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From The Atlantic

Against the Sticker Chart

stickers

After working with thousands of families over my years as a family psychologist, I’ve found that one of the most common predicaments parents face is how to get kids to do what they’re asked. And one of the most common questions parents ask is about tools they can use to help them achieve this goal.

One such tool is the sticker chart, a type of behavior-modification system in which children receive stickers in exchange for desired behaviors like brushing their teeth, cleaning their room, or doing their homework. Kids can later “spend” their accrued stickers on prizes, outings, and treats.

Though data on how widely sticker charts are used (and when and why they became so popular) is difficult to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that these charts have become fairly commonplace in American parenting. Google searches for “sticker chart,” “chore chart,” and “reward chart” collectively return more than 1 million results. Amazon has more than 1,300 combined product results for the same searches. Reddit, too, is teeming with forums for parents asking each other about the merits of the charts and discussing specific strategies.

It’s easy to see how busy parents would be drawn to sticker charts’ ability to produce quick results. With the right incentives and structure, the system can be an effective way to get kids in the habit of brushing their teeth, for example, or unpacking their school bags. Proponents of sticker charts say that these types of reward systems help prevent power struggles and reduce parents’ need to nag, making the routines of everyday family life easier.

In many ways, they do. The problem with sticker charts and similar reward systems is not that they don’t work. Rather, they can work too well, creating significant negative and unintended long-term consequences for both the kids and their families. Sticker charts are powerful psychological tools, and they can go beyond affecting children’s motivation to influence their mindset and even affect their relationship with parents.

But advocates of sticker charts often neglect to mention their potential hazards, leaving parents surprised when the method backfires. Not surprisingly, I frequently hear complaints from parents about sticker charts gone awry. One mother who was initially pleased with the results of her sticker-chart system said that when she asked her 8-year-old son to stop what he was doing and help his younger brother clean up a spill, he responded: “What will you give me?”

Another couple in one of my parenting classes also struggled when their reward system stopped working. “We told our daughter that she could earn extra points toward her goal of getting a new phone if she would help us clean the kitchen after dinner, but she just said, ‘No, thanks.’ Now what?”

Many of these parents who began a reward system with the worthy goal of making family routines easier became so pleased with the outcome that they kept adding more items to the sticker chart. Children reluctant to help with laundry or share their toys? Give them a sticker for it.