It should come as no surprise to anyone that mothers of four-year-old boys--and perhaps four-year-old children in general--at some point become desperate for some sort of system to encourage good behavior and discourage misbehavior. I have a child who is, like his parents (ahem, especially his father), incredibly stubborn, and for a long, long (oh so long) time, things like time out just didn't work at all for us. Because my darling, wonderful, energetic, tenacious child simply refused to sit in time out. At one point we had resorted to time out in his room, with a child-proof knob cover on the inside doorknob, duct-taped on. Even then, time out would just be several minutes of torture for both of us, with Nate banging on the door and yelling, and me wondering when he'd figure out the knob cover. Good times.
Now, thanks be to God, he will actually sit in time out, and will do so on our steps. But still, I didn't feel like time out was really working for us. Sure, it was something I could do when he was misbehaving, just to feel like I was doing something, but there were still two problems: First, using time out to punish disobedient behavior was doing absolutely nothing to encourage kind, helpful, obedient behavior. And, second, I didn't actually feel like it was actually reducing the frequency of disobedient, unkind, or unhelpful behavior.
I've had several people suggest sticker reward charts, and I think that for many kids they're great. I was more intrigued, though, by this incredibly detailed behavior chart, which I've had bookmarked in my browser for over two years. The thing I liked about it was that you could tell your child to move up or down, thereby both rewarding/encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging negative behaviors. And it was simple in its day-to-day execution, in that you just tell the child to go and move up or down, depending on what he's doing. (Obviously quite a bit of thought has to go into determining which rules to enforce on the chart and which privileges and consequences to include, and effort into actually making the chart.)
I sat down last Friday to figure out how to make that chart work for us, and I realized that we're just not there yet. Nate isn't old enough, I felt, for some of the consequences in the "red zone" to be appropriate, especially because there are certain things I always want to encourage him to do right now. I always want him to be able to play outside, read books, and even play with his toys. Also, he's just not old enough to really do that many chores helpfully. He does things like load his dishes into the dishwasher after meals, put his clothes into the hamper, and clean up his toys, but sending him around the house wiping baseboards or swiping things with the feather duster didn't really seem like the best way to help him earn privileges back. Someday . . . but not yet.
So I was feeling a little stuck. I wanted something simple, something that was adaptable to any behavior, and something that both encouraged positive behaviors and discouraged negatives ones. I also wanted it to be easy for a four-year-old to understand. And, let's face it: I didn't want it to be ugly. I'll be the first to admit that I'm particular about my house, and this is something I needed to have out and accessible at all times.
Suddenly I remembered a package of craft pom poms I've long had languishing in a cabinet. And an idea struck me: Why not have Nate move the pom poms from one container to another as he behaves and misbehaves, and earn a treat of some sort when all of the pom poms move to the reward container?
I grabbed two mason jars from the cabinet. My bag of pom poms was small and filled up a regular size mason jar exactly. There are around 30-35 pom poms in the jar.
I didn't want the reward to be any sort of toy. Heaven knows that Nate has plenty of toys, and I'm hoping that this is a reward he will achieve over and over. I saw an expired coupon for Sweet Frog, a nearby frozen yogurt shop that Nate adores. (We will ignore the fact that he always insists on cookies and cream yogurt topped with gummy bears. Gross.) I cut off the frog logo from the coupon and taped it to one of the jars.
This is so incredibly simple that I almost feel silly sharing it here, but it has been so wonderfully effective for us just in the past week. I love that Nate can see the progress he is making as he works toward his goal and that he can see if he's going backward, too.
Basically it works like this. When I ask Nate to do something--get dressed, clear his plate, clean up his toys, turn off the TV, whatever--if he obeys the first time, without grumping about it, he earns a pom pom. (Our mantra on obedience comes from the author of my Bible study: he should obey "right away, all the way, with a cheerful heart.") If he grumps or ignores me or refuses to comply, I remind him that he can lose a pom pom for disobedience, and I start counting down from five to one. (For some reason, counting down has been key lately for Nate, probably because he knows where the end point is.) It's already very rare to count all the way down without compliance, but if he gets stubborn he moves a pom pom out of the reward jar into the plain jar. Compliance that doesn't occur right away but occurs before I finish counting down is neutral in this system, with no pom pom added or deducted.
Certain misbehavior would lose a pom pom with no warning, of course, and I'm assuming that if something arises that is particularly egregious, we'll still resort to time out. The crazy thing is, time out hasn't really been necessary since we introduced the jars. He has had time out maybe--maybe--once in seven days, and honestly I can't even remember. He is trying to be helpful.
I'm not sure whether this is some sort of a honeymoon period, but David and I are completely astounded at what a difference this has made, so quickly. I love knowing that there's a simple, ready consequence for misbehavior and a built-in reward for positive behavior.
Now, what are the drawbacks? Already, I can see at least two. First, this obviously isn't a particularly portable system, although I did tell him when we were away from home today that he'd lose a pom pom for something, and he moved it when we got home without fussing. So maybe with day-to-day outings with one kid, it's not a big deal.
But that brings me to the second drawback: I'm not sure this is the best for families with more than, say, two kids, just because you'd end up with so many jars or other containers sitting around. I could envision making up a magnet board or something with two sections for each kid, but I am pretty happy with the sort of large number of pom poms we have in the jar. I want to reward lots of instances of positive behavior every day without earning the big prize too quickly, to get him into the habit of cheerful obedience right away. That means having lots of poms available for him to move--again, there are 30-35 in the jars. I'm sure someone craftier and more creative than I am can come up with a relatively compact take on this for families with more little ones, but mason jars probably aren't the solution.
So, that's it. So simple that I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it earlier, and maybe someone out there already did. Right now I'm just so excited to see something working for my delightful spitfire of a kid that I'd be remiss if I didn't share.
Two jars and a random bag of craft poms. Who knew?