The Punishment Fits the Crime


So, I have this friend who holds a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. It came as no surprise to any of her friends or family that she rose to the level of Chief Prosecutor in the Narcotics division. After all, she graduated from Harvard Law with the intention of making the world a safer place. So far she has not disappointed. As her life continued along, she met her husband, and they started a lovely family. After a few years she hit a bump in the road (I suspect there were a few before that), and whom did she call for advice? Me.

Imagine my surprise when, one afternoon, I got a call from her while she was at work. She was calling to ask me for help. I couldn’t imagine what a person in her position would need from me. After all, she spends her mornings supervising a staff of 20 other lawyers and then dedicates her afternoons to putting criminals behind bars. I soon found out. After a few minutes of uncharacteristic hemming and hawing, she finally blurted out, “Okay, how do I get my three-year-old to pick up her toys?” Before I could recover, she proceeded to tell me that she had tried almost every tactic, including charging her daughter with destruction of property (her husband made her to drop the charges), but so far nothing had worked.

Once I had effectively quelled my laughter, I began to help her come up with a solution. My first few suggestions were summarily dismissed. I then hit upon an option that had never occurred to her: a chart. You know the kind that gets filled with stickers whenever a child does something even mildly productive.

We decided she should make not one, but two charts. One would be for her daughter, and the other would be for her. Both mother and daughter clearly needed some help in the area of positive reinforcement. Being that my friend is a rather analytical person, as you might have already inferred, we decided to model her chart as a twelve-step-program. (The first step on her chart was “I will not arrest my daughter.”) After working out the kinks in the charts, identifying a location for it to be displayed and determining the reward for each step of positive behavior, she finally stopped me and said, “I don’t get it; isn’t this bribery? I mean, can’t I get arrested for this?” I could tell she needed a lot of work. I just had to decide if I should charge her by the hour or by the toy.

Her question did get me thinking, though. After all, what’s up with these charts? I personally am a big believer in them and have seen their efficacy both at home and at school. But let’s call a spade a spade. It is bribery, but it is good bribery. However, even things that are good can go wrong. So, as a person with over a decade of chart experience, I began to think about what constitutes a good versus a bad chart.

The first thing is that the categories have to be measurable and well defined. For example, it’s harder to measure a behavior like “no biting” than an active behavior like, “picked up her toys.” (Maybe this is why my kids are still biting each other – just kidding.)  Another key to a productive chart is the number of boxes. Just as in the Three Bears story, it can’t be too few, and it can’t be too many; it has to be “just right.” Finally, the reward has to be appropriate for the child’s age and accomplishment. Now, I have to say, the schools, to which we are all grateful to for addressing the individual needs of our children, do a much better job of this than many parents. It is not uncommon for a child to have a chart at school that is essentially identical to one they have at home. At the end of the process, the child comes flying through the door waving the prize in the air and proudly announcing that he or she completed their chart. The prize they got from school? A Laffy Taffy! The prize they get when the finish their chart at home? A new car. Which one do they complain about? I don’t think I have to answer that question.

I have to say, though, that there’s a simple explanation that accounts for this. It’s called the “nudging factor.” Children are experts at this. They view their parents as one big experiment, constantly trying different approaches to see how much they can get out of us. I, for one, am going to address this the next time I set up a chart for my children. The first category on any new chart that goes up on my wall is going to include 100 boxes dedicated to “no nudging.” The first child who completes the chart is going to get an all-expense paid vacation to Hawaii. That’ll teach them a lesson.



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