we jointly decided on a reasonable reward with our daughter’s input. Examples of incentives that came standard with the kit included “Go to a movie or rent a DVD” (easy enough), “Go out for a treat” (another favorite), “A new book” (double bonus, encouraging reading), or “A new pet” (Are you *$%#@*% kidding me?!). Needless to say, we didn’t utilize the new pet option.

Not surprisingly, listening, whining and using good manners were the most difficult stars to earn. We would set the amount of stars needed to earn a reward high enough to require consistently good behavior but reasonable enough to allow occasional slip-ups and off days. Though not perfect, the chart seemed to encourage greater awareness of desired behaviors and nudge our daughter toward picking up her toys or finishing her portion of veggies.

Eventually, our middle child reached the ripe old age of four, and we decided a star chart might be just the ticket to get him in line. His goals overlapped somewhat with our daughter’s but he had some unique objectives as well, like “Don’t use bad language,” a necessity for his potty mouth. A write-in option included “Wipe yourself.” I’m not sure why the star chart makers didn’t include that personal hygiene milestone.

Like our daughter, whining tripped him up often, and he frequently stumbled on “showing respect.” However, he beamed with pride at the end of each week when he usually managed to achieve his goal, and the chart did encourage him to pick up his toys and even the messes made by his little brother.

Creating and maintaining a star chart week-to-week does take a commitment on the part of the parents, and sometimes life gets busy, and the chart falls by the wayside. Toward the end of last year, when my husband became insanely busy at work, the charts entered into a state of neglect. He eventually began traveling for his job, and I didn’t have the time or energy to focus on this extra responsibility. I felt like I deserved a gold star for keeping everyone clothed, fed, alive and relatively clean.

With my husband’s absence, the natives became unruly, knowing they could take advantage of their “good cop” mom. If I was going to survive solo parenting three wild children, I needed to bring in the big guns. I was going to create the mother of all responsibility charts. There was nothing fancy about it—no monogrammed names—all I required was a piece of plain white paper, a Sharpie (different colors if I was feeling creative), a piece of tape, a plastic bucket and a bunch of cheap crap from China. With that in mind, I promptly headed to the local dollar store to buy up their gadgets, trinkets and other goodies to stuff into the bucket (also acquired for a dollar).

Any non-crafty mom can put together this reward chart. Simply write the days of the week across the top row (abbreviate if you are feeling especially lazy), and write in your children’s names or initials along the left-hand side. Create a column for each day and a row for each child, and you are set. This is not a complex chart. I give a single sticker out at the end of each day per child based on the totality of the day’s behaviors. There is no assessing different elements or types of conduct. Bottom-line: was Junior a helper or a huge butthead? Just go with your gut on these determinations.

For a good day, the child will get a sticker of my choosing. Have fun with it—I used St. Patrick’s Day stickers in March. When I run out of stickers, I take my trusty Sharpie and draw on a lopsided looking smiley face. For the child who fails to earn a sticker? He is either left with a blank square for the day, or if I’m having fun, a big diagonal line through the day, or a dramatic sad face.

The chart also ingeniously plays on the children’s natural competiveness with each other. The child with the most stickers will get to draw out of the coveted prize bucket first. Since no reward is alike, there is an incentive to earn the most stickers and choose the first prize. For children tying in their number of smiley faces, we follow a system similar to how college football conferences decide who goes to their championship game. It’s super straightforward and easy to apply our rules. Basically, if you drew first last week, your sibling will draw first this week. Easy peasy!

The appeal of my prize bucket is its immediacy and tangible nature—the children see the potential rewards of their hard work dangling in their faces everyday. So the reward is not some abstract, to-be-determined prize in the stratosphere.

Recently, my daughter wrote down some suggestions for prizes I might purchase for the prize bucket. Her handwritten list went something like this: “makeup to[o],” “I like white tictacs,” “Siance books” (I hope she means “science” and not “séance”), “bath toys,” “stuffed animals” (you can’t ever have enough stuffed animals), and “peppermint ‘gumb’ that says long lasting ‘gumb.’” I appreciated her specific instructions. Mom needs all the help she can get!

Looking down the road, my daughter helpfully brainstormed a list of rewards for the future, things that might entice my children to behave when they are teenagers. The list read as follows, like a ransom note: “$200,” “Birds from Petco,” “our own phone,” “our own car,” and finally, a “trampoline.”

I’m now thinking these reward charts may have an expiration date. Otherwise the responsibilities might need to include a well-paying full-time job.

Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has also contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com.

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