Sticker Charts: Effective? Damaging?

We often use reward systems like sticker charts and treat jars to encourage good behavior. Is this counterproductive in the long run? Will my children always feel entitled to an immediate reward when they do a good deed?

Kristin, in Palo Alto, CA

Kristin, this is a great question that I think keeps some parents up at night.  OK, some Moms up at night – I’m pretty sure most Dads are too practical to worry about this.

With any discipline strategy there are two questions that matter.  Does it work, and what does it teach?

Does it work?

Rewards for expected behavior work with some children really well.  Meaning, some kids will do as we’ve asked and change their behavior in exchange for a reward.  Some kids couldn’t care less and don’t change their behavior, and others will be involved in the reward system for a very short time and then revert to the old behavior.  This seems to be personality based and I don’t think there is a lot you can do to change it.

I’ve seen in my medical practice that it is common to have different reactions to rewards (and punishments) even in the same family.  In my house I have two kids who would hop through their day on one foot if they were asked and will try any new behavior if there is a sticker involved.  I also have been blessed with two who would say, “Stickers… nah, thanks anyway.”  Even for chocolate (the holy grail in our world) they would try something maybe once and then never again if they didn’t feel like it.

What does it teach?

This is the stickier (unable to resist the pun, sorry) question.  I agree with you that setting up the habit of receiving a reward for expected behaviors teaches a “What’s in it for me?” attitude.

The social science research on behavior change shows that reward systems (usually called Token Economies in the literature) are effective for only short periods.  Over time the motivation decreases even if the rewards don’t change.  You end up having to promise bigger prizes for the same tasks.

The biggest problem is this is not great preparation for the world ahead of our children.  In life we can earn rewards for consistent, excellent work – sometimes.  But these are not handed out each time we accomplish something, they accumulate over time.  A good grade, a promotion, a higher wage take time and creativity and persistence to achieve.

When we want our kids to learn good habits we need to expect it of them and link the mastery of a task to a new privilege.  For example, you want your daughter to hang up her coat each day when she gets home.  After she has mastered this skill you say “I would like to get you a very nice new jacket for this spring because you’ve shown you know how to take care of it.”  This is different than saying “If you hang up your coat every day for two weeks I will get you a new coat.”  How is it different?  The child in the first example will keep hanging up the new coat.  The child in the second example will (research shows) be motivated ONLY UNTIL she gets the new coat and then will drop the new habit – and the new coat – onto the floor.

Explaining a “reward” as an earned privilege signals a change in your child’s status.  Kids are desperate to be acknowledged as older or more mature and this is a great motivator.  From “big boy underpants” to demonstrating the abilities necessary to stay home alone, children will see the benefit of making a behavior change and (here is the best part) realize that they have to keep it up to keep the privilege.  THAT is what sets this apart from the sticker chart.  This also does a fair job of showing them what adult life is like.

I don’t believe sticker charts are damaging.  But I don’t think they do our kids a huge favor in the long run.  Used once in a while for a major, short-term change, they can work really well.

 

Who has had great success with reward systems?

 

 

 

Stress to resilience for youth

Learn to Help Your Teen Build Resilience​

Help the teen in your life walk through adversity with strength. Download this free PDF to learn the three steps to go from stress to resilience for youth!

9 thoughts on “Sticker Charts: Effective? Damaging?”

  1. There is a television psychologist who suggests you find your child’s ‘currency’. What is it your child values, at this moment in childhood? You reward with that currency, and you allow the currency to shift.

    My oldest, spurred by television at Grandmama’s, wanted to visit Chuck E. Cheese. Didn’t know what it was, but knew she wanted it. So to potty train, I bought a bag of tokens, (without her present) and she got a token for every successful potty. When she filled the C.E.C. cup with tokens, she got to visit Nirvana, the land of Chuck.

    She never needed to go back there. Her currency changed.

    It’s not about stickers. Just like it’s not about chocolate. It’s about listening to your child and finding the currency of the moment.

    I agree with your post entirely. Just wanted to give others another perspective on stickers.

  2. I am glad this worked! Potty training can be highly stressful to say the least. Our kids wanted to earn a Wii. Well, that is a lie. They wanted us to give them a Wii, WE wanted them to earn it. So they did a bunch of stuff over an extended period of time to earn it. It sounds like your daughter was very goal-oriented and in the process learned a habit that brought her other gains. This can absolutely make a huge difference, especially in the context of a major shift like potty-training. Harder for habits that benefit us (like hanging up your coat or keeping a room straightened) but don’t have any obvious benefit for the child.

    Thank you for your comment!

  3. Potty training, I believe, is the mighty exception to this rule. My mother, an experienced psychologist who sees lots of children, uses rewards very effectively for potty training. One M&M for trying, two for succeeding. There are times and places for rewards.

    1. Potty training is a huge hurdle for most kids, because they usually couldn’t care less if they wear diapers until they are old (like 5). I agree, it is a mighty exception. Though, as a family doc, I can’t endorse the food as reward thing, especially candy. But you don’t have to tell me about it, then we’re all happy!

  4. Everyone likes stickers. I’m pretty sure that if your boss gave you a gold star at work there would be much happier employees. Gold stars and a $10,000 raise is even better.

  5. My kids have been a mixed bag when it comes to sticker charts and token economies. They were never considered for my oldest. Not that he hasn’t had behaviors that need to be changed, but for him, that has never been a big issue.
    Kiddo #2 is a completely different story. Sticker charts and token economies never worked for him. I have often been at a loss as to what to do with him as nothing seemed to work for him. I should mention that he is not a typical child though. He is challenged with issues around ADHD, Aspergers, and a mood disorder. Throw in a little middle child issue amoung other things, and you would have my second child. I honestly cannot tell you how we have gotten to today…..but he is going to be 13 next week. Add in teenage hood…..OH BOY!
    My youngest does respond to token economies and sticker charts in school. But they have to be changed up every so often. He gets bored with them. He gets bored period. He is challenged by autism and some related attentiona and emotion controll issues. At home, he doesn’t do well with sticker charts. I think he needs a highly structured setting for those things to work.
    Of course, more responsible behaviors result in more privileges. My 15 year old is chomping at the bit to be able to drive come next July. My message to him is “if you show me you are responsible, you will have the privilege of driving”. He is likely to be able to get his learners permit as soon as he hits 16. The way my 13 year old is going……he MIGHT get to drive when he is 30.
    Thanks for the discussion!

  6. Fascinating discussion! As the mom of 2 tweens – I have tried all of the above. I do agree with Doc G – usually recognizing a completed and learned behavior with a ‘prize’ is better than the ‘sticker’ method which becomes a daily pursuit of the ‘sticker’……

    I think the element that most parents leave out is both time and commitment….You can use as many stickers or tokens or prizes you want, but you are only going to teach your kids through your time and commitment. Just because you put up a chart, it does not magically solve the issue!

    As a child social worker, I saw so many parents who wanted a magic answer and did not see that the solution lied with their overall commitment. No one said this parenting thing was easy! Rachel

  7. Thanks Rachel. Social workers definitely see parents at their most honest, vulnerable moments. We all wish for magic answers, and quick solutions. Thanks for the reminder that the best way to raise our kids is to stay involved!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How Can I Help?

A Little Bit About Dr. G

A widely recognized media personality, Dr. G is your go-to expert on resilience. Countless broadcast outlets rely on her contagious humor and illuminating stories to tackle tough topics. She is regularly seen on TV, as well as interviewed for print and digital outlets. Here, she’s answering your questions. Search for the answers you need, or ask her your question now!
Scroll to Top

A Newsletter All About Resilience

Sign up below to join Dr. G’s newsletter and discover how to ‘Do Stress Better’ and tap into the resilience that already exists inside of you.

Ask Dr. G Your Question

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Book Dr. G

Let Dr. G know you’re interested in having her speak. If you’d like to send her a message click here.

  • Date Format: MM slash DD slash YYYY
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

After pressing submit your forms will be sent to Dr. G and her team. You can expect a response within 1 business day.

Insights to Transform Your Stress Into Your Resilience​

Please let us know where to send the Stress to Resilience guide and we’ll send it quick!