Family life

Why reward charts don’t (always) work

Tracy Chappell discovered that her reward chart was a great incentive for one of her daughters — but set the other one up for failure.

1Discipline-November2013-iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

It was getting out of hand. My seven-year-old, Anna, had started taking a snotty tone with all of us. When her little sister, Avery, did something she didn’t like during their game, or got in Anna’s way, Anna would lose it, letting out a stream of shocking insults. That was awful enough, but then it started leaking into conversations with her dad and me. If we told her it was time to tidy up, for example, she might say something like, “If you’d open your eyes, you’d see I was doing that already!” (I know!)

We had been on a good run of happy, respectful behaviour at home, then it seemed like a switch flipped and suddenly, Anna was quick to anger and lash out. We tried talking to her about it to get to the root. No luck. Doling out time-outs or other consequences didn’t help (because she’d just yell from there), and we made sure we were watching our own communication style more closely. Nothing seemed to tone it down or, more importantly, get the message across that no matter what, that kind of language was not OK. Ever.

Read more: 6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them! > 

Five-year-old Avery was not an innocent in this. As the small leak of disrespect broke into an all-out flood, she leapt in with both feet, refusing to brush her teeth or get dressed in the morning without a fight (and sometimes throwing her clothes across the room in defiance), saying “no” more often than pretty much any other word, or just flat-out ignoring our requests. It was mutiny in the suburbs.

But why? Neither of us could figure out what was going on, or how to put a stop to it. So I turned to one of those tried-and-true parenting strategies that I already knew had sketchy results for us: the reward chart. But in my desperation to upright this sinking ship, I threw the idea together too quickly, forgetting some of the basic principles.

Read more: Reward system: Goodbye to the to the sticker chart >

I told the girls one morning that we were beginning the chart then and there. An incident of inappropriate behaviour (including talking back, saying no, ignoring, or treating anyone in the house with disrespect, or not doing as they were asked) would get them a sad face on the calendar. That was the warning. A second incident would get them an X, and a consequence. We talked about what the consequences would be, and they came up with good ones on their own: Anna said no screen time for the day, which is what I would have chosen for her anyway. I had no idea what would be a compelling consequence for Avery. She doesn’t seem overly tied to anything, except books and cuddles before bed, and I didn’t want to put those on the table. But she said she would lose her Halloween candy for the day (we’ve doled out a few pieces each day). Good enough.

Then it went all wrong when we got to the actual rewards part. I told them they could earn a smiley face on the calendar for good behaviour, or going out of their way to be kind and helpful. If they accumulated smiley faces five days in a row, I’d take them to the dollar store for a reward. However, it had to be ONLY a smiley face on that day — a sad face or X would eliminate the smiley face. That part was way too complicated and made it harder for them to achieve, and therefore stay motivated by the rewards element, which is really the whole point. Rookie move.

And I should have realized that this chart would have very different results for my very different kids. It worked like a charm for Avery, because she just needs a little nudge to get back on track. She’s very motivated by making us happy (and little things like stickers) and if I reminded her about the smiley face, she would almost snap to attention, changing her tune and going out of her way to earn it.

Not so for Anna. And I feel bad about it now, because she was trying, but keeping her emotions and behaviour in check really is just harder for her. She could earn a sad face by 7:30 a.m., which could quickly spiral to an X, and what kind of motivation was that? None. She would feel defeated before she even got rolling, and then simply stop caring because it felt impossible to her that she’d ever earn a prize. Worse than that, she saw her sister racking up the smiley faces, which turned her against the idea even more.

Read more: Discipline: When siblings need different approaches > 

We regrouped and ditched the idea that a smiley face was eliminated by anything — earning one meant you earned one, period. The effect was like night and day for Anna. Because she does do great things and have good behaviour, it was just getting disqualified, which you could see just dragged her down.

She’s almost there. This Saturday, Avery gets to go get a prize, and Anna is working hard to join us. Avery said, “I want to wait for you, Anna, so we can go together,” which was an even bigger incentive, and great support.

This past weekend, they both helped mop and clean and prepare food for a brunch we were hosting, and we all had a lot of fun working together. I can already see they’re being reminded that “it feels good to do good,” which is the whole idea, and a sentiment that seems to have gotten lost at our house lately. That’s the kind of flood of good feelings that I’d like to see run free.

Do you have luck with rewards charts? What are some other ways to deal with backtalk or disrespect?