Sticker Chart

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.

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May 28, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

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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.

I like to call this phenomenon, in which reward systems become pervasive in family life, a “reward economy.” In reward economies, kids learn to trade desirable behavior for a reward. Sometimes the reward comes directly, in the form of toys, ice cream, or books; sometimes its value is stored, like currency, in stickers or other objects that can be exchanged at a later date. Whatever the system, reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to “give it away for free,” like the 8-year-old boy who wanted a reward for helping his brother.

Some of the hazards of sticker charts include the much-discussed risk of undermining kids’ intrinsic motivation, or the need to offer more and better rewards as the original ones lose their appeal. But perhaps more distressingly, reward economies also affect how children think about relationships.

In some cases, children are offered rewards not only for mundane tasks like tooth-brushing, but also for what social scientists call pro-social behavior: things like helping, cooperating, and sharing. Studies have shown that offering children tangible rewards in exchange for caring behavior may diminish future helpful behavior and can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.

Insights from behavioral economics help explain this effect. From that perspective, the problematic attitude of children raised in a reward economy—“What’s in it for me?”—is a predictable response to the collision of social norms (the invisible forces that shape how humans act) with market norms (a system of payments, debts, contracts, and customers).

In experiments studying the effects of these two norms, the behavioral economist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely has found that when the two come together in the same situation, market norms tend to overpower social norms, shifting the focus from relationships to commerce.

In one real-life example from his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Ariely describes the experience of a daycare business trying to reduce the number of parents who arrived late to pick up their children. The center decided to implement a fine to penalize parents who came late. After the fine was instituted, however, the daycare noticed that there was actually an increase in the number of parents who were late. Why? It had inadvertently eclipsed social norms by introducing the fine, which belongs to the world of market norms. Before, parents had tried not to be late because they felt badly about inconveniencing the daycare staff (a social norm); now, being late was governed by a market norm, meaning they could just pay the fine with a clear conscience. The daycare had put a price on lateness, and many parents were willing to pay it.

Similarly, when parents compensate children for good behavior, they are introducing market norms into family life, a setting in which social norms traditionally reign. When I spoke with Ariely about the application of his research to reward systems like sticker charts, he advised parents to consider the long-term implications: “[Reward systems] provide a short-term satisfactory solution, but at what cost?” he said. “What happens if [kids] think of [their] existence in the family as a job?”

Ariely offered a personal example about how a transactional mindset can diminish goodwill. He once worked at a university that used a point system to ensure that faculty members met their teaching requirements. Once he learned the formula for receiving points, Ariely figured out how to maximize it, effectively doing as little as possible to get the most points. “I managed to get 112 points by teaching just one class a year. I had one class with lots of students and lots of [teaching assistants],” he said. “So I just optimized [the formula].”

In contrast, the university at which he now works simply expects that everyone pitches in. “This has meant that I actually teach more,” he added. “Every year I volunteer to teach a class for the undergrads, but it’s not part of my official contract. The point system [at the other university] basically eliminated any goodwill.”

Parents might see little difference between giving their children a sticker for brushing their teeth and giving them one for helping a younger sibling. However, given the negative effect of rewards on pro-social behavior, and the harmful influence of market norms on relationships, a troubling question arises: What is the impact on families when parents choose the short-term expediency of using rewards to promote good behavior?

“If you created a relationship [with your kids] that is very transactional, what do you expect when everyone gets older?” Ariely said. “I’m not saying that giving kids a sticker is going to make them send their parents to assisted living, but if you think about the idea, it’s a step in that direction.”

Adapted from theatlantic.

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This was an article on Psychology.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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29 Comments


  1. sticker chart ‘reward system’ is good but its too good.
    it makes family ‘market economy’ setting when it ‘s supposed to be social norm.
    author thinks negatively about sticker chart.
    author. gives example of market norm > social norm using daycare.

    Reply

  2. Sticker systems allow parents to influence their kids but at the cost of sacrificing their kids’ intrinsic motivations.

    Author delves into the popularity and good effects of stickers, then discusses the drawbacks with support from adult examples. Finally, he warns against their use.

    Reply

  3. warns against sticker-reward system for every action because it brings in market forces where social norms should instead exist.

    Reply

  4. charts = negative consequences, commerce dominates

    Reply

  5. Author discusses the pros and cons of the “sticker chart”, a way for parents to promote and reward good behavior, which he later refers to as a “reward economy”. He gives examples in the text of situations where the reward economy promotes social norms, and examples where market norms take over and the reward economy fails. The authors late refers to Professor Dan’s research, which suggest the biggest shortcoming of the reward system is that market norms often trump social norms. He argues that rewards can take away goodwill, and parents should be cautious and think about long term effects of using a reward system.

    Reply

  6. The author raised a simple issue (steering kids’ behaviors) and a popular solution (reward system). Then the author weights pros and cons, concentrating more on cons, specifically the long term effect of social norms vs market norms. (Pay attn to examples and demonstrating research + author’s attitude seems to favor against the short-term reward system).

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  7. POINT SYSTEM ELIMINATE GOODWILL AND INTRINSIC INNATE GOD BEHAVIOUR; POINT SYSTEM IS NOT A LONG TERM STRATEGY TO PROMOTE CHILD’S OBEDIENCE

    Reply

  8. Parents who struggle with getting their children to accomplish a command can be difficult, so many introduce a reward system such as a “sticker chart”. The passage mentions the briefly the benefits of how it works, but later emphasizes how it can have a negative impact on the pro-social behavior of a child. The child will begin to expect a reward for every given command, even for caring behavior. The author supports his claims by introducing the work of a Duke professor, and how his studies can provide evidence for such claims. The conclusion was that introducing a market norm together with a social norm, will only cause the market norm to prevail over the latter. Therefore, it is critical that parents think about the implications of a reward system, and learn how to properly use such system.

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  9. Sticker=tool
    Sticker=problem, money vs family

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  10. sticker reward sys has gone popular in parenting but a family psychologist (author) projected it potentially defeats the purpose of “letting kids do things voluntarily.” under arials theory of market norm vs social norms, which market norms tend to outweigh social, such reward sys. turns sticker into “currency” and creates a market norm within parent-children relationship. The author casts doubt in such parenting.

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  11. Sticker-chart reward systems can have unintended consequences and reduce pro-social behavior in kiddos

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  12. MIP: there can be negative consequences when you give rewards to promote positive social behaviours

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  13. MIP: Sticker sys = neg effect on motivation, relationship, and social norm.

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  14. Kids disobedience=common concern(AU)
    SC advocates leave out back fire info (CW)
    Many parents=SC complaints (AU)
    Tone=neutral

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  15. tone = informational, admits the perks of sticker system but meant to caution parents against relying on the sticker system

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  16. General idea – Author is against the idea of implementing the reward system during parenting.
    No specific reasons to why sticker charts are effective and appealing.
    Proponents of sticker charts posit that this reward system prevents power struggles (making parenting more manageable) but opposing information is provided at the end (child resists sticker chart and parents are at a loss as the reward system is supposed to be very effective).
    Author feels that sticker charts are so effective at modifying children’s behaviors that their mindsets and relationships with their parents are also affected considerably.
    Author feels obliged to warn parents about the hazards of being too reliant on this reward system since advocates often neglect to raise them. This is the main purpose of his article, to get parents to wean off this short fix and work with something more sustainable.
    Sticker chart merely serves to establish a reward economy that creates a transactional model for good behavior, diminishing the child’s altruism and goodwill while replacing social mores with market norms which eventually leads to a slippery slope down the rabbit hole.
    Author substantiates the reward system with Ariely’s teaching stint at the university and the penalty system (parents are penalized for fetching their kids from daycare late) as examples of people gamming the system and exploiting loopholes (price on lateness and people were willing to pay for it and not feel bad for their tardiness).

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  17. MIP: SC (R econ) for prosocial/caring behavior makes it market/biz like=bad
    tone: neut

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  18. The author is noticeably hesitant when explaining how sticker charts are successful, but then dives into the negative implications from rewarding children for completing chores. The author is also very wary of the risk of giving kids rewards for improving relationships.

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  19. Sticker chart : not good for pro social behaviors can create market forces that ruin relationships and motivations

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  20. MI: (-) consequences to the reward system

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  21. The author argues that using a reward economy to incentivize good tasks/behavior for one’s children may lead kids to develop skewed views about human interactions. Instead of learning altruism and a sense or responsibility (social norms), children come to see everything in terms of market norms–“what do I get out of being well behaved or helping you do this?”

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  22. The use of sticker charts for behavioural control in children only comes with temporary benefits

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  23. sticker chart = good (short term)
    bad (long term –> market > social )

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  24. Good: sticker charts promote child task completion. Bad: hurt relationships bc of transactional mindset –> decreased goodwill

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  25. Sticker chart = reward economy. negative affect- decreases children intrinsic motivation for positive behaviour without reward.
    Author opinion: lists cons about sticker chart long term effects

    Reply

  26. (first 9 paragraphs) S.C. = have unintended, long-term ‘-‘ consequences; tone = neutral

    Reply

  27. Sticker chart = can be effective in short term = potential hazard —->reward economy = bad = decrease intrinsic motivation + ruin relationship. Market norms > social norms.

    Reply

  28. Sticker Charts = quick results + easy –> neg consequences = market norms > social; transactional behavior eliminates goodwill. Author does not support the idea of sticker charts

    Reply

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