How to implement a token reward system for kids?
October 14, 2012 2:52 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations on how to implement a token reward system for a 4- and 6- year old.  If you've done this, what's worked best for you?

I'm thinking of using tokens in a jar for each kid, earned by doing chores, homework, random acts of awesome, etc, and redeemed for treats, money, tv time, etc.  We haven't done anything like this except for a failed attempt at a chore sticker chart that nobody was committed to.

I'd like to have a plan before suddenly declaring a new rule of law. How have you done this successfully? What pitfalls have you encountered? 

posted by ellenaim to Human Relations (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
i think you hit the nail on the head after the jump - the failed attempt that nobody was committed to. the sticker chart and the tokens are the same thing - a little reward for a stated expectation that is met. the trick is to commit to the thing and make it a part of your routine, or it will fall along the wayside like the sticker chart.

if you decide to do it, pick a time in the day (dinner?) when the family is together and can evaluate how the day went. then each kid knows why they got a token (or not) for the day. it can become part of dinnertime conversation.

good luck!
posted by andreapandrea at 3:00 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

We are very committed to a poker chip system with a 4 yo.

Blue chips for having a good day, good listening. Every 5 days/chips gets something special - popcorn, a small scoop of icecream after dinner, a saturday trip to fairytale town or a pony ride.

5 red chips and you get a serious time out, maybe a toy taken away, which you can get back at 5 blue chips.

It's cut down drastically on our 4 yo's spitting, hitting, and general not listening at school & at home.
posted by luriete at 3:03 PM on October 14, 2012

In general, extrinsic rewards like the ones you're proposing do not instill a strong sense of responsibility or self-efficacy in children or even adults because when the rewards stop, so does the effort on the part of the child. Child psychologists, parenting experts, and educators all agree that the more you can encourage children to develop internal motivators for contributing to their household and doing their "jobs" as students and members of your family, the better off they'll be when it comes to being self-sufficient, contributing members of society later on. Small rewards are fine (ie a treat "just because") but it gets cumbersome after a while to maintain the reward system and make sure that it's in operation all the time. For me, as a teacher, the kids whose parents were really heavily into rewards at home were the kids who categorically refused to do anything in class unless there was something external in it for them. That was really rough to see day in and day out -- and it's even harder to replace that expectation with something more productive.

What are your end-goals for your kids when it comes to doing chores, homework, etc? If it's to develop responsibility and a long-term awareness of how they impact the world around them, focus on that. You could sit them down and say something like, "As a family, we work hard as a team to make sure we have what we need every day. We show our love for each other by taking care of the jobs we have to do, and when those jobs are well-done, we celebrate by doing fun things. What are some things that you see me and Mommy/Daddy doing around the house that make our home more beautiful and wonderful? What are some things you would like to help us with so we can always be moving forward?" Encourage your children to be aware of the different tasks within the house that always need doing and make a big deal out of how important they are to the family as a whole. Little kids respond so well when they get the sense that they are helping with something important, and when they're thanked for doing that job consistently, it means the world to them and helps them solidify their sense of usefulness across many areas. When they make a mistake or slack off, talk about it. Talk about how that impacts the rest of the family, and talk about how they can motivate themselves to do things they may not want to do but need to do in order to keep moving forward. If they're not able to handle a certain responsibility, figure out a way to make it so they can. Reward them with more responsibility as they demonstrate consistent completion of day to day tasks. And if you feel like they've really earned it, approach them and ask them if they'd like to pick out something special at the store or the theater as a thank you for a job very well done -- but don't use that something special as the carrot to begin with.

Then, when they get older, introduce an allowance and talk about how grown-ups work to receive a salary. Talk about what it means to save, to spend, and to give. You'll already have established many of the necessary mindsets to help your kids be really good managers of their own money and time, and they'll develop a really healthy attitude about work, too.

This system from FisherKids might help you do what you're looking to do. :) Good luck!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:19 PM on October 14, 2012 [23 favorites]

Blue tokens in Cindy's jar and green tokens in Bobby's jar, so that there is no temptation to redistribute.
posted by foursentences at 3:20 PM on October 14, 2012

When I was three, I refused to be potty-trained because with two younger siblings, I wasn't about to give up the attention of having my diaper changed. My dad tells me that I actually tried to get him to promise that if I started using the potty, he'd still blow on my butt. But he refused. (Meanie.)

So, he and my mom started a "game" where they'd put a smiley face sticker on a chart in the kitchen every time I'd use the potty. After every 10 stickers, they'd buy me a Barney video.

I intentionally only went a little bit each time I went to the potty, thereby earning the the first Barney video in a day. I earned the second Barney video the day after that.

I was very excited about getting a third video, but when I went to get my dad to show him that I had peed again, he told me, "That's nice, honey, but you don't get another sticker. You've already proven to me that you can use the potty consistently, so I don't have to keep buying you presents."

I cried. "You tricked me! That was mean! I'm never playing one of your games again! All you've taught me here is that I should never trust grown-ups!"

And from that point forward, I never trusted grown-ups. So if you're thinking you'll start this reward system and then stop it once your kids have proven they can be good, uh, watch out for that.
posted by randomname25 at 3:27 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, just as an addendum... Specific verbal feedback can be a really good reward, too. Stuff like, "I noticed today that you were working really well with your sister/brother when you both were taking out the trash and putting the laundry away. That looked like it made the job go much easier. What do you think? [...] Yeah, it was great to see you two so cheerful. Thank you for doing such a good job together." instead of, "I like it when you..." works best because it calls out and reinforces a child's positive behavior instead of placing a judgement on whether or not a child is likeable because of what they do or do not do. :)
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:28 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

It often seems to motivate them better if you start by giving them ten tokens, or fifteen or one-hundred tokens, and then take them away during the day for each act you are trying to extinguish. That way the reward seems big and visible at the beginning. "All I have to do is not hit my sister and I can stay up until nine! Cool!" Then if big sister slugs little sister only twice compared to her usual twenty times a day she gets to stay up until eight-fifty (five minutes less per thwack). This will motivate her to see that she can control her desire to hit, at least some of the time, and maybe tomorrow gain the entire reward.

One serious problem with any reward system is that the administrator and the player have different goals as the game goes on. The administrator usually wants to give fewer rewards the longer they play - "C'mon, making your bed is your everyday chore. You know how to do that now! I don't need to reward you any longer!" while the player wants more rewards for doing the thing. "Okay, I got one token for making my bed yesterday. Yesterday I was in a good mood. Today I feel cranky so it would take at least three tokens to motivate me."

So it might be a good idea to to come up with rewards that you can sustain, if you are looking to get behavior you can sustain, such as moving the six-year-old's bedtime to nine o'clock from eight o'clock. Also, rewards should match the task, thus, "Any little girl who is responsible enough to take her own bath without help (except for filling the tub and finding the towels of course) is old enough to choose her own shampoo!"

Don't count failures, only successes - thus, "As soon as you have taken your bath by yourself ten times you can choose your own shampoo when we go to the store!" So that developing young persons can simply pick up from wherever the bath overflowed and try again the next night without any condemnation or feeling of failure.

Frequent tokens unpredictably seem to be the best motivator rather than a careful tit for tat system. "You did that fast! You get a token!" "You did that cheerfully! You get a token!" "You started doing that yourself without me telling you! You get a token!" You might try introducing it as a game, such as, if you two can earn 100 tokens during the course of the weekend will be stop at Auntie Katie's house on Sunday night. Then look for any excuse to give a token to get the kids excited. "Seven tokens already!! And we're only on Saturday morning breakfast!" "Does anybody want to earn a token by putting these socks in the hamper?" Ideally the hundred are earned by Sunday mid-afternoon.

Then when you have a headache on Monday and are cranky because of that report you have due at work, you can slack off on watching the kids like hawks for reward-able behavior, and they can take a rest from the game too. You don't want a situation when Small Pathetic is following you around the house saying, "But I did put my clothes in the hamper! You didn't even notice!" or "I put my sock in the hamper! Can I have a token? I put them both in the hamper! Can I have a token now?" It's not always going to be a good time to do reward systems. One or the other side is going to need to slack off sometimes. It's not a good scenario for you and the kids to be looking at the reward chart at nine-thirty at night to see which stickers can be applied because if the day has not gone smoothly - and how many days do go smoothly? - you will have one of your kids dashing off to make her bed and put her clothes from the morning into the hamper, thus keeping herself up until ten-thirty, and the other one having a colossal meltdown because she just wants to go to bed and she is too tired to do any chores, much less to be made to feel like a failure because she only earned one of ten possible stickers!!

tl:dr Whatever you do, make it fun and keep it positive
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:45 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

What These Birds of a Feather said. I think there may be kids who will modify behavior by a reward system, but many won't. My child has thought that kind of thing was "dumb" forever (her word for it), since the first time we tried it. Because the rewards are small, it's not really any skin off her nose if she doesn't get it. And because the punishments aren't really that awful, either, they don't bother her much if she really doesn't want to do a thing. I think she sees that tying her behavior to things unrelated is really just an arbitrary assignment where I'm trying to manipulate her into do what I want her to do. She much more motivated by the happy feeling she gets when we cooperate, or by my more pleasant attitude because she helped me with something, or I didn't have to bitch at her to clean her room. Or by the bad feeling she has when she knows I'm angry and frustrated because she's slacking or whatever. Not that her happiness is tied to mine, exactly, but things run smoother and we're all happier when we work together. Stickers, small toys, a scoop of ice cream, are fleeting things and she knows it. Very occasionally, she will want to buy something and will ask to paid for extra work around the house. When this happens, I don't give her token work, I make sure she's made it worth my money, she takes over my most-hated chores for however long we agree upon and she is half-assing it, she doesn't get paid. I think kids can learn the value of work and pleasant behavior without being rewarded.
posted by upatree at 3:55 PM on October 14, 2012

I invented mummy money with different denominations. There was a price list both for earning and spending. Spending included things like computer time, treats, tv time, video rental, conversion into cash (with a steep exchange rate) and so on. Earning included a variety of chores. It was a great little economy in my household.

Random acts of kindness weren't rewarded with money but with love and explicit praise, and retelling of the stories (in the kids' hearing) to family members. "Tom was so great with his sister on the train on the way home, when she was crying, he was soothing her and calling her his little girl-girl. It was so sweet. Poor Caity, she'd put up with so much at the hospital, she was so brave, and it's wonderful to see the two of them looking after each other."

Random acts of evil were not punished with fines, generally - it depended on the act. "You punch your brother in the head, the natural consequence of this is time away from the family (in your room) because it's not nice to punch people in the head." They were/are smart kids (grown up now), and I knew that they would be willing to earn a great deal of mummy money for the right to do something vicious, if that would be the only consequence.

Mummy money lasted as long as I maintained interest, and by 8 (ish - it's a long time ago), my son was choosing to do the family washing just so he could have more screen time.

Also they got pretty good at math, pretty early.
posted by b33j at 4:23 PM on October 14, 2012

Try looking at it as a system to remind parents to give positive attention to their children.
My boy, in particular, was inspired by positive feedback. We had a year or so of using 'good kid chips' as quick thank yous for desired behavior. NOT on a tit for tat basis, but for things that we happened to notice. It made us more likely to praise him, and him more likely to repeat the behavior.
posted by SLC Mom at 5:58 PM on October 14, 2012

I've played around with this a few times. I think our most successful attempts have been those that concentrated on very particular things that needed extra attention, and over the short term. Table manners come to mind. In that case I sat down with the children and we all worked on drawing a chart that had pictures of the rules. 1. No eating until the cook is at the table 2. Use cutlery and napkin correctly 3. Place cutlery on the plate properly to show you are finished 4. Remain at the table until everyone is finished. We posted the picture by the table and the reward was a "fancy" candlelight dinner with their favourite foods at the end of the week. That was a success because the whole thing was fun for them. Even now, probably a year later, I can still remind them of the rules and they get it (not that they always follow it, I'm not gonna lie).

I find the stuff with a longer lead time to reward is a bust. I do use a coupon system for tv/computer, which they are allowed on the weekend. That tends to be more stick than carrot though and my eldest is constantly losing screen privileges. Also, it really depends on the kid. I have a 4yo who really wants to please us and a 6yo who mostly wants to please himself. The results of any reward system don't really work because the little one kicks butt at following rules and the older one needs constant reminders and redirects. It's apples and oranges.
posted by Cuke at 6:33 PM on October 14, 2012

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