Recently, a mom told me that her son was being given stickers in school for each period he behaved well. The boy is in nursery school and has been having some difficulty with impulse control, at times pushing or striking out at another child. I asked her if the stickers were helping the situation. She said that she didn’t think they were helping him control himself, but he seemed to be using them as a means of judging himself. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.
Good or bad – stickers are a sticky question. The question about using stickers comes up often as a means of motivating children to accomplish certain goals. Sometimes this has to do with taking certain developmental steps like toilet training. A sticker is the reward for each success. Sometimes it is intended as a reward for things not done, as with this boy, not hitting. The question, at times, is also raised as a way of getting children to comply with routines, such as dressing themselves, or cleaning up their rooms.
The basic idea in all of these is that a sticker is a reward to children for doing what adults want them to do, and that rewards are a way to get children to do what we want them to do. In a way, this idea is the opposite of time-out. Whatever the original theory behind time-out, in practice it has become punishment as a way of achieving compliance by children. So it seems that sometimes – especially if we feel stuck – we turn to reward or punishment as a solution.
Of course, rewards are a more benign approach than punishment, so they may seem like a more desirable solution. But in fact, the two approaches are alike in certain ways. They both rely on consequences – one negative, the other positive – in an attempt to modify children’s behavior. Most significantly this is true when it comes to issues of self-control, and developmental readiness to meet adult expectations. If a child is experiencing difficulty in achieving inner control because of a developmental immaturity, such as the boy described earlier, or perhaps needs more time to mature in certain areas, neither reward or punishment will solve that issue. The same is also true when there are other factors causing the behavior that are not being understood. Reward and punishment don’t address those kinds of issues.
But what about stickers? Don’t they help children feel good about themselves, and isn’t that a motivator for behavior? Yes and no. Children enjoy having stickers and like the idea of being rewarded. What often happens, though, is that when the novelty wears off, children lose interest and the stickers rather quickly lose the power they may have seemed to hold over behavior.
Another outcome that I hear about a lot is that children want the stickers whether they have “earned” them or not. Conflict ensues between parent and child over whether the behavior was deserving of the sticker. Needless to say there can be a big difference of opinion between them about that. Now a second area of conflict is added to whatever the original issue was about problem behavior.
What about the idea of rewards for things children need to accomplish as part of life? Suppose the reward was money rather than stickers. Should we pay children each time they go to the potty, or dress themselves, or brush their teeth? That may seem ridiculous, but in fact whether it’s money or stickers basically what we are saying is that the reason for doing things is to get a reward.
Actually, reward initially is a motivating factor in children’s behavior. The reward they get for appropriate behavior is the approval of mom and dad. That is more satisfying than the disapproval they receive when parents are displeased. But the goal in raising our children is that they will develop those standards within themselves and take responsibility for their own behavior even when no parent or other adult is looking. The reward lies in becoming an independent individual who can function well on one’s own.
The mom I referred to earlier was concerned that her son was measuring himself, as she put it, by the stickers. The stickers were telling him whether he had been “good” or “bad”. He was not really in touch with his own behavior – only with what the stickers told him. Aside from the fact that they were not helping him manage his behavior, it’s not clear what standards the teacher was using when judging his behavior.
Perhaps the main problem in using stickers to change behavior is that it sidesteps addressing whatever it is that is interfering with a child’s mastery of the behavior change we’re after. The implied assumption seems to be that a child could do it if he wanted to, and the stickers will make him want to. But if our own expectations are off, stickers won’t change that. If a child is defiant or rebellious toward authority, stickers won’t solve that problem either.
Children may certainly enjoy a sticker as a sign that we recognize something well done or a big step taken. But as a means of bringing about that step, stickers don’t stick.