Responsibility and rewards: In praise of the chore chart

A former colleague and mother of six grown children recently posted an article on Facebook about the harms associated with sticker charts used to reward children for completing chores and behaving appropriately. The author, Erica Reischer, argues that the transaction of tangible treats (yes, even stickers) in exchange for pro-social behavior establishes an inappropriate “market” situation, which causes children to expect to be rewarded for behaviors that should offer intrinsic rewards or be habitual rather than voluntary.

Ironically, Patrick and I had just started using such a chart with Collin, who at the age of six, is now old enough to make more significant contributions to the running of our household and management of his school materials. Collin received the wooden magnetic Melissa and Doug chart for Christmas. It hangs outside of our kitchen. His tasks for the day are displayed on ever-changing wooden tiles on the left. The days of the week form columns to the right. When Collin accomplishes a task, he receives a wooden smiley-face magnet in the appropriate square. We were even able to add a few chores on blank tiles, such as “get uniform together.”

After the first week, I told Patrick that the chart was working. Collin would survey his list of chores after dinner and earn magnet after magnet for loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash, packing his lunch, and putting his shoes by the door. “New broom sweeps well,” Patrick murmured.

Two months later, we continue to see positive results with Collin. Sometimes he doesn’t even need to check the chart if he knows that it’s Sunday and he needs to put the trash by the curb or that he finished his other chores so he needed to take a shower and brush his teeth.

There are no rewards for earning all of his sticker magnets. It feels like Collin is treating it more like the to-do list I create for myself when I get to work each morning. Putting a magnet in each square is the completion of a necessary task, rather than a step toward a big prize. Considering that perspective, I think Erica Reischer would have a more favorable opinion of our chart.

One “task” that is always on his chart, which Reischer would probably condone, is “Show Respect.” It’s a big deal at St. Joan of Arc, along with responsibility and leadership. Together, they form the foundation for our school’s behavior management system (PBIS) and associated Class Dojo program. I try to reinforce those values at home, and sometimes kids need a visual representation of such abstract, complicated concepts. So, if Collin loses points for talking during instruction at school, he can’t earn his respect sticker at home. The following day we pretty much always see an improvement in his demeanor at school and at home.

Accountability is an essential skill that children need to learn early on. But expecting them to participate in household chores without offering a visual or tactile system to track their performance may be asking too much until they are capable of more abstract thought. Yes, I want my children to understand that being a part of a family means making contributions, but our chore chart might just be the training wheels they need to recognize that they can make a difference – one sticker at a time.       

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.