Changing human behaviour through positive rewards. (AKA: Lessons from parenting a four year old.)
I took my four year old daughter, Eloise, to the Disney Store on Saturday. She was due a treat after successfully getting seven stars on her sticker chart, each one representing a night without sucking her thumb.
The thumb has been a real battle. Having never sucked her thumb, the arrival of our second child, Imogen, triggered this new thumb sucking behaviour. Eloise was three at the time, and we’d only just managed to prise her away from needing a dummy—so it was a hugely frustrating step backwards.
With Eloise transitioning from pre-school to primary school this coming September, we were determined to end the thumb sucking before she starts, especially as our dentist has also recently expressed concern about her teeth. We’ve never been too bothered about her sucking her thumb at night, but we really didn’t like her sucking it during the day time. “But I’m tired,” she’d say, convinced that was justification for putting her thumb in her mouth, regardless of the time of day.
We tried numerous methods in our attempts to stop her daytime thumb sucking. They were mostly threats of punishment though—much as it pains me to admit it. “You can’t have…” “You can’t go to…” None of it worked; we’d win the occasional battle, but Eloise was winning the war.
Then we tried the sticker chart—aided by some foul tasting substance to put on her thumb—and everything changed. We told her that for every night (and day) she went without sucking her thumb, she’d get a star to go on a sticker chart. And when she had seven stars, she could choose a new toy.
And just like that, the thumb sucking stopped. Other than one incident on the first night where, at around 3am, she woke up screaming, “My tongue hurts!”, she’s not put her thumb in her mouth since. So off to the Disney Store we went this last weekend, coming back with a wonderfully cuddly animal called Sulley, from the Pixar movies Monsters Inc and Monsters University.
We now have a new sticker chart on the go too. After months of frustration at the amount of hassle—and, yes, shouting—involved during the painfully drawn out process of Eloise getting dressed each morning, we’ve said that if she gets dressed all on her own fourteen times, without all the messing around, she can have another toy.
She’s already decided that Sulley needs his friend Mike Wazowski and, with that goal in sight, she’s now dressed herself—without nearly as much fuss—for the last four straight days. She has four of her fourteen stars on her new chart and she’s excitedly moving towards completing her chart and getting another toy.
Who knew a sticker chart could be so powerful? Yes, I know, lot’s of people. But it’s been a revelation to me—and highlights the power of a reward system. The combination of a short-term goal (a sticker each day) working in harmony with a long-term goal (a toy) have proved to be hugely effective.
Tempting as it is to use punishment as a motivator for behavioural change, healthy short-term and long-term goals are proving much more powerful when it comes to having an impact on what Eloise does and doesn’t do.
It begs the question: what’s the grown up version of a sticker chart?