How sticker charts undermine our intentions to teach children behavior
By Kelly Bartlett
Many parents use sticker charts in the name of positive discipline. Sticker charts are a popular form of non-punitive discipline, and they do work…to a point. They do allow parents to teach children behaviors like doing chores or exemplifying kindness to others without yelling, spanking, or threatening punishments. But using sticker charts as a way to encourage children to achieve behavioral goals sends a surprising hidden message to kids about behavior.
The appeal of sticker charts is understandable; they provide a quick way to give kids an incentive to work and are seemingly “positive”. It’s easy to say, “When you do [certain tasks] you’ll get a sticker. Remember you’re working towards [a bigger prize], so get those stickers on there.”
While rewards are appealing to children, and they do motivate kids to behave in certain ways, that motivation is not actually aimed at the behavioral goal. External rewards like stickers take away from a child’s internal sense of what’s right. Children aren’t behaving in certain ways because it’s the right thing to do, but instead because they want to earn more stickers. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards states, “The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.”
The intent parents have in using sticker charts is for children to learn challenging behaviors (for example, learning to use the potty or being responsible for household chores). It’s common to think, “We’re teaching our kids to work towards these goals,” when using a sticker chart really says, “We’re teaching our kids to work towards these rewards.” There is a difference between helping kids work toward overcoming challenges and teaching them to work towards a reward for overcoming those challenges. A sticker chart, despite its positive intentions, actually functions against what parents are aiming for.
It’s true that children will grow up to be adults working in a world in which they’ll be rewarded for their work in the form of a paycheck. But isn’t it nice when people know how—and want to—work hard whether or not they get (or despite the size of) a paycheck? This is what parents can teach kids at a young age; to develop their sense of internal motivation to do what’s right simply because it’s right.
Sticker charts also 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.” When, really, appropriate behavior is not an option. It’s an expectation.
What happens when kids don’t care about the stickers anymore? What happens if the reward becomes meaningless? Well, parents could adjust the system so it’s more enticing; require fewer stickers, or make the reward bigger and better. But then they’re exerting their energy into the sticker chart system, not on actually teaching their kids about how to be successful.
In teaching children, parents should be aiming for a deeper sense of self than earning stickers. Helping kids face challenging moments are opportunities for parents and children to connect, communicate, and to relate to each other on an emotional level; with a sticker chart, those are missed opportunities.
It’s the relationship and interactions between parents and children that are the real key to guiding kids to achieve their goals. Using a chart takes away from a child’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,” and they are focused on the sticker, the next sticker, and the reward. In other words, not their personal accomplishment.
So, what does replace a sticker chart for teaching kids behavior? It depends on the goals that are on the chart. Some parents use them for chores, and they include things like “make your bed,” “clean your room,” “feed the dog,” “put your clothes away,” etc. For those types of tasks, Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, offers a few parenting tools that work more effectively than stickers for teaching long-term habits:
- Make the task fun; turn it into a game.
- Teamwork; do it together to model cooperation and keep each other company.
- Limited choices; break the task down and offer limited choices 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 child what would help to get the job done.
- Take enough time to properly teach; model, demonstrate, teach, re-teach, and check for understanding.
Not all of those tools are applicable to every task, and some tasks go more smoothly with a combination of a few of the tools at once. But all of them help kids work towards a bigger goal than working for a reward. They invite positive interaction between parent & child, and they celebrate a child’s effort and sense of confidence. That is the motivation for continuing to do their chores; children feel capable, respected, and valued.
Other types of goals parents may include with the use of stickers charts are behavioral ones such as “demonstrate confidence,” “show selflessness,” “try new foods,” or “play by yourself.” They are challenging behaviors with which parents may see their children struggle and want to encourage kids to overcome. Instead of offering stickers, parents can notice when the behaviors do happen and encourage them to happen again with these kinds of Positive Discipline tools:
- Acknowledge without evaluating; search out those moments when a child accomplished something challenging and recognize that achievement by acknowledging the effort. Instead of saying, “Good job,” it’s more like celebrating: “Wow, you did it!”
- Communicate; ask curiosity questions to draw out their experience. “I noticed you asked that boy who was alone if he wanted to play…How was that?” “How did you feel?” “What was hard about it?” “What did you like?” “How do you feel now?” In other words, help kids process their experience by asking them about it rather than telling them, “Good job for doing that and here’s your sticker.”
- Offer encouragement versus praise; help kids internalize the value of their accomplishment by saying encouraging things like: You worked hard! You must be proud of yourself. I trust your judgment. You figured it out for yourself! You can decide what is best for you. I have faith in you to learn from mistakes. I love you no matter what.
What about kids who really like stickers and just think they’re a lot of fun? Certified Positive Discipline Trainer Glenda Montgomery says that for these children, parents may want to, indeed, use a sticker chart but implement it differently. “Instead of a parent presenting a child with a sticker after a task is accomplished, the chart can be totally child-led.” That is, leave it completely up to the child to decide if and when a sticker should be added, and let the child just enjoy the chart for the fun of the stickers. This way, and especially in the absence of any larger prizes, children are internally processing the value of their actions and developing their own sense of pride.
Many parents use sticker charts because they don’t know what else to do. For those who don’t want to use punitive discipline like yelling, threatening or using time-outs, stickers seem like a straightforward, effective, “positive” discipline tool. But they undermine a parent’s intention to teach children authentic motivation, and they take away from a child’s ability to develop a sense of self efficacy. While the positive discipline tools are definitely more time-consuming to implement, they’re infinitely more valuable. They work to teach kids the life-long skills that parents value and help families develop connected relationships in the process. They convey the message that parents originally intend; that we work to overcome challenges not to get stickers and a reward, but because doing so helps us grow, strengthen, and become highly self-confident.