After working with thousands of families over my years as a family psychologist, I’ve found that one of the most common predicaments parents face is how to get kids to do what they’re asked. And one of the most common questions parents ask is about tools they can use to help them achieve this goal.
One such tool is the sticker chart, a type of behavior-modification system in which children receive stickers in exchange for desired behaviors like brushing their teeth, cleaning their room, or doing their homework. Kids can later “spend” their accrued stickers on prizes, outings, and treats.
Though data on how widely sticker charts are used (and when and why they became so popular) is difficult to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that these charts have become fairly commonplace in American parenting. Google searches for “sticker chart,” “chore chart,” and “reward chart” collectively return more than 1 million results. Amazon has more than 1,300 combined product results for the same searches. Reddit, too, is teeming with forums for parents asking each other about the merits of the charts and discussing specific strategies.
It’s easy to see how busy parents would be drawn to sticker charts’ ability to produce quick results. With the right incentives and structure, the system can be an effective way to get kids in the habit of brushing their teeth, for example, or unpacking their school bags. Proponents of sticker charts say that these types of reward systems help prevent power struggles and reduce parents’ need to nag, making the routines of everyday family life easier.
In many ways, they do. The problem with sticker charts and similar reward systems is not that they don’t work. Rather, they can work too well, creating significant negative and unintended long-term consequences for both the kids and their families. Sticker charts are powerful psychological tools, and they can go beyond affecting children’s motivation to influence their mindset and even affect their relationship with parents.
But advocates of sticker charts often neglect to mention their potential hazards, leaving parents surprised when the method backfires. Not surprisingly, I frequently hear complaints from parents about sticker charts gone awry. One mother who was initially pleased with the results of her sticker-chart system said that when she asked her 8-year-old son to stop what he was doing and help his younger brother clean up a spill, he responded: “What will you give me?”
Another couple in one of my parenting classes also struggled when their reward system stopped working. “We told our daughter that she could earn extra points toward her goal of getting a new phone if she would help us clean the kitchen after dinner, but she just said, ‘No, thanks.’ Now what?”
Many of these parents who began a reward system with the worthy goal of making family routines easier became so pleased with the outcome that they kept adding more items to the sticker chart. Children reluctant to help with laundry or share their toys? Give them a sticker for it.
I like to call this phenomenon, in which reward systems become pervasive in family life, a “reward economy.” In reward economies, 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,” like the 8-year-old boy who wanted a reward for helping his brother.
Some of the hazards of sticker charts include the much-discussed risk of undermining kids’ intrinsic motivation, or the need to offer more and better rewards as the original ones lose their appeal. But perhaps more distressingly, reward economies also affect how children think about relationships.
In some cases, children are offered rewards not only for mundane tasks like tooth-brushing, but also for what social scientists call pro-social behavior: things like helping, cooperating, and sharing. Studies have shown that offering children tangible rewards in exchange for caring behavior may diminish future helpful behavior and can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.
Insights from behavioral economics help explain this effect. From that perspective, the problematic attitude of children raised in a reward economy—“What’s in it for me?”—is a predictable response to the collision of social norms (the invisible forces that shape how humans act) with market norms (a system of payments, debts, contracts, and customers).
In experiments studying the effects of these two norms, the behavioral economist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely has found that when the two come together in the same situation, market norms tend to overpower social norms, shifting the focus from relationships to commerce.
In one real-life example from his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Ariely describes the experience of a daycare business trying to reduce the number of parents who arrived late to pick up their children. The center decided to implement a fine to penalize parents who came late. After the fine was instituted, however, the daycare noticed that there was actually an increase in the number of parents who were late. Why? It had inadvertently eclipsed social norms by introducing the fine, which belongs to the world of market norms. Before, parents had tried not to be late because they felt badly about inconveniencing the daycare staff (a social norm); now, being late was governed by a market norm, meaning they could just pay the fine with a clear conscience. The daycare had put a price on lateness, and many parents were willing to pay it.
Similarly, when parents compensate children for good behavior, they are introducing market norms into family life, a setting in which social norms traditionally reign. When I spoke with Ariely about the application of his research to reward systems like sticker charts, he advised parents to consider the long-term implications: “[Reward systems] provide a short-term satisfactory solution, but at what cost?” he said. “What happens if [kids] think of [their] existence in the family as a job?”
Ariely offered a personal example about how a transactional mindset can diminish goodwill. He once worked at a university that used a point system to ensure that faculty members met their teaching requirements. Once he learned the formula for receiving points, Ariely figured out how to maximize it, effectively doing as little as possible to get the most points. “I managed to get 112 points by teaching just one class a year. I had one class with lots of students and lots of [teaching assistants],” he said. “So I just optimized [the formula].”
In contrast, the university at which he now works simply expects that everyone pitches in. “This has meant that I actually teach more,” he added. “Every year I volunteer to teach a class for the undergrads, but it’s not part of my official contract. The point system [at the other university] basically eliminated any goodwill.”
Parents might see little difference between giving their children a sticker for brushing their teeth and giving them one for helping a younger sibling. However, given the negative effect of rewards on pro-social behavior, and the harmful influence of market norms on relationships, a troubling question arises: What is the impact on families when parents choose the short-term expediency of using rewards to promote good behavior?
“If you created a relationship [with your kids] that is very transactional, what do you expect when everyone gets older?” Ariely said. “I’m not saying that giving kids a sticker is going to make them send their parents to assisted living, but if you think about the idea, it’s a step in that direction.”