At some point in life, each of us will have the best intentions but not follow through on something (New Year’s resolutions come to mind). This situation applied to me last year when I tried to set up a chore board for my 4 year old daughter, Kat.
Growing up, my siblings and I were expected to do chores and help with the housework, but there were no blackboards involved, and there were certainly no stickers or awards. So the idea of having a chalkboard for my kids seemed unnecessary.
That changed last year, shortly after Kat left kindergarten and started staying home with an au pair and her then one-year-old sister Lily. For the first two months, it was the honeymoon phase: she adored Marina, the au pair, and did whatever she asked, and she adored Lily. If my husband or I couldn’t convince Kat to comply, the au pair would ask and, like magic, Kat would. It was wonderful.
But this phase has dissipated. Kat became less cooperative and we realized she needed more structure. I scoured Instagram and Pinterest for ideas on routines, and I kept coming across adorable boards with not just tasks, but daily expected tasks or behaviors. Some blogs have suggested rewarding kids for completing tasks with something like screen time or toy time; some don’t. For example, a table lists things like “read a book for 20 minutes,” “move your body,” and “get outside.”
My spine tingled: That was it. A graph. A colorful and cute board with pictures and stickers. That would solve my parenting issues. It would bring harmony back to our now chaotic home which was ruled by a tyrannical 4-year-old child in a unicorn robe.
Since my 4 year old daughter can’t read yet, the pictures seemed like a good way to give her some autonomy and independence when it came to completing her tasks. I made a chart and printed it on purple paper. I’ve included images of tasks: a bed to “make your bed” and a clip art of someone stretching to “move your body”. I created tasks in the morning, afternoon and evening, so that his day was structured and routine.
At first, I was at home implementing the board during school vacations, and it worked. As a former teacher, I’m used to creating routines and sticking to them. I’m even used to a lot of pushback, so I didn’t budge when my daughter cried and threw a tantrum if she didn’t win a sticker. At that time, I didn’t think a reward was necessary; winning the sticker was reward enough.
Then my school holidays ended and the board stopped working about a month later due to lack of follow-up from the adults in the house. Something had to give.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Kat didn’t listen to the au pair and rode her bike down the street. We realized she needed more structure and immediately enrolled her in kindergarten, where she thrived under the guidance of her experienced teachers.
Despite her successful transition to school, her behavior at home was still enough to make me wonder if I was a good parent. I put two and two together and realized she still needed some structure at home, and reworked her chart.
This time, I did three things differently, based on what I knew about our family and my daughter:
1. I let her mark off her tasks with a marker when she completes them. The stickers were too cumbersome, and sometimes I ran out of them, or we wasted time arguing over which sticker she wanted to put on her card. So the second time around, I decided to let her tick her own boxes. I don’t need to buy tons of stickers, and she feels powerful and important checking off her board.
2. I divide chores into “before school” and “after school” functions. I added tasks she struggled with, like putting on shoes and socks without recoil or making her bed or remembering to put her plate in the sink after breakfast. Designating tasks as “morning” or “afternoon” helps focus our time and priorities on what needs to be done at that time.
3. I linked a reward to his check marks. She can’t save time on the iPad to play Starfall or watch “Ada Twist, Scientist” if she doesn’t get all her ticks. At first, there were a few days where she didn’t get any screen time, and those were hellish evenings, but we held on, and she learned we were serious, and now the reward is working for her.
My guess is that our chart trail is working so well means that by the time you read this we will have encountered a hiccup and had to pivot again. But instead of seeing it as failure, like I did with the original purple routine chart, I now see it as parenting: adapting to my child’s needs.
Christine Suders is the mother of two young children.