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Do Sticker Charts Work?

Why stickers, rewards and behavior charts may counteract positive discipline

Many parents use sticker charts in the name of positive discipline, the theory being that these visual aids teach kids good behavior without the need to yell, remove privileges or threaten punishments. But using rewards as a way to encourage proper comportment sends a surprising hidden message about behavior.

The appeal of sticker charts is understandable; they provide a quick, seemingly positive way to give kids an incentive to work. It’s easy to say, “When you do [certain tasks] you’ll get a sticker. Remember you’re working toward [a bigger prize], so get those stickers on there.” 

Bribery as booby trap

While rewards do motivate kids to behave in certain ways — breaking a bad habit, going to the potty, trying new foods, cleaning their room, helping with chores — that motivation is misplaced. Children don’t do what their parents tell them because it’s the right thing to do but instead to earn more stickers. States Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, “The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.” Instead of teaching kids to work toward a goal, this tactic — a benevolently meant form of bribery — conditions them to work for a tangible thing, essentially negating the parents’ aim.

Stuck on Stickers?

Let your chart be totally kid-led: Leave it up to your child to decide if and when she deserves to add a sticker. This way, she is internally processing the value of her actions and developing her own sense of pride.

Sticker charts make it easy for kids to opt out of their challenges; to say, “Nah. That’s OK if I don’t get a sticker today.” Appropriate behavior, however, is not an option. It’s an expectation.

Using a chart also takes away from children’s sense of pride in their accomplishments. Instead of saying, “I did it, I am capable,” kids are saying, “I did it, I got a sticker.” Their focus is on the sticker and the next and the next, not on their personal accomplishment. 

And what happens when kids no longer think stickers are an ample reward? Unless parents are willing to up the ante to bigger, more expensive prizes — and they shouldn’t be — the method becomes meaningless.

Reward replacements

In lieu of a behavior chart, Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, offers a few tips that work more effectively when teaching good long-term habits.

  • Make a task fun. Turn it into a game.
  • Teamwork. Do the task together to model cooperation and keep each other company.
  • Give limited choices. Break the task down so kids are not overwhelmed.
  • Offer empathy. Let kids know their feelings are valid and important.
  • Show faith. Remind children of their capabilities, “I know you can do this.”
  • Get input. Ask your child what would help to get the job done to help him process his experience.
  • Take enough time to properly teach. Model, demonstrate, teach, re-teach and check for understanding.
  • Offer encouragement versus praise. Recognize an accomplishment by acknowledging the effort. Instead of saying, “Good job,” it’s more like celebrating, “Wow, you did it!”

These approaches invite positive interaction between parent and child, and they celebrate a child’s effort and sense of confidence for the intangible rewards these things bring.

Want to avoid eight more discipline traps? Click here and read on.

Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator and mother of two.

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