As a person, I was always aware that children behaved in annoying, often impolite and frequently appalling ways. As a parent, I was sure that my implicit boundary setting and impeccable behaviour modelling would ensure my own child was born with a kind of inbuilt anti-twat mechanism. Now let me make it clear from the get go that my child is absolutely fucking brilliant. Imagine your own kid’s brilliance but multiplied by a million. That’s my kid. Nevertheless…
Here we are, 3 years and a few months in. Despite being able to speak two languages, the kid is fundamentally ideologically opposed to saying please, thank you and goodbye in either of them. Felt tip pens repel their lids. Although she is ambidextrous and quite capable of independently putting beads onto a string to make a not unappealing necklace, the very thought of picking said beads up from the floor and placing them into some sort of vessel is an intolerable suggestion, met with a primal scream from the depths of an apparently tortured soul. Five minutes doesn’t sound very long until you count it out.
In an attempt towards benevolent coercion, we have yet again instituted that good old fashioned workhorse: the sticker chart. For those of you who are unaware of this method because you perhaps either live underground, don’t have children and therefore don’t need to stop yourself being oppressed by them, or maybe you just enjoy repeating yourself without end, here’s the method:
1. Involve the child in the making of the sticker chart from the beginning.
This means you need to give them a heads up that this activity is in the pipeline. Talk to them about it in an unnaturally high pitched, forced voice with a fake smile plastered on your exhausted face. Be sure to place extra emphasis on the key meaning-carrying words, which for your toddler will be: “sticker!”, “put the stickers on it!”, “yeah?!”, “get a lotta stickers!”, “get a treat!” This technique will blind them to the fact they have to cooperate with you.
2. Make a list of all the things they don’t do.
You must be realistic here: we all wish they would earn a living and clean the bathroom, but everything must take its time and place. Focus on perhaps 3 – 5 key ways in which their behaviour makes you feel like a failure. Select feasible, achievable aims such as: eat fruit or vegetables; brush teeth without screaming; tidy up toys. Try to involve them in setting the aims: you can do this by phrasing each suggestion as an extremely coercive, closed question e.g. “How about we put eat some fruit or vegetables, yeah? That’s so good isn’t it! Yeah?!” It’s important here to continue to use the same tone of voice you used in step 1.
3. Draw charming illustrations and allow your child to destroy them using felt tip pens.
I am fortunate in being really quite fucking good at drawing, meaning my child looks at me like a rockstar each time I casually scribble out a realistic looking horse or portrait of Postman Pat. But don’t worry if you, like my husband, are shit at drawing. It’s not important. You just need to do a quick line sketch which vaguely resembles the thing you’re talking about: e.g. a circle (an orange) and a few smaller circles (peas) will suffice to convey the message “eat some fucking fruit and veg”. Involve the child in this stage by encouraging them to colour in your creations: important here to avoid temptation to be a controlling dick about which colours they should use. Maintain cheerful voice and explode with joy as you chime, “GREAT idea!” each time they tell you they’re going to colour everything in black.
4. Stick chart on fridge.
You want to position this at child height so that it has the effect of a spooky painting or a 1990s poster of Leonardo DiCaprio: wherever you go in the room, it will be looking at you. This encourages the child to internalise the sense of being constantly observed, thus leads towards self-regulation. The beady eyed reader will here recall Michel Foucault’s discussion of society functioning along the same lines as Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptican – a circular prison building with one central watchtower, which leads the inmates to behave at all times as though being observed by one single, unseen guard – and that is basically exactly what we’re trying to put in place here with our sticker chart.
5. Use chart.
Each time your child does something broadly similar to something on the chart, get them to choose a sticker and stick it on the correct category. You need to be flexible with your expectations here: e.g. for “tidy up”, it’s unrealistic for the child to actually tidy up. Instead, spend a good 10-15 minutes cajoling and jumping around the room like some sort of pill-ed up Cbeebies migraine, placing heaving emphasis on how much FUN we’e going to have TIDYING UP and then you’re going to get aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa STICKERRRRRRR YEAAAYYYYYY!!!!! If they pick up 3 out of 47 beads and put them in a small bowl, give them the bloody sticker. Similarly, if they eat 2mg broccoli with half a litre of ketchup, they get the sticker.
VERY IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE:
Remember to use chart more than once.
My husband and I have a lot of diverse parental strengths. We’re creative, dynamic, fun, engaged, respectful, considerate parents. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that we are completely fucking inconsistent. I believe that the central tenet of the sticker chart is that repeated, consistent use transforms the target behaviours from anomalies into habitual patterns. We haven’t quite got there yet, basically because we always forget to use it. As such our house is covered in beads and bits of discarded vegetable, we argue regularly and have employed a cleaner.