Sticker Charts Have Always Been Creepy & Now the Experts Agree

sticker chartMaybe it's because I'm not a particularly organized person and the sight of bar graphs and spreadsheets gives me hives, but I've never been able to get behind the idea of using sticker charts to inspire good behavior in kids. Not only does it sound too much like homework (for me!), but it seems like the sort of temporary solution that's bound to backfire in time -- and now experts are saying my instincts were right.


In a recent piece for The Atlantic, family psychologist Erica Reischer called out these seemingly benign (if somewhat manipulative) charts as "powerful psychological tools" that "go beyond affecting children’s motivation to influence their mindset and even affect their relationship with parents."

She expressed concern over the potentially "negative and unintended long-term consequences for both the kids and their families" of relying on stickers and prizes as incentives for being nice to their siblings or cleaning their rooms, pointing out that, among other things, kids often come to expect rewards for simply doing the right thing.

Well, of course. But that's not really the thing that bothers me, as a parent, about sticker charts and other reward-based systems like them. Because while I'm sure many kids do go through phases where they don't see the merit in sharing their crayons or putting their toys away if there's not a shiny gold star in it for them, I have to believe that at some point, basic human decency and practicality will prevail in their lives.

Will a toddler who's unwilling to cooperate out of the goodness of his little heart grow up to ignore the needs of others? Sure lady, I could help you open your umbrella in the middle of this rainstorm, but only if you buy me a latté afterwards. Maybe, but probably only if there are a host of other personality-warping factors also at play.

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What really bothers me is how bribing kids ultimately complicates the parent-child relationship and turns it into something inorganic and transactionary. Look, I'm not saying I haven't bribed my kids in ways that don't involve charts -- oh, have I ever! -- but it's never worked out, and I hated the immediate fallout. I hated the way I was always trying to figure out what sort of carrot I could dangle to elicit the response I wanted; the way my kids were always eyeing me like I was their boss and they were trying to figure out how to negotiate a raise.

Every time I've ever resorted to bribing my kids I've ended up feeling more like were on opposing teams than part of the same family, and, well, I really didn't like it.

More from The Stir: I Bribe My Kid So She'll Show Affection

That said, I'm not in any way trying to criticize parents who do use sticker charts. Raising kids is hard, hard, hard, and, hey, whatever works! Everybody's different, and while I know that sounds like a trite, lip service-y line, I really mean it.

But I still think it's important to consider the dark side of this "reward economy," as Reischer calls it. I still think it's important to consider the fact that we might be too quick to ignore the root causes of why our kids do or don't do certain things, and too fast to focus on whether their actions meet our expectations. 

And I know, I know -- on most days, most parents don't have time to think about any of that. We just need our kids to brush their freaking teeth, already. But stickers aren't the only way to accomplish that.


Image via Lorianne DiSabato/Flickr 

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