The truth about reward charts (and other parenting tricks)

Posted in Behaviour and Discipline.

Your kids have been feral for weeks, and you keep threatening to put them in a shuttle to the moon, but they just cackle and sneak off to draw a permanent-marker moustache on your favourite painting.

You briefly think about how satisfying it would be to punch a hole in the wall when you discover their masterpiece, but instead, you take a deep breath and Google positive parenting techniques.

You spend the next four hours making bespoke reward charts out of craft paper, glitter glue and natural elements from the yard. The mum who posted the instructions online was wearing an ironed shirt and her children looked like angels, so it must be worth the effort.

As you explain to your kids how the charts work, they look at you as if you have a third arm growing out of your forehead. When you’re done, they yell, “Yeah, NAH!” and run off to poke the cat with sticks. You manically tear your charts to shreds and scream into a pillow for a very long time.

Sound familiar? I’m right there with you.

Those miracle parenting hacks never deliver what the shiny mums promise. I know because I’ve tried them ALL. Here’s how some of the most common parenting tricks went down in my house …

Tricks with a limited life span

Most kids initially respond well to new systems or forms of bribery, but they quickly lose interest, and all your hard work goes to waste. If you want the following tricks to work, you need to use them for a short period and milk them for all they’re worth during that time. Go big or go home.

Reward charts

Don’t get me wrong – I use these bad boys all the time. But they only work if I continuously gee my children up with reminders of the amazing rewards they’ll get at the end if they stick to the system.

“Don’t you want that awesome new toy phone? Huh? The one with all the flashing buttons and the catchy ringtone? It’s SO COOL and it will be yours if you just go to sleep like a big girl eight more times! Easy, right? That shiny, flashy phone will be ALL YOURS. Lucky girl!”

If I get lazy and fail to remind-bribe them several times a day or we forget to put a sticker on one morning, those reward charts are DEAD to them. There’s no going back with, “Oh, we forgot your sticker yesterday, let’s put two on today.”

Nah, you didn’t keep your head in the game, Mum, and the whole system fell apart. You can keep your stupid flashy phone – back to bad behaviour it is. And your house is suddenly transformed into a reward-chart graveyard with the sound of ripped craft paper flapping in the wind serving as a constant reminder of your failures.

Toddler cleaning

Morning task charts and bedtime task charts

These types of charts don’t even come with a reward at the end, but they’re surprisingly effective … for a VERY short time. They outline all the tasks your kids need to accomplish each morning before school or before going to bed at night. You can buy fancy ones at the shops, but I’m too cheap and I can draw a mean stick figure, so I make my own.

For some reason, my kids really respond to them for the first few days. My three-year-old twins stand in front of them and proudly name all the tasks before running off to get them done. A week later, the charts are dangling in tatters off the walls and my kids are screaming at me that they WILL NOT get in the car … but heck life was good while those charts worked.

Online timers and races

When my eldest daughter was three, she developed a level of defiance I feared would send me over the edge if I didn’t come up with some clever tricks to manipulate her.

Someone suggested I turn getting dressed or putting her shoes on into a race against the clock. We would set an online timer and say, “Can you get dressed before the race car reaches the finish line?” and she would scurry to get it done. Or we’d say, “Bet you can’t put your shoes on before I count to 30!”

GREAT trick when you have one kid. REALLY bad idea when you have three daughters aged less than three years apart. We tried it once and it instantly became a cutthroat competition to see who would win. They weren’t playing against the timer as we’d intended – they were in it to beat their sisters and be crowned champion.

There was So. Much. Screaming. And it took us months to deprogram them from competing over everything. DO NOT use this with multiple kids.

Toddler clock

My kids are now six and three-and-a-half and they still despise sleep, so I bought one of those clocks that displays a star at nighttime and a sun when they’re allowed to get out of bed.

They’d been waking up at 5-forking-am, so I set the sun to come up at 5:30 and hoped for the best. The first two mornings, the three-year-olds appeared in my bedroom at 5:00 laughing and screaming that Mr Star was still up. FAIL.

I’ve now combined the clock with a reward chart and I’m running a tight ship – I frequently remind them of the amazingness of their rewards, I make sure stickers go on the charts first thing in the morning and I give them plenty of praise. And it’s been working! They’ve stayed in bed until the sun comes up for several days now. I know this expensive system will soon blow up in my face, but I’m enjoying every minute of my luxurious ‘sleep-ins’ until then *YAWN*.

Toddler bath

Epic fail

The good news is I only have one entry in my epic fail category, but my kids are still young, so please stay tuned for future failures.

Hourglass timer

At my twins’ daycare, the educators use an hourglass timer to teach the kids to share. If you’re waiting for the swing, you hold the hourglass and it’s your turn when all the sand has run out. The girls love it and wait patiently every time.

“Brilliant!” I thought naively. “I’ll buy one for home and make the girls hold it when they’re fighting over a toy.” F-F-F-FAIL. I now own an expensive, sand-filled doorstop.

Surprise win

There’s only one entry in this category too, but I wear it like a badge of honour. Eat your heart out, Ironed-Shirt Mum.

Fridge snacks

I saw this hack online at the start of school holidays and I decided to give it a whirl in hopes of avoiding the constant cries of “Muuum, I’m huuuuungry!” for the next two weeks.

I posted a schedule of mealtimes and snack times on the fridge and declared that they were only allowed to have ‘fridge snacks’ outside of those times. (My kids can’t really read or tell the time yet, but the sign is there for me to point at when they beg for food.)

What are fridge snacks, you ask? Cut up fruit and veg (carrots, beans, apples, watermelon and so on) that sit in four cups inside the fridge door. They’re allowed to eat as many fridge snacks as they want whenever they want.

It’s really worked and they’re still into it after two weeks! Here’s hoping it doesn’t end up in the ‘Limited Lifespan’ category… it will, won’t it?… Sigh.

The moral of the story is: children get bored. When using any parenting trick or hack, go for gold for a week and then admit defeat when it inevitably falls out of favour. You can’t beat the system. Kids always win.


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