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Sticker Chart Strategy, While Timeless, Doesn't Work

Photograph by Twenty20

A psychologist writing for the Atlantic has some really bad news for wanna-be good parents: Sticker charts don't work. Sure, they produce immediate results. Problem is, those results don't last.

Between the chart and the finishing of chores comes a whole lot of expectation-shaping. Meaning, once you're in sticker chart land, you're pretty much left with paying off all good behavior. Every time.

Sticker charts—lists of expectations which, when met, get a gold star or stamp or fun little checkmark—are the go-to for parents who want to get their kids to do something. And as a culture, we Americans really believe in them.

Just Google "potty-training methods." Top returns? Sticker chart. "How to get my kids to do chores?" Sticker chart. "Tips for better teeth brushing?" A chart. Marked off with stickers.

As kids accumulate stickers, they get little prizes, rewards for doing what was expected of them. As Erica Reischer explains, the intrinsic reward of clean teeth or being part of the clean-up crew never really hits the developing kid. Instead, everything becomes a transaction. Reischer calls it "reward economy."

"In reward economies," she writes, "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."

Moreover, things like helping clean off the table become optional. "Nah, I don't want the sticker" or money or points that come attached to, you know, participating in the upkeep of the home.

Dan Ariely, Duke University professor, says studies in economics find that the transactional mindset diminishes goodwill. This leads people, including kids, to game the system, find a way to maximize the reward while doing as little as possible.

Reischer doesn't offer alternatives to the sticker chart. Neither does Ariely. But setting out the expectations and leading by example have been strategies throughout time as well.

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