The happy boys and their chart. (Lauren Knight)

It was the third day of summer break when I wrestled my 5-year-old off my 3-year-old for the 30th time and realized with exasperation that something had to change if we were all going to survive the summer.

My three usually peaceful boys had not yet hit their groove; every 10 minutes someone was arguing, crying, yelling, or fighting. Time outs seemed to have no effect. And though I fully expected an adjustment period during the transition from full-time school to full-time summer, I quickly realized that I was already nearly pulling my hair out and they were frustrated and agitated. I had to do something, and quick.

So we turned to an old behavior modification stand-by: the sticker chart, hoping that a well-practiced reward system would help extinguish some pretty rotten behavior and bring some balance and kindness back into our lives.

I’ll admit that I was reluctant at first to use such a chart; I’m of the old school mentality that kids should behave because it’s the right thing to do, not because they want to earn something from it. But I thought it through and it seemed right for us.

The goal was teamwork, togetherness and genuine kindness, so the rules were created to reflect this. Rule #1: they would not compete against each other but instead had to work together to earn stickers for a single chart. Rule #2: they could earn up to five stickers per day for genuine acts of kindness or helpfulness. Rule #3: they could not ask for stickers, but instead had to be ‘caught’ being good.  Rule #4: once they earned the maximum number of stickers, they would decide together, as a team, on a special place or experience to celebrate their teamwork.

At first, there was plenty of faking. On the first day of our sticker chart experiment, one of my boys would stand rather close to me and compliment one of his brothers loudly while looking at me out of the corner of his eye. A gentle reminder about what genuine kindness means seemed to help, along with ignoring the obvious overkill. That first day, I noticed my oldest being extra kind and extra helpful and worried that he would single-handedly carry his two younger brothers through the entire chart, giving them a free ride to the reward. But a funny thing happened; the next day, a different brother stepped up his kindness and helpfulness to earn most of the stickers, and the third day, the third brother was on his best behavior. It seemed to be working, and what’s more, it seemed to be fair.

When my 5-year-old decided to hang up his wet clothing in the sun on the railing of our deck instead of leaving it all on the wood floor, he earned a sticker. When my 3-year-old shared his new pool toys with a little boy at the pool without any prompting, he earned a sticker. And when my 7-year-old comforted his youngest brother when he was upset even though I knew he wanted to read his book instead, he earned a sticker.

The stickers kept adding up, the kind acts and helpful behavior started to outweigh the arguments. Some of the behavior surprised me, like when my 7-year-old said to his brother that he thought he needed to take a break before they started fighting (yes, he earned a sticker for that). They cheered each other on and raced to the chart to watch the lines of stickers grow longer. Once or twice, they offered to let their youngest brother put on the sticker even when he hadn’t earned it; they were in it together, working toward the same goal, and come to find out, kindness begets kindness.

Before I knew it, good habits started to replace bad ones. Kindness and teamwork took the place of arguments and anger, and the rest of the summer is starting to look a lot less bleak.

And though there have still been a few rough days, three brothers managed to fill up their sticker chart rather quickly. They have already decided that they want to spend the day at their favorite museum as the reward, and I can’t wait to treat them for all their hard work.

The experience has reminded me not to overlook the importance of a little bit of encouragement and the positive effects of setting goals, even with little kids. Above all, the sticker chart has been the perfect reminder that it is our job as parents to catch our kids being good, to compliment the small acts of kindness, and to be present enough to see the effort it sometimes takes.

Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.

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