Reward Charts – Yes or No?

Reward charts are considered to be an essential parenting tool by some. It’s a simple concept, favoured by most parenting gurus. Touted as an easy, fun way to positively reinforce behaviours you’d like your child to adopt, it’s hard to see the harm.

On the surface, they seem like a great idea. The child gets excited by the prospect of being able to place a sticker on their chart so they make an effort to do whatever it is the parent wants them to do – stay in their own bed at night, use the potty instead of nappies, or simply adhere to a daily routine. It’s an easy, cost-effective way to reward the child for ‘good’ behaviour, whilst ignoring the ‘negative’ behaviour. It’s just another way of praising them.

“I swore to myself that I would never use a reward chart, especially not for a normal physiological process like potty learning. I mean, my kid will use the potty when he’s good and ready, right? Apparently not.”

This is seen by most as a positive parenting tool. However, there are some that believe that reward charts have negative consequences for the child’s self esteem.

The argument is that praising a child too much, especially for normal everyday functions such as eating, using the toilet and sleeping, can cause them to rely too heavily on outside praise and approval, therefore preventing them from feeling a sense of achievement that comes from within. Parents believe that by using a reward chart, they are training the child to seek approval from others rather than carrying out a task because it feels good to them to do it. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it from a different point of view – of course we want our children to do things because they want to, not because they have their eyes on a prize. Reward charts fit in well in our culture of achieve, reach your goals, get that promotion, don’t you dare fail, but they aren’t values that I want to instil in my children. Of course we want them to be successful, but not at the expense of their happiness – their true happiness; the kind of happiness that comes from within, not from external approval.
Reward Charts - Yes or No?

I have to say, I was one of these parents. I’ve never gone so far as to never praise my children – I praise them plenty. However I swore to myself that I would never use a reward chart, especially not for a normal physiological process like potty learning. I mean, my kid will use the potty when he’s good and ready, right?

Well, apparently not. My oldest boy, who will be three next week, has been physically ready to potty learn for a while now. Some days he will use the potty, other days he won’t. I assumed this random potty usage would one day eventually result in consistent use of the toilet and the permanent tossing of the nappies, but I don’t think this will happen any more. He is starting to become very stubborn about using the potty, despite the fact that my encouragement is gentle. He is a very sensitive child and tends to get stuck in his comfort zone – if I buy him a new t-shirt, for example, it tends to take at least a few days before he will wear it. Shoe shopping is a nightmare because he wants the exact same shoes as before, and he has to have the right cutlery for the right meal. He likes things *just so *. I think, at this stage, he is too set in his ways to let go of the nappies without a gentle nudge in the right direction.

“Of course we want them to be successful, but not at the expense of their happiness – their true happiness; the kind of happiness that comes from within, not from external approval.”

So now I find myself preparing to make the famous sticker chart to go on our wall. My boy will be rewarded for every pee and poop on the potty with a sticker. He will also be rewarded with a sticker every time he chooses to wear big boy undies instead of a nappy (a HUGE hurdle for us at present). We have talked about it, and he is incredibly excited about sticking stickers on his chart and understands the reason why we are doing it. I’m feeling positive about how things will go.

It just shows how your views on something can change once you are in a certain situation yourself. I wouldn’t advocate reward charts usually; however I think in our situation, they will be a useful tool to help my boy climb out of his rut and get used to a new way of being.

How do you feel about reward charts? Do you advocate their use?

Image courtesy of abbybatchelder @ flickr


  1. Mellie says

    I have never been in favour of reward charts. Most parents I know use them in some form or another. I have one friend who has a pasta jar – for every “good” thing the child does, he earns a piece of dried pasta in the jar and for every “naughty” thing, a piece is taken away. The pasta is counted up at the end of the week and the total amounts to how much money they spend on sweets to reward his weekly behaviour. The whole process horrifies me (not that I have told them as such) but they are happy with how it works, and that is their choice as a family. I have always wanted my children’s sense of “right or wrong” to come from within – not driven by receiving rewards or being punished. I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book “Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason” and found that it fitted perfectly with my personal ethos for parenting and children’s behaviour. I highly recommend it. I try to imagine my young daughter as a teenager at a party or with a boy who tells her she won’t be loved or accepted if she doesn’t smoke this cigarette/take this drug/perform this sexual act … and hope (pray!) that I will have instilled in her a sense of inner-strength and internal motivator to know that she can say no and still be loved or accepted. To me, shunning reward charts are the beginning steps towards this.

    As a side note, my daughter (now seven years old) refused to use the potty as a toddler. In fact, she was terrified of it and no amount of coercion or bribery from my husband (now my ex-husband) could get her to use it. Then one day, out of the blue (around 3 1/2 years old) she said “Mummy, I don’t want to wear nappies anymore. I want to wear big girl pants.” That that was that. She decided when she wanted to do it and she was virtually dry overnight. I did elimination communication with my son and he was dry by around 20 months. I never ceases to amaze and delight me how different my children are and how strong their individual personalities shine through, even such a very young age. I wish you good luck with your son and his pottying. I understand how frustrating it can be!

    • says

      goodness, that pasta jar system really is horrifying :(

      thanks so much for commenting. all of the reasons you give for shunning the charts are the same that have motivated me not to use them in the past. i would never dream of punishing him by taking away stickers, that’s a horrible thing to do :( “Well honey, you spilt your drink at dinner so it doesn’t matter that you tidied your room well yesterday.” ugh.

  2. says

    I’ve never given this too much thought, but as I was reading your post, I was thinking to myself, “I guess it would depend on our situation”. Turns out, that’s YOUR line of thinking too.

    I would hope I wouldn’t have to use a chart system, but if it came down to it and we really needed a motivational tool, I would be open to it!

    • says

      That’s just it; it’s very easy to slip into black and white thinking when it comes to parenting – like parenting choice A is always bad and choice B is always the best – but it’s just not like that. Every child, every parent and every family is different and as long as you are being intuitive, loving and using common sense I don’t think you can go far wrong :)

  3. says

    There is no such thing as one size fits all parenting. Take my last blog for example. After potty training my 1st 3 I thought I had it all figured out! Then my 4th came along and that didn’t work so I had to adjust. I don’t like reward charts, but hey, whatever works right?!

  4. Lydia says

    I always knew my daughter was a bit particular, but added to the list is the fact that reward charts just don’t work on her – not for want of trying, or because I’m not following through enough (as some sites suggest) – but because she actually couldn’t care less if she gets a sticker or not.
    Day 3 of the Amazing Potty Training Star Chart was greeted with raised eyebrows and “mummy, you stick it on” as she walked away. Now that she’s at school, it’s the same story for the reward chart system they have there (so it’s not me!), which have left her teachers rather baffled.
    In short, they’re not the be-all-and-end-all and they don’t always work on every child. What seems to work for us (fingers crossed) are immediate perks and variety. Keep ‘em on their toes – they know they can expect something, but quite what… well, that’s what they’ll find out if they’re good!


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