Even love can use some training

By Mir
September 4, 2008

You name me a discipline method—other than corporal punishment—and I have tried it. I have punished for being bad and I have praised for being good and I have tied allowance to behavior and I have set marble jars on the counter (good deeds put marbles in, transgressions take marbles out) and I have overreacted and underreacted and just plain REACTED over and over again.

And any parenting book I could write, at this point, with ten-and-a-half years of experience under my belt would read like this: “Pray. Then buy rum. The end.”

This is to say that I think my kids are going to turn out alright in the end, but more through dumb luck and sheer perseverance than through any sort of remarkable parenting on my part. And particularly when it comes to my oldest, I am fond of observing that all of the behaviors which will make her a FABULOUS ADULT are the ones that make her a TRYING CHILD.

Because, really, what do I want for my kids? I want them to have a clear sense of who they are and what they want. I don’t want them to succumb to peer pressure. I don’t want them to be afraid to stand their ground. Truly. But is it SO much to ask that FOR RIGHT NOW they bend to my will?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that it’s very easy to fall into a negatively-reinforcing rut. (Look at me, all fancy with the big words. This is what a lifetime of therapy gets you, folks. Summer homes for the therapists, and sparkly phrases for you!) A child who often misbehaves will naturally hear a lot of rebukes, and a lot of rebukes can foster a “why even bother” or “I’m always in trouble anyway” attitude, which in turn leads to further poor behavior. And before you know it, you’ve got an unhappy kid, and unhappy parent, and dreams about foreign military boarding schools.

With the help of Chickadee’s therapist, we have recently instituted a new token economy here at home.

Chickie designed the chart and came up with the rewards, and the therapist and I loosely outlined what would merit a check. Simply put, she gets checkmarks for being “caught being good.” And they cannot be taken away, even if she’s later completely rotten.

If she fills this sheet (twenty checks), she can choose from the listed prizes. I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head when I said that yes, she could not only bake cookies, but she could do it ALL BY HERSELF if she liked. It was as though I’d just agreed that she could rent dirty movies and watch them while smoking.

If she elects to forgo the twenty-check prize twice, and holds out, instead, for a prize at sixty checks? She gets to have a slumber party. An honest-to-God, shrieking-girls-up-all-night, slumber party. I agreed to it through gritted teeth, while breaking out in a cold sweat.

(And I am ashamed to admit that part of me figured she’d never make it to sixty, anyway, so probably I’d never have to make good.)

The idea, of course, is that she’s working towards a goal, and she can see her good deeds add up, and she will become increasingly more motivated to behave. The reality is that sometimes she forgets entirely, and other times she’s such a brown-nosed suck-up that it makes me laugh. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a kid WRESTLE the compost bucket from her brother so that SHE can go dump the rotting bananas!)

The other reality is that this is a sham of an exercise in terms of changing HER behavior.

I am checking off boxes and saying things I’m often too grumpy or tired or distracted to remember to say. Things like, “Thank you so much for doing that,” and “You just made my life so much easier, taking care of that for me!” and “I am really proud of you for making a great choice.” Things like, “That was incredibly sweet of you,” and “Have I told you today how much I love you?” She lights up, and I make a mental note to remember THIS, not the other stuff. To remember to be kind; visibly, purposefully kind to those I love the most, rather than assuming that they know. It doesn’t matter what you know if you don’t hear it enough.

It shouldn’t be hard. And it’s NOT hard, not really, but it turns out that I needed a little help. We both did.

Behavior ’round here is much improved. And my daughter is being pretty well-behaved, too.

Happy Love Thursday, everyone. Here’s to the work that makes even the strongest love that much better.


  1. The Other Other Dawn

    That looks like a fabulous method. Not only does it encourage good behaviour but it makes delaying gratification (often a necessary ability for success as an adult)a more tangible concept. I wish I’d known about this or thought it up on my own years ago. The value of delayed gratification is something I was never able to teach my younger daughter and the lack of it is having a negative effect on her life as a young adult.

    Go, Chickie!

  2. dad

    Happy Thursday.
    I love you…but you knew that.

  3. Astrogirl426

    Thank you for the reminder – i too forget about saying the stuff that needs to be said (and having come from a family where we REALLY didn’t say much of the good stuff, you’d think i’d know better, but NOOOOO. Damn adults). Maybe if I had a system like Chickie’s? I think a shopping spree for 60 checks would be just about right.

  4. HG

    Oh I really like this idea, Mir. I think I will institute it with my girls, alongside of the chore/responsibility chart they are getting to earn Wii time. Muahahaha.

  5. Ei

    This may be my favorite post ever on your blog. :)

  6. liz

    Here’s hoping that she’ll get to 60 checks but instead decide to have Chinese food, bake cookies by herself and stay up late all in one day.
    Or, I’ll chip in for your bottle of rum. :)

  7. suburbancorrespondent

    My kids would have to be good for 60 years before I would ever say yes to a slumber party.

  8. Patricia

    We do something like this with my 5 year old now — which is totally awesome and I’m thrilled it is something that finally works. However, we do take them away for poor behavior, because I firmly hold that all behavior holds consequences — he understands this and as of right now the thought he could lose one of those hard earned stickers on the chart is enough to keep him moving forward.
    I freely admit that before we finally figured this system out, there was WAY too much screaming in my house. We put this together and I told the boy, “Mama is tired of yelling and you are tired of being yelled at. This chart is going to help us fix that.” The power of the calm voice and a sticker!

  9. Katie in MA

    Thank you, thank you for parenting children older than mine so that I might reap your rewards. I promise my kids will bear footnotes with your name. :)

  10. meghann

    We do the “caught being good” thing around here too. It’s nice to have goals, that don’t involve having to figure out where to hide the body.

  11. jennielynn

    What a great idea. The sleep-over makes me shudder though. I think I would have promised a pony.

  12. Jenny

    I think I may make a chart of my own.

  13. Grace

    I think it sounds like a good system, but my question is this: what does mom get at 20 checks? 60? Because you know you are earning every one of those right along with Chickadee.

  14. Rebecca

    That is GREAT! I love that she chose her rewards and that it is helping! Some of your descriptions of Chickie reminds me so much of my 5 year old. Maybe I will do something like this with him.

  15. Megan

    Waaaaiiiiiit – I wanna mummy check box paper! I can think of all SORTS of fabulous prizes that would have me ever so often being caught being a good mummy!

    Being grown up is NO FAIR!

  16. Deb

    LOL, just a warning, I said the same thing when we did the same chart with my Bubby (he won’t get to the 40 checks) and BOY did he surprise me how fast he was able to fill it up ;-) But it did change the behaviour and that was the goal. But it was an expensive one for me :-)

  17. Amy

    Thanks for the reminder that I need to say “the stuff” that I think they already know more often. Since my husband is gone I can get pretty stressed out and forget to do these things all the time.

  18. Randi

    Isn’t parenting fun? Hubby and I find ourselves constantly asking more from our oldest child than we do our youngest – I think it’s something most parents do. It’s hard to remember to say “thank you sweetie” – sounds like the therapist was working more on mom and step-dad than on the kiddo, but it’s great that it’s working both ways!

    I know both of your kids will grow up to be amazing people – and when they get older, you merely have to point them to this website to prove to them that, once upon a time, they were little turkeys.

  19. annie

    I’m having a hard time with this. When a kid’s attitude is “Your job is to make me happy*” it IS VERY HARD to constantly dole out the praise, pat on the back, and say/do all “the stuff” all the time. Truth is, some kids just need so much more of it than others and/or more than a mom sometimes has in her… But you’re doing a wonderful job, and great if it ends up working for you. :-) (*Yes, mine actually said that to me.)

  20. All Adither

    Thanks for your honesty, Mir. I look up to you, not only as a blogger, but as a parent I admire from afar (like, from way over here in Seattle) and it helps ME to hear you say that you’ve tried it all. And to hear what does work.

  21. elizabeth

    looks like a great system and good to hear it’s working. I may try it on the four-year-old. it is important to say the good stuff, even if you’re supposed to know it already. makes it easier to remember those times when you really need to.

    and I would totally buy a parenting book from you, but not the rum, can’t drink rum because of that one time in college… oh sorry, never mind.

  22. Sam

    What a fantastic post! Way to go Chickadee and Mir!

  23. Courtenay

    my 6-yr-old is earning stars for a pedometer. yes, that is what motivates him: exercise. too bad i can’t say the same thing for myself. only he thinks that he should get one star per dish carried, rather than one star for helping clean the whole kitchen. this darling child would not lift a finger if there was no incentive to do it. i’m there w/ you, mir, only you are WAY ahead of me.

  24. Giovanna Diaries

    I love the “chart initiative” as we call it in our home.
    Though I can’t do it week to week b/c they get bored with the same old chores/expectations and I’m not that darn creative to think of new ones.
    I haven’t done our chart in a few weeks. I think I should reimplement. Thanks for the encouragement!

  25. Heather

    Looks like you’re doing great work, Miss Mir :-) I like the idea of having her set her own goals and rewards.

  26. M

    So how old do they need to be before I start implementing charts? My defiant 3-yr-old twin boys are headed to reform school in a hurry. Thanks for the parenting encouragement – I need it today!

  27. Michelle

    I really like the checkmarks idea. But is 20 too many? I mean how many checks does she get on an average day?

  28. Barbara

    As usual, wise and entertaining.

    Looks like for the moment, the counseling has been worth it.

    Just like clothes, the chart must fit the child’s size (age and developmental level).

    Looks good to me.

  29. Karen

    I emailed this post to my daughter in law–she and my son have a 12 year old who is having behaviour problems. I hope this is something that will work for them. Thanks for the idea.

  30. Maki

    Awww, we have it at home for my girls… Their eyes gets so big and face lit up everytime they earn their sticker for good behaviors. Very cute chart!!!

  31. Flea

    Awwww. I love the way it changed YOU. I need that kind of behavioral change. Especially lately. Happy Love Thursday, Mir. (It really is still Thursday here, for a few more minutes)

  32. mama speak

    I have 5 and 2 YO girls. We started the “marble econonmy” a few weeks ago. I was going to pull marbles for negative behavior, but my 2YO would be in debt until her 20s already. I decided, at least for now, let’s just stick w/the positive and continue w/time outs for the negative. Luckily, our ambitions are more toward getting to have nails painted at a salon (like mommy), or trips to Cold Stone’s.

    My girls love it. I’m suddenly not having to remind 20x (or yell) to pick up their toys. Beds are made in the morning, dishes are cleared from the table and no one gives me lip if I ask them to do something. It’s working so well that a couple other neighbors are going to try it too.

    Keeping my fingers crossed that it will continue to work.

  33. Shannon

    That’s pretty sweet that one of the rewards is for her to make cookies. Sounds like a total win-win to me because then maybe she’ll give you some cookies? As a minus though, kitchen clean up.

  34. LiteralDan

    I WILL answer that, because it is absolutely not too much to ask. I don’t see why they don’t understand that.

  35. PunditMom

    The checking off the boxed never worked for PunditGirl. I am thinking that for her the only thing that works is getting older. :(

  36. bec 38

    I love that Chickie made this herself, but for those who want to know, there is a Web site for just this (of course). It is myrewardboard.com. I admit I haven’t tried it yet, but thanks to this post I am reminded!

  37. anymommy

    A well timed and well written reminder. Sometimes, I spend the whole day scolding and seeking quiet moments for myself. Thanks!

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