The Magic Power of Stickers and Sugar

Kid eating ice-cream

In our family there are no morning people. Except on Saturdays. Every Saturday at 7am, like clockwork, my children start jumping on our bed excited about whatever fun we have planned for that day. Why? Why? Why?

But I digress… So anyways, when school started back in August it was rough. Thankfully, our first grader was pretty quick to get on board. Don’t take me wrong, he wasn’t happy about it, but he’s old enough to realize there’s no other option. But our then-still-three-year-old couldn’t care less if her brother got a tardy or if her parents were late for work. She’d announce every morning “that wasn’t enough sleep, you don’t even let me finish my dream” and pull her covers over her head. (I am soooo not looking forward to them being teenagers.)

I am not a morning person either, so I’m sympathetic and I’d try to be cute and funny about it the first couple of times, but by the time I had to go into their room for the third time to ask her to get up, I’d lose it. I reasoned with her, I threatened, I pleaded, I begged, I yelled, I bribed. And nothing. There was a time when she had to eat her breakfast in the car and on several occasions birds could have nested in her hair it was so messy.

More importantly, everybody was late and everybody started their day off in tears and a bad mood. NOBODY wants to start their morning like this. I was dreading the time when my alarm went off again the next morning, ready for battle. But somehow we survived the first semester. Christmas came and with it a 19-day break. It was glorious.

As the spring semester approached, I started getting anxious. I love my family and my kids and I really want to enjoy them. I really do want to enjoy all the time I have with them during the day. Even the 30 sleepy minutes in the morning.

The first day of the new semester was a disaster. My now-4-year-old went to school in her pajamas. Later that afternoon I was talking to a friend and she said I should just make her a sticker chart. My immediate thoughts were negative: Like that’s gonna work?! She’s too smart for that, she’ll see right through it. She just needs to get on board with the family plan and stop being a whiney baby. And those thoughts were closely followed by the usual mommy guilt: I am a terrible parent. My son didn’t have to get up so early when he was her age. It’s all my fault.

But what did I have to lose?! My husband was out of town for two days and there was no back up plan. In the morning I grabbed a piece of scrap paper and wrote Astrid’s mornings on top and drew five squares below. I went into their bedroom at 6:55am and after the usual morning wake up ritual I sat down on my daughter’s bed. “Sweetie, look I made you a picture. If you have a good morning today with no whining and just eat your breakfast and get dressed, you can put a sticker on here. When you put a sticker in each of these squares we’ll go pick a treat on Friday afternoon. I know you’re going to do great. What treat you want to pick?” A little blonde head immediately popped out from under the covers. She quickly glanced at the chart and said, “I am going to fill it with Paw Patrol stickers and we’re gonna get TCBY”. She then went straight to the breakfast table. No fuss, no crying, no yelling. That morning, I triumphantly texted my husband from the carpool line at her preschool. We were early!!!

We are now on week three of our morning sticker chart and we haven’t had a bad morning yet. Every now and then I need to remind her “Careful, or you’ll loose your sticker for the day” and poof, it’s like magic.

I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old and I have never made a sticker chart before. It’s never too late to try new tricks. I constantly need to keep reminding myself that a) my children are two different people, with two different personalities and b) they are children, babies really, and not tiny adults.

Other ways to encourage “start behavior” (an action you want your child to start and complete, like go through a morning routine, eat dinner, pick up their room or do their homework) are:

  • Positive verbal feedback. Say something nice to a child when you see them doing an action or behavior you are trying to reinforce. It lets the child know she is doing something that you like. A 2:1 ratio of positive-to-negative feedback is generally a good guiding rule.
  • Charting. At some point our peaceful mornings will become the norm and we will phase our sticker chart out. You don’t want to go on with your charts and rewards forever, after all you are trying to teach your children good habits and independence.
  • Kitchen timer. Make the clock be the bad guy. Plus kids LOVE competition. You can even offer rewards from time to time if they beat the clock.
  • Natural consequences. If you don’t eat breakfast, you will be hungry until lunch. If you don’t finish your homework, you will need to explain it to your teacher.
  • Docking system. If you have older children who get an allowance, maybe having to pay a fine is a way to encourage them.

And don’t be afraid to mix and match 🙂 These ideas are from a handy little parenting book called 1-2-3 Magic. I highly recommend it.  Especially if, for a completely random example, you have a stubborn 4-year-old girl who won’t get out of bed in the morning.

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