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When a little bit of sticker chart knowledge is worse than none

There’s a good reason why the term “myth-busting” is part of everyday language now. You could fill a book, or indeed a website or several, with all the wrong information floating around.

For instance, did you know that Charles Darwin never used the phrase “survival of the fittest” (in fact, he and others since have emphasized the importance of collaboration and cooperation)? Albert Einstein never claimed that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Marie Antoinette didn’t say “let them eat cake”. (You can read more here.)

It’s not surprising, then, that there are plenty of misconceptions about what are variously called reward charts, behaviour charts, or sometimes just sticker charts.

This article in The Atlantic, called The Perils of Sticker Charts, received a lot of attention when it came out. It correctly identifies that problems can arise when people pick up the gist of something without also understanding the key principles underpinning it. (Unfortunately, what it doesn’t make clear is that lack of understanding is the problem. As a result, you could be forgiven for coming away with the idea that “sticker charts are bad”.)

So let’s unpack this issue a little more.

As explained in the article, if sticker charts are used the wrong way, they can result in exactly the opposite of what’s intended. Instead of encouraging a particular skill or behaviour, they can replace a child’s natural inclination to cooperate (see the Darwin reference above) with the idea that one should only be helpful and kind when there are material rewards.

Examples are given of kids who’ve come to view life with others as a series of straight-out economic transactions, along the lines of: “You want me to help clean up? Sure, as long as I get a treat in return. No treat? Oh, okay well I don’t want to help, then.”

You can see the problem! But the important thing to know is, it’s not that sticker charts are a bad thing in and of themselves.

It’s only because people are using these kinds of charts without an understanding of:

  • In what kind of situations they should or shouldn’t be used;
  • What else a parent needs to be doing;
  • What kind of rewards are appropriate (and not appropriate); and
  • When and how they should be phased out.

For example, these kinds of charts should only be used to help children learn a new behaviour (such as saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’) or a new skill (such as making the bed or brushing their teeth). The chart should be temporary and support other parenting strategies, rather than being a standalone tool. In addition, parents using these kinds of charts appropriately will also gradually make rewards less predictable, as the child develops the new skill or behaviour, and will then phase out the chart entirely.

These are the kinds of things that make it unlikely a child will develop a “now where’s my reward?” mentality. Altogether, it’s a great illustration of why doing an evidence-based parenting program, and picking up the necessary related skills and information, is preferable to simply reading an article or two.

Just like other strategies used within the Triple P program such as having rules, quiet time, time-out, and giving praise, it would be easy for someone who only has a passing familiarity with sticker charts to get the wrong idea about what they are, how they should be implemented, and their purpose.

However, when used effectively, and in conjunction with other positive parenting strategies, each of these evidence-based tools are all about building a stronger relationship, getting a child to understand the benefits of cooperation, kindness and teamwork, and developing the child’s own self-regulation and self-motivation.