Andy Hinds discovered that his scary daddy voice was no longer working to get his kids to behave. So he brought out the big guns: a star chart.
I was a high school teacher for a few years. I was okay at it, I guess; but it really didn’t suit me. Classroom management was my downfall. I had trouble establishing clear-cut procedures and consequences and I was even worse at creating a generalized atmosphere of terror, as some of my colleagues did, in which the kids wouldn’t dare step out of line even though they had no idea what would happen if they did. As a result, the students pretty much walked all over me. That’s why I started teaching college classes, where there is less of a jailhouse atmosphere.
With my own kids, I have been similarly wishy-washy when it comes to discipline. Luckily, my children have been pretty compliant compared to my high school students, so I’ve gotten by on boring them into submission with lectures on morality (designed for 4-year-olds) and ad hoc punishments like taking toys away, time-outs, cancellations of activities, etc.
That non-system had worked all right, with a few major failures, until about a month ago, when both of the kids all the sudden became too big for their britches (“too big for their tutus” would be more accurate). They were defiant, contrary, and pugnacious. And they thought they were hilarious. I used my scary voice, and they laughed. I took things away and they yelled and called me “mean Daddy” and “bad Daddy.” I stammered as I tried to think of more things to threaten them with, and they laughed some more. I had flashbacks of losing control of a roomful of teenagers.
We have friends who have systems for maintaining order with their kids. It’s pretty impressive. They actually lay out consequences and follow through on them, and they consistently offer rewards for good behavior. My wife and I figured it was time to follow their lead. Instead of simply buying the kids toys every time one of us went to Target, we would hold out special items as incentives for them to be good. We showed them pictures of My Little Pony toys and got them to pick which ones they most wanted. Then we would create a chart where we would place star stickers every time they accomplished certain tasks. They could earn extra stars for spontaneous acts of kindness or helpfulness. When they acted out, we would remove stars, or put X’s on the chart.
As Mom drew big grids on two pieces of construction paper, we explained the new system to the kids. They were down with it. There were Ponies involved, after all.
Then Mom and I started discussing how many stars they needed to earn to get a pony. I said maybe twenty. My wife was thinking more like five. Wait a second. How many stars can they earn per day, anyway? I was thinking like four per day, based on how they navigated the major transitions: meals, bed time, cleanup, bath, and so forth. She was thinking more like one per day. Keep it simple.
I called our friends who have a system. Turns out their kids can earn about fifteen stars a day, which they can then trade in for “gold doubloons,” which they can use to purchase big-ticket items like skateboards. Every choice they make, from putting away their toys to flushing the toilet, has stakes attached. Hmm….
We needed to iron out the details. Anyway, the charts could use a redesign. The lines were nice and straight, but they were in ballpoint pen and didn’t show up very well on the mottled construction paper. Also, we needed to figure out what to write in the boxes. We would put a pin in it, as they say.
The kids, however, were and are under the impression that the system is in effect. Even though they have long since used the erstwhile behavior charts as drawing paper, they still ask if they get a star whenever they do something helpful or kind. “Of course!” I tell them. “You have three stars for today!” When they are angry at one another, they suggest that I give the offending twin an X. They sometimes get angry at me, and give me loud, tearful X’s. And when we’re in the car and I yell at another motorist, the girls shout, “Give him an X!!!” Just yesterday, I scrawled a note and stuck it under the windshield wiper of a car that was taking up two spaces in the crowded zoo parking lot. “Did you give him an X, Daddy?” the girls asked. Yes. Yes, I did give him an X, among other things.
Perhaps they think there’s another chart, maybe on the computer or something. Maybe they think I really have a running tally in my head. Or maybe they’re okay with the stars and X’s being abstract. In any case, they seem to have gotten the message that there are consequences to their choices, however ill-defined those consequences are. We had a nice word for this kind of scattershot assessment technique when I was teaching high school: “holistic.” That’s what I’m going to start calling my discipline philosophy, instead of half-assed.
Originally appeared at BetaDad