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3 Reasons Sticker Charts Do Not Work

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My oldest is three years old. I’ve just brought his baby sister home from the hospital. He wants nothing to do with her. In fact, he wants nothing to do with anyone. Anyone except me, that is.

Like a lot of recently displaced former only children, my son has a hard time making the adjustment to having a new sibling. He’s not aggressive toward the baby. Actually, he’s indifferent. But he’s having a hard time and starting to act out. We seek the counsel of a few experts, each of whom recommends a sticker chart or some form of incentive for my son to behave better. I tried everything from sticker charts to poker chips only to realize my kid couldn’t be bought.

I’m reminded of this story when a friend, who’s just brought her second baby home from the hospital, writes a Facebook post asking for suggestions on how to handle the difficulty of going from one child to two. Like me a few years ago, she was faced with a first born who wasn’t that thrilled to be sharing the kid limelight in the house.

Various well-meaning friends posted their suggestions for how to deal when your kid can’t deal, with many of them suggesting a sticker chart. Having gone through this exact same scenario myself, I couldn’t help but chime in. I posted, “Sticker charts are BS,” sure that debunking a favorite parenting hack would make me social media roadkill. Instead, the reaction was quite the opposite, with one person after the next responding, “Oh thank God. I thought it was just me.”

So, yeah, I hate to break it to anyone looking for a parenting silver bullet, but sticker charts are BS. So are pennies, cotton balls, poker chips, dollar bills, toy store credits or any other time-release trick used to incentivize a small child to get his toddler self together.

So why don’t they work? Here’s why:

1. You’re Assuming Your Kid Can Control His or Her Own Behavior

Sticker charts are used to encourage a kid to behave. But when kids are acting out, they often can’t control their behavior. My kid needed to be taught how to express how he was feeling, not to be told he was a bad kid who would get a reward for shaping up.

2. Kids Aren’t Good With Delayed Gratification

So you pre-negotiate how many stickers your child needs to earn to get a pre-negotiated reward. But kids are notoriously bad deal makers and equally bad at delayed gratification, leaving you with a child who’s now upset about the sticker chart that was designed to make life easier.

3. The Sticker Chart Only Works If Your Kid Cares

My kid never cared about stickers and never wanted to wait to earn his reward, which made the whole getting stickers for a reward thing a lot less interesting to him.

In my son’s case, it turns out he needed fewer charts, bribes and incentives and more uninterrupted time with me. Rewarding my kid for good behavior never felt good to me. Turns out all my kid needed was a little bit of love.

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