[excerpt from article] 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?”
Ah. Behaviorism. Anyone remember from their Psych 101 class B.F. Skinner? (Full disclosure: He is my cognitive science great great grandfather.) The basic idea behind behaviorism is that rewarding a behavior will promote it and punishing/ignoring that behavior will discourage it. It’s simple and usually really effective.
Cogsci-preschooler (henceforth referred to as #1) has had a bit of a rough time adjusting to cogsci-baby (henceforth #2). For the most part they have a grand old time playing in the same vicinity as one another. But there are a lot of stressful moments in our house that go something like this: #2 has an object, #1 snatches object and runs away, #2 cries. In addition to that there are headlocks disguised as hugs, blocking of #2’s path, taking #2’s half-eaten snack, etc. We try to explain to #1 how upset #2 feels, how it’s not nice to take toys from others, how it’s important to observe how someone else reacts… but with little respite.
So we resorted to a sticker chart (we have three categories that can receive rewards: 1. staying in bed all night, 2. being a good helper, and 3. being a good big brother). It’s mostly been a wash. I don’t think it seems to impact his behavior in a positive way (that is, we have not seen an observable improvement in these three areas) AND now here’s this Atlantic article warning that we might actually reward away these formerly intrinsically motivated pro-social behaviors! ACK! DOUBLE ACK!
I’m not sure if we’re going to do the sticker chart again but as a cognitive scientist, here is my advice for avoiding the pitfalls of the sticker chart. Don’t be consistent in your rewards. Reward sporadically (e.g., 80% of the time). Forget to reward once in a while.
Sounds counterintuitive but here is the reason why. When you reward for the behavior consistently, they begin to expect that the reward follows the behavior. But if you reward inconsistently, you help foster an initial desire to get the reward but without the expectation that there will always be a reward. Score 1 pt for slightly forgetful and inconsistent parenting!