Token Economy

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: I have four children, ages 4, 5, 7, and 8. When they were babies, they were so sweet and cuddly, but now that they are older, I am pulling my hair out. They don’t listen to me when I holler at them. It seems that I have to scream for them to even notice that I am talking. The older children are now taking sides with the younger children against me. My husband tells me I am a lousy parent, but he does nothing to help. As of today, I would agree with him that I am a lousy parent. Can you give me any advice that might help turn our chaotic household around?

I wish I had an instant cure for your situation, but unfortunately I don’t. However, I have a couple of suggestions that may start the process of shaping your children’s behavior.

First, it’s important to remember that parenting is hard work, but it’s easier if you have a goal for your children’s behavior. If an animal trainer can get an elephant to sit on a little red box, it’s likely you can get your kids to do what you want them to do if you know what kind of behaviors you want from them and work to shape those behaviors.

Second, stop hollering at your children, go to the child you are addressing, and speak directly to him or her.

Third, work to get your husband on board. He’s probably just as frustrated as you, but instead of pulling his hair out, he puts the blame on you and calls you a bad parent. If you can come up with a plan that works, he may want to be a part of it.

When I work with parents, I encourage them to implement a token economy and cost-response systems. To implement these, I encourage parents to create refrigerator charts (charts that can be hung on the refrigerator or other public place). This allows others to see your children’s progress. Once it’s working, it will allow you to brag about their good behavior, which is rewarding in itself.

Your children can be involved in the creation of the charts. Let them decorate them and get them excited about earning their own money. Create eight columns—one for each day and a wider one on the left side to write assigned chores. Then create rows. In the left column the chores are written and stars, smiley faces, money amounts, etc. are put on the lines following the chores in each daily column.

Determine age-appropriate chores for each child. Since your children range in age from 4 to 8, each child will have different chores. Keep the number of chores manageable (i.e., 4 chores). Each may be able to make his or her bed, but an older child may take out the trash while a younger child puts silverware in a drawer.

For sake of ease in explaining the process, let’s suppose you offer to pay your child $.25 for each chore completed at a predetermined acceptable level. (You determine the amount you want to pay.) If your child does all four chores acceptably, he will earn $1.00 per day. That’s $7.00 per week, but here’s the catch, you stop giving your children money for pop, candy, treats, etc. throughout the week. They must earn it. If their behavior is such that they didn’t earn the money, sorry, that’s life. They have to go without. This takes discipline on the part of the parent. The parent must not feel sorry for the child and give in. To do so sabotages the token economy.

So how do you deal with bad behavior? That is where you implement the cost-response system. Continuing with our $.25 per chore and a maximum possible $1.00 per day, charge your child $.05 per bad behavior. If your child sasses you, or picks on another child, simply ask that child to put a check mark in the column for that day. Add the money earned for the day and subtract $.05 for each check mark, but never go into negative numbers. That gives the child the opportunity to start fresh each day. The reason you want to charge a small amount for each infraction, rather than a larger amount is that it provides you with more leverage. A charge of $.05 per infraction allows the child to be penalized without losing all money earned for the day. This increases motivation.

At the end of the week, add the totals and pay the child. When you go to the store, if the child has enough money, he can buy a treat. It also allows you the opportunity to teach the child about saving money, giving to charity, paying tithes, etc. A very important rule is that you must have the money available to pay on payday. Like adults, they will expect their pay on time.

This program only works if the parent is disciplined to make it work. You must not be vindictive in the process. The goal is shaping behavior not punishing behavior. You must address inappropriate behavior when it is occurring, even when you are busy. You must not give in to your child’s crying when the child does not have enough money for a treat because of not doing chores, or bad behavior. Don’t allow draws upon future payments. (By the way, that’s a bad idea for adults too.) To give in at this critical moment will teach your child that crying, misbehaving, or throwing a tantrum gets results.

When you implement a program such as this, be prepared for some initial bad behavior when the child does not get the allowance he wants, or has to go without treats, there will likely be a burst of bad behavior. That burst of bad behavior is referred to a “response burst.” Stick with the program and the behavior will improve.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to realnews@deltadiscovery.com.

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