Expert Warns Parents About the Dangers of—I Am NOT Kidding—Sticker Charts

For every parenting idea out there, there’s someone who is going to hate it. Case in point: Now sticker charts are under attack in The Atlantic. Family psychologist Erica Reischer condemns the popular “behavior modification system” as a “powerful psychological tool” with “significant negative and unintended long-term consequences.”

In case you forgot, we’re talking about stickers. Stop laughing. Ok, go ahead, let it out. Have I mentioned that in the world of 21st century parenting everything needs to be identified in research terminology best left to academic journals? Forgive me. Now, keep laughing while we move on.

Reischer observes that among many of her clients’ sticker charts have unintentionally established a “reward economy” in the household. Because parents permit children to cash in stickers for rewards, the kids eventually catch on and demand a raise, so to speak. If they don’t get what they want they turn into angry little Norma Raes, protesting chores and screwing up the household’s economic base. Now, if it were me I’d probably let the kids learn what it’s like when real anarchy happens and protest my chores, too. After all, it only took the French three tries to realize that a peaceful form of government has more benefits than drawbacks. Alas, Reischer’s emotionally unstable clientele turn down the opportunity to one-up their children’s rebellious endeavors for a good cry on the couch and a bullet-point action plan instead. Isn’t it ironic that everyone needs a mother?

That isn’t the only irony to come out of sticker charts. According to Reischer, parents who use the sticker chart to reward good behaviors like treating adults with respect “…introduce market norms into family life” while inadvertently throwing social norms out the window. Ironically, in an attempt to manifest good behavior, you’re actually raising spoiled brats who believe they should be given a toy for simply saying “please” or “thank you” to the right person at the right time. Think millennials are spoiled adults? God help us when Generation Sticker Chart comes of age.

What Reischer is really condemning is what she calls the “transactional relationship” that develops between parents and children when parents overly rely on rewards to garner good behavior. What she fails to do is proffer an alternative method for parents to elicit good behavior in the home without screaming their heads off.

Enter Kyle Seaman, a tech entrepreneur who “reverse engineered” parenting in his own home and quickly realized that kids don’t want rewards for good behavior, they want to be challenged into behaving well. By studying how kids play, Seaman learned that children naturally enjoy physical and intellectual challenges. Turning chores into “tasks” and empowering children to make choices about what tasks are accomplished played on a child’s curiosity and longing for autonomy. While his system still employs rewards, it does so in a fashion akin to video games: Levels of tasks must be accomplished for a choice in rewards to take place. Very often, children who have gained self-confidence through task accomplishment will choose a reward that challenges, rather than simply gratifies.

Parental discipline isn’t about diffusion and ease. It’s about teaching children how to be their best self in every situation they encounter. Don’t let the comical language of “experts” cloud the fact that it really is as simple as all that.