24 Feb, 2016

Against the Sticker Chart

The Atlantic | ERICA REISCHER | FEB 22, 2016

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.

Offering children tangible rewards in exchange for caring behavior can erode their innate tendency to help others.

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).