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Reward system: Goodbye to the sticker chart

After a particularly rough night of trying to get his younger daughter to sleep in her own bed, Ian decides to eliminate the Mendes family reward chart.

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Photo: Nataliiap/iStockphoto

The reward chart era came to an abrupt end in our house at approximately 1:15 a.m. last Saturday.

Our four-year-old daughter Lily — who is on the verge of turning five — was once again refusing to sleep in her own bed. Citing phantom spiders and fictitious noises in her room, she was demanding to sleep with us.

After three hours of trying to coax her back into bed, I finally lost my patience — partly because I stepped barefoot on a Littlest Pet Shop accessory on the way into her room for the 26th time that night. (Side note: People that do mind-control exercises by walking over broken glass should try walking over children’s toy parts as an alternative).

So instead of doing the usual routine of telling Lily, “If you go to sleep in your own bed for three straight nights, you’ll get a prize”, I completely snapped.

I went on one of the best “rated-PG” rants you could lay on a child and threatened to take the dollhouse out of her room if she came out of bed one more time that night.

She was stunned to see this sudden and direct change in my approach. And since she has beaten me multiple times at Go Fish, she figured she would call my bluff.

So she came out of bed one more time and I had no choice to but drag the dollhouse down the stairs and take it out the front door. I told her I was taking the dollhouse to one of the other little girls on our street — because everyone knows a good neighbour will gladly accept a toy from an enraged parent in the middle of the night.

I slammed the front door shut and waited outside for a couple of minutes. I knew at that point that the reward chart system was over and we had now entered an era of punitive justice in our household.

To be honest, I had always been skeptical of the reward chart system for kids. It always seemed like it was the brainchild of a disgruntled Subway employee who figured out that a sticker reward system could wreak havoc on a household.

In most houses, a reward chart system usually starts with potty training. Virtually every parent I know has entered some sort of bizarre “Smarties-for-urine” exchange program with a toddler. And that’s fine because with a two or three-year-old child, they need positive reinforcement for their behavior.

But at what point should the sticker rewards stop?

Most of the reward charts out there have categories that applaud the most basic activities for a child.

Brush your teeth? Here’s a sticker.

Put on your own shoes? There’s a sticker for that.

Hey, did you breathe on your own this afternoon? Well, by golly, there’s a freaking sticker for that too.

I’m all for positive reinforcements, but the reward chart system seems to teach kids that the only point in acting a certain way is that they will be rewarded for it. And I don’t think reward charts do a lot to build self-esteem for kids; they don’t have a sense of self-gratification because everything hinges on receiving a sticker.  

Children also need to learn the flip side of the situation: That bad actions and bad attitudes have negative consequences. Grounding, punishments and taking away favourite toys are also valuable tools for frustrated parents. In our case, I feel like Lily doesn’t understand the ramifications of her actions. She should be sleeping in her own room — not because she could get a sticker as a reward — but because that is what big kids are supposed to do.

Sticker rewards seem like they’re appropriate for toddlers who are learning the very basics in life, such as potty training or putting on their own clothes.

Older kids need to understand that the reason why they brush teeth is to avoid cavities and gum disease — not to acquire a new sticker. And they also need to learn that if they don’t sleep in their own bed something worse than not getting a sticker is going to happen to them.

Do you have a reward system in your household?