Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Penny for Your Thoughts or Just Give Me All the Money In Your Wallet

Our 4 1/2 year-old son, we'll call him Kid 1, just drags his feet anytime we ask him to do something. Correction: anytime we ask him to do something that does not fully align with his agenda-of-the-moment. My husband asked him to go put his wallet away and come to the dinner table. The sound of his feet dragging could be heard into the next room. Paul asked him to put his wallet away and come to the dinner table "by the time I count to three, or I get to keep all the money in your wallet." (Kid 1 likes to keep a bit of spare change in his own little wallet and tote it wherever we go.)

Well, this was taken as a challenge. Our boy suddenly had a rocket attached to his feet. He raced into his room and came skidding back into the dining room sans wallet before Paul could say 2 1/2. He victoriously cocked his hands on his hips and declared, "Now I get to keep all the money in your wallet!"

We've tried different behavior modification strategies over the past two years with him, some successful, some not-so-successful. Here are the highlights:

  • Penny In The Jar: "Every time I catch you following directions the first time, you get to put a penny in the jar!!!" In theory, it could have merit, but I didn't always have a penny (or the jar), and so this one lacked immediacy. If we were away from the house (which we are a lot, for my own sanity) I would forget to give him his pennies when we got back home. This may work well with an older child who can remember how many pennies they've earned. This one didn't last long for us.

  • Bunny Bucks (Now this was an elaborate one): Similar to the "penny in the jar" method, I decided to give my son a "bunny buck" anytime I caught him doing good. Completing his simple chores, following directions, using nice manners, whatever behavior we were working on at the time, got reinforced with bunny bucks. Then, at the end of the day, he could use his earnings to buy a prize from my "store." Prizes were usually from the dollar store, but sometimes included things like cake mix, worms in dirt (chocolate pudding with crushed chocolate cookies on top and gummy worms "crawling" out), or a special project with Mom. I put a price on each thing, along with a visual marking system ($3 items had 3 bunny bucks drawn underneath so he could count to determine how many bucks it would cost him). This way, he was learning number values in conjunction with family values. This was a successful one, our son loved it, and eventually he was only allowed to "shop" once a week; but if I try this one again, I would put more focus on the activities and special projects, rather than the tangible prizes.

As parents, my husband and I struggle with the idea of using tangible prizes to reinforce good behavior. Sometimes it's appropriate, but we don't want our kids to feel like they should get something when they behave or do their chores. We don't want to encourage that feeling of entitlement kids can develop when they are blessed with every thing a kid could need, plus some. This blessing can too easily become a curse, for both the child and the parents.

  • Kid K'Nex, another take on tangible rewards: A more recent experiment involved a building set I wanted for Kid 1. We needed something a bit more advanced for him, but not too difficult for a 4 1/2 yr. old to manipulate on his own. I finally found Kid K'Nex "Zoomin' Buddies," a set that had wheels and googly eyes and other fun parts. But we didn't just hand it over to him. After all, it wasn't his birthday or Christmas...he had to earn it first!

Each time Kid 1 followed directions the first time, he earned a new piece to build with. This was amazing! By the time he earned all the pieces, he was doing his chores, getting himself dressed, brushing his teeth, and presenting himself at the breakfast table in "TA-DAAAA!" pose. He never failed to inform us when he did things without even being asked. Today, he usually still gets himself dressed and ready for his day without any prompting from us, or tangible reward. We sometimes have to remind him to brush his teeth or pick up his dirty laundry, but the morning routine is so much easier now that Kid 1 is in the habit of doing these things by himself. Yea!

As a parent, I know my strategies will have to change as my child changes. What works for me today may not work tomorrow, and it may not work with KID 2. I look at parenting as a great experiment and try to have fun with it!

Do you have any tried-and-true or crash-and-burn stories of parenting?


  1. Great blog, Donna! Loved the post!


  2. I don't have my own crash and burn stories but I do love the idea of bunny bucks. That's a neat idea! And it gives me a chance to shop at the Dollar Store (which I LOVE!)

  3. Haven't we all been there...I know I have tried a million things...especially when we were potty training. Often times I felt like a magician, trying to pull another trick out, just to get our little one to go on the potty!

    Love your pics!

  4. I love your ideas! I actually just finished a book called, "Have a New Kid by Friday" and blogged about the Cliff's Notes because it gives great advice about 1st time obedience. I'm enjoying your blog - thanks!


Contact us directly at
growinggreatkids (at) gmail (dot) com
(Trying to discourage auto-spam)