Sticker charts seem to be the answer to most child behaviour problems it seems. Toileting problems? Use a sticker chart. Sleeping problems? Use a sticker chart. Tantrums and defiance? Yup, bring out the sticker chart.
Why then do so many parents I see complain that their sticker charts aren’t working? If it were really that simple, surely I would be out of a job as a child behavioural specialist assisting parents with these day-to-day battle grounds. A common grumble in my office goes to the tune of “oh we have tried sticker charts and they seemed to work for a few days and then the child just lost interest”. Remarkably despite this, rewards in the form of tokens and stickers still seem to be the go-to answer from many of my psychology colleagues.
The last 10-15 year of parenting advice has very much emphasised and pushed the ‘positive parenting approach’ full of praise, rewards and reinforcement. It has seen reasonably good looking fridges unrecognisably turned into montages of stickers and parents singing, clapping and dancing excitedly around toilet bowls at the slightest bowel movement.
How did parents ever cope before they were instructed in this art of praising their child? Or worse, how did previous generations ever cope when their parents did not reward them for sleeping in their own bed? The answer of course is that they coped perfectly well.
Ninety-nine precent of psychologically healthy parents I see naturally praise their child when they succeed at a task. In fact I think it is one of the most natural reactions there is. When we start explicitly teaching and instructing parents to praise, suddenly their child is being showered with affection for every remotely mundane and expected daily task. Worse still, are the children who are being fed false senses of their own abilities with parents telling them that they are great at EVERYTHING. Well no, actually little Johnny sucks at drawing, with hopeless poor fine motor skill coordination. And you know what, that’s OK – because he’s a star on the footy field.
What is interesting is that we do not apply the same reward rules to our own lives. As an adult, you have to work bloody hard in life to get any reward or promotion, but step every so slightly on the wrong side of the law and there is a swift and painful reminder of the consequences. And hence society is kept more or less on track. Imagine if we could all go into work and sit on social media all day and never lose our job, but if we work we will get paid – there are going to be days that the money dangling like a carrot is just not worth it compared to whittling away my hours on pouring over friends’ status updates. Similarly, if we speed on the road we receive a fine, rather than being sent a cheque at the end of the year for being a great driver. This is because governments know human brains don’t work as well on reward as they do avoiding negative consequences. So why do we change the rules when it comes to our kids?
Learning occurs when we are in distress. You know the rant – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, “you learn from your mistakes”….. Somehow this message gets fuzzy when we apply it to disciplining children as we hear time and time again to “ignore bad behaviour”. If we ignore bad behaviour how can a child possibly be getting a clear message of what to avoid? Some would argue that the lure of a sparling pink barbie sticker will do the trick. I have had a seven year old stare me squarely in the face and report that on the particular day that he decided not to listen to his mother, refuse to eat his food, and resist going to bed, a sticker was just “not worth it”. And who can blame him? His behaviour got him something better – avoidance of doing what he was told and a highly emotional frustrated parent – which after all is lots of fun for children. As this seven year old commented “I’ll just get the sticker tomorrow”.
And here lies the problem with solely relying on rewards for managing behaviour – if a child’s poor behavioural choices are never met with a negative consequences for them, and sometimes result in a beneficial outcome for them, you can praise and wave stickers around all you want, it will never work long term.
So lets get back to what we know works based on researched evidence into human motivation and behaviour. Or at the very least perhaps a return to common sense. Children need parents who will be their teachers and guides, preparing them for the ways of the real world and are prepared to emulate these realities within the safety and security of their own home. This means, at times, placing the child in a period of brief distress or loss when they make the incorrect choices, and of course praising them naturally and sincerely when they turn to the correct alternative.