Sticker charts may be bad for kids, but I’m still using them

In theory, I am completely against the idea of sticker charts. I took the psychology and child development classes. I know all about the research condemning reward systems, like sticker charts. I know they create an expectation of a reward each time a child performs a task.

In general, sticker charts are not getting a lot of love in the parenting world. Experts like Tracy Cassels, Ph.D., assert that sticker charts rarely work and when they do, they can backfire because the child begins to expect a reward. With the biggest voices in parenting encouraging the abandonment of sticker charts and finding new ways to encourage good behavior in children, you would think we would see less frequent use of this reward system, but it isn’t so easy.

“I like to call this phenomenon, in which reward systems become pervasive in family life, a ‘reward economy,’’’ Erica Reischer says in a recent Atlantic article on the long-term consequences of the sticker chart approach. “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.’”

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Here’s the thing: Even though I found myself nodding my head in agreement with sticker charts’ critics, I feel like a hypocrite, because I have totally used sticker charts as a parenting strategy in my home. I found myself wondering why I fall back on this approach, even when I know better. Honestly, the only thing I came up with is that I keep using sticker charts, even though I don’t think they are a great idea, because they work and because I can’t find a better option.

While sticker charts aren’t a part of our daily life, they did find their way into our parenting practices when the time came to potty train our oldest child. We had tried, tirelessly, to potty train her without use of rewards for months with no success. Fruitlessly, I tried to tap into her own self-efficacy, encouraging her with phrases like, “I bet you feel so proud when you keep your panties dry,” and “Isn’t it nice to wear clean panties instead of a wet diaper.” Every time her answer was the same: No. I want to wear a diaper.

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Eventually, we gave up on potty training altogether for a few months, and when the time came to give it another try, we went with another approach — we broke out the sticker chart. Despite my reservations, we committed fully to the sticker chart, and it totally worked.

At first I felt guilty, and maybe I still do to an extent, but the truth is, sometimes the best approach to parenting is the approach that works. Over and over again in my parenting journey, I have come to a fork in the road. I have to decide if I will continue to hold fiercely to my ideal parenting model or if I will compromise in favor of what was practical and what worked best with our everyday life.

Of course, I truly believe that sometimes it is important to stick with what you believe, even if it is the hardest answer. For instance, our family is committed to never using corporal punishment as a method of discipline. Still, there have been plenty of times when, in the heat of the moment, I thought it would be simpler just to give an acting-out toddler a swat, instead of redirecting her for the millionth time, but this is one area where we will not budge.

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But when it comes to sticker charts, I may not be relying on them on a daily basis, but you can bet I am keeping this parenting tool in my back pocket to fall back on when everything else isn’t working.

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