Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Can't Buy Me Love--or How a Star Chart Saved My Life

My first job out of college was as a third-grade teacher in the a notoriously tough Los Angeles neighborhood. I was young and stupid, but I did figure out pretty quickly that the kids in my class were immune to my threats. They had no one at home that cared enough to impose consequences for their bad behavior.What do you do with kids like that?

You bribe the hell out of 'em.

Negative behavior was dealt with using timeouts, but otherwise pretty much ignored. Positive behavior, however, was rewarded with attention and, more importantly, stars on the board. Ten stars meant a longer recess for the day. Twenty was an hour of free time on Friday. Fifty was a pizza party. Pretty soon, the kids were doing everything they could to earn more stars. They would even gang up against the one or two misbehaving holdouts, afraid that the offenders would cost the whole group a reward. Inevitibly, the good behavior became a way of life, and the kids found that they enjoyed being in an environment where everyone pulled together for a common goal.

Heartwarming, eh?

Cut to 12 years later. I had forgotten entirely the lessons of my years in the classroom. My stubborn three-year-old had accomplished in three months what a group of 40 inner-city kids couldn't manage in two years. She had broken my spirit.

Ever since Sam's birth, Madeline had been acting out. The end came during a very important doctor's appointment for the baby. After a morning of preparation, of Maddie's promises to behave like a good girl, she cracked under pressure. She did that thing--that red-faced, bratty, throw-myself-down-on-rug-and-scream thing that you think only happens in movies. I was at my wit's end. And then I remembered the stars.

Later that day, I made a chart, fished a sheet of stickers out of my desk drawer, and explained in very simple terms that good behavior would get a star at the end of the day. VERY good behavior might get two or three stars. Ten stars and she could pick a small surprise from the toystore. Thirty and she could get a big one.

I'll admit--she was slow in warming to this concept. But after the first small prize was earned, I could practically hear the wheels spinning in her tiny head. Oh, the riches to be had! All she had to do was behave. You may call this bribery. I call it life. I mean, isn't the purpose of working hard to get what you want in the end? And, frankly, for a three-year-old, being good all day is not easy. Reigning in the natural desire to be mean, rash, selfish, and greedy is HARD work.

We're now two weeks entirely tantrum-free. It doesn't sound like much, but it feels like a lifetime. The best thing about all of this is the positive spin it's given our days. Sure, she still gets a time-out now and then, but she seems much more focused on doing what she can to earn the praise and credit she deserves for everything she does RIGHT. The other day, she and Eric called me at work and she said, "Mom, today is going to be a four-star day!" And it was. For all of us.

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