America loves the sticker chart.
Google “sticker chart,” “reward chart,” and “chore chart” and it will return over a million hits. Pinterest searches bring up pin after pin of different charts and rewards that parents have tried to get their children to comply with rules of good behavior. Amazon has more than a thousand products for sale that use the same motivation. Proponents of the sticker system swear by it, saying that it prevents power struggles over things like brushing teeth, doing homework, or going to bed on time.
And in the short term, it works.
But what of the long term? Reward systems, like the sticker chart, do work—too well, in fact. The powerful psychological effects of rewarding good behavior can have significantly long-term negative consequences to the child trained by them. Children’s mindsets can be molded by the reward for good behavior system that reaches beyond the immediate behavior to affect relationships as well.
It’s a common complaint among parents that their children eventually want to be rewarded for everything, and that they won’t cooperate without the promise of a reward. One mother said that her son refused to help his brother clean up a spill because there was nothing in it for him. Eventually, even rewards stop working. Especially with older kids, negotiating for bigger rewards becomes common.
Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist and parent educator, calls this phenomenon in which a family’s system of rewards becomes pervasive, a “reward economy.” Children in these situations learn to exchange desirable behavior for rewards, and finally adhere to a transactional model for good behavior. They refuse to offer good behavior without a reward.
What’s the motivation?
Children who expect a reward for good behavior often have their intrinsic motivation undermined by the very rewards that are offered for that behavior. In cases where children are offered stars on a sticker chart not only for tasks like cleaning their rooms, but also for pro-social behavior, the results can be very bad. Things like sharing their things, cooperating with others, or helping should be things that children want to do because it is the right thing to do. Studies show that offering children rewards for pro-social behavior can lessen their desire to be helpful and caring.
According to Erica Reischer, “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 other words, children respond to requests for proper behavior by expecting rewards. They want to be “paid” for everything instead of integrating themselves into the family social norms. Unfortunately, the market norm mentality can also affect relationships.
Duke University professor Dan Ariely, who has written a book called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, questions the quality of relationships based on transactions. “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.”