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May 13, 2009

Behavior modification

Behavior For the longest time, I pooh-poohed sticker charts.  It seemed just too manipulative and hokey.  There was no way my kids would buy into it.  But, here’s the thing about sticker charts: they work.  Really, really well.

OK, maybe not so much for Benjamin, who never met a rule he didn’t delight in breaking.  As far as we can tell, our middle child adores rules, because they clarify for him just exactly which behaviors are guaranteed to elicit a reaction from his elders.  While he likes the prizes for filling a sticker chart, he’s a bit young to really get delayed gratification.  Frequently, the sheer joy of pissing people off trumps the measly little sticker on his chart.

Zachary, however, is the poster child for Skinnerian reinforcement.  His take on rules is polar opposite his brother’s.  Because that’s how we roll around here.  Zach may whine and argue and refuse to eat because the pasta is the wrong freakin’ shape, but for him a regulation is a clear-cut roadmap to behavior.  He likes neat little boxes that he can fill in with stickers.  He stands in front of the chart and counts how many he has, how many his brother has, and how many more he needs to get to the circle at the end.  All it takes (on days he is within the realm of reasonable) to get him to pull into line is a glance in the direction of the sticker chart.

I humbly stand corrected.

The boy makes plans for what he wants to get when he has filled in all twenty of the little boxes.  For a while, it was cute.  He wanted to go out with his father for an exotic delicacy he had heard rumors of: the “banana split.”  He wanted a new Berenstain Bears book. 

Then one day he wanted a new truck.  A new, very expensive truck that he had seen at a friend’s house.  Zach doesn’t even play with the trucks he has, but he really wanted this trash truck.  So, although we knew he would tire of it quickly, we struck a deal.  He had to fill two sticker charts to get the truck.  That’s forty instances of playingnicelywithyourbrother/notarguingaboutbathtime/behavingwellonyourplaydate.  I’ll be damned if the kid didn’t do it.

The truck, of course, lost its luster in about the time it took to unwrap it, and I feel sort of sad that he worked so hard for something that disappointed him.  Zachary, however, does not seem to be dwelling on it.  He has set his sites on a new goal.

After all, he is only 86 stickers away from a trip to Legoland with his father.

This is an original post for L.A. Moms Blog.  When she is not bribing her children to behave themselves, Emily blogs at Wheels on the Bus and her new book blog, Edge of the Page.


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