Star Charts: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The end of summer often means the beginning of new routines for our family, which signifies it’s time to panic–at least for me. This is because lazy summer days will soon be crunched into autumn ones when the sky darkens sooner and changes in the kiddo’s routine are afoot.

And speaking of feet, ever since my son was about four, the success of the morning seems to rest perilously on whether we can quickly find my boy’s sneakers and get them onto his feet. Back then we needed to arrive for the morning meeting in the preschool Whale Room. Next week, he’ll be trying to arrive on time for the first day of middle school. Middle school!

But as they say, the more things change the more they stay the same.

A Sneaker in the Bathtub

Back in preschool, our son’s sneakers might have been left in any nook or cranny of the house–under the couch, in the popcorn machine, or perhaps, in the bathtub.

During the preschool years, in an effort to get my son to learn to take responsibility for his belongings, I used a star chart. Every day he put his sneakers in the closet, he got a star. Three days in a row? Ice cream. That seemed to work, so I got more elaborate. Why not reward getting dressed in the morning? Trying a new fruit? Putting away the toys?

Let’s just say that maybe I got carried away. Eventually, the star chart in our house looked like this: On a giant sheet of paper, I had numbered one through 100. Above each number was room for a sticker and a few handwritten words. Each time the kid listened on the first time I asked him to do something, he would get a sticker. Every ten stickers? Ice cream. But here’s the kicker–after 100 stickers he would get the item he desperately wanted more than a million ice creams put together: His very own gong!

What four-year-old doesn’t want a gong to smash? A gong to wake up the sleepy! A gong to announce the arrival of a superhero!

So the boy complied 100 times in a row. He obeyed. He got his gong. It was the 101st time I asked my son to listen on the first time that rocked my world. After all, it had taken quite a devotion to the chart to get this far. I felt we had accomplished a lot together.

I made my 101st request: “Please put away your Batman toy.” I foolishly expected compliance. Instead what I got was his reasonable response: “What will you give me?”

“Uhh…nothing,” I told him. “You got you’re gong. Now you’re a master at following directions.”

“No thanks,” he said, leaving Batman sprawled face down on the playroom floor.

The Downside to Rewarding Good Behavior

That’s when I learned that there’s a downside to rewarding kids for good behavior, and that sticker charts are not as simple as they might seem. Kerri Anne Renzulli wrote this in

Though your intention might be to reinforce responsible or thoughtful actions, new research suggests that providing treats like money, toys, or sweets can backfire on parents.

So should you give kids rewards at all? Renowned educator Alfie Kohn has reviewed more than 70 studies that show rewards rob kids of the ability to take pride in their true choices. Instead, he believes rewarding is a form of extortion or manipulation.

The Right Way to Offer Praise

However, many other psychologists and educators disagree, finding that rewards are effective in helping children develop new habits so long as they are implemented in a focused way.

You might think about the praise we give our kids as emotional rewards. But some psychologists liken empty compliments such as “Awesome job!” and “Nice going!” to junk food. It doesn’t fill them up. They say that there’s a much better way to emotionally nourish — to reward  — children with the right kind of praise.

Every kid is different, and the secret combination of how to offer rewards must be uncovered by each parent. Personally, I’ve found that the more I integrate this nourishing type of praise throughout the day, the more my child relaxes, listens to requests, and shares his world with me.


Creating Routines for Love and Learning

The Hidden Downside to Rewarding Your Kids foGood Behavior

Should You Give Kids Rewards?

Shana Burg