She was 2 years, 6 months and 17 days when it happened. Our sweet, fun-loving daughter turned into the kind of two year old that I’d been warned about. My daughter has had a few tantrums before, but the relentless whining, the endless list of demands (often contradictory to each other), and full blown hysterics? No, this was new and different and, yes, terrible. By bedtime, my patience was spent, and I needed this child to go to sleep without a fight.
Anna’s pediatrician at Golden Gate Pediatrics suggested a rewards chart. Aha, I remember hearing about those things! Use positive reinforcement, instead of threats and punishment. We gave it a try at bedtime. And by giving it a try, I mean our first chart looked like this:
I drew some lines on a piece of construction paper, scribbled some words and hastily drew pictures. Anna contributed by ripping the paper… not maliciously, by the way. She genuinely was trying to help. Anna loves stamps, so she earned a stamp for completing each part of the bedtime routine and most importantly for NOT GETTING OUT OF HER BED ONCE SHE WAS TUCKED IN.
That thing worked like a charm. And why wouldn’t it? She’s just like me. I love checking things off lists. Plus, she had a Rapunzel MagiClip doll waiting at the end of this experiment, so she was motivated to earn her stamps and honor her bedtime.
After a week, she got the Rapunzel doll, and she couldn’t have been prouder. This chart seemed too good to be true…. and it was. She started getting out of bed incredibly early in the morning. A child’s sleep routine is an ongoing game of whack-a-mole, isn’t it?
There was no need to change our strategy, though. We upgraded our chart to the one pictured here, courtesy of my artistic mother-in-law, and we purchased a bunny training alarm clock for forty-stinking-dollars. Anna got a stamp if she stayed in bed until bunny was awake.
The bunny is still going strong, but the chart went kaput after about three weeks. Here’s what happened.
My daughter just stopped caring about it. The novelty wore off, and she figured out that this was a disguised way for me to nag her. As soon as she started to lose interest in earning stamps, I stopped using the chart as the positive reinforcement it’s meant to be and started using it as a threat. “If you don’t brush your teeth, you won’t get a stamp, and then you won’t get your doll.” The threats stopped working. I held fast and didn’t give her rewards, and then the chart sort of faded away.
Around the time I backed off on the chart, an article in The Atlantic came out about reward charts, which cautioned that, if overused, they may teach kids to trade good behavior for rewards, rather than becoming intrinsically motivated to do what’ they’re supposed to do. I took it as a sign not to push the chart anymore.
Although, I don’t think reward charts are inherently bad. The chart got us over the hump during a particularly tough period, and maybe it is partly responsible for bedtime running a little smoother lately, but maybe not. Maybe she grew out of her most obstinate phase of toddler-hood (I pray), but maybe I also changed my behavior.
I’ve accepted that the bedtime routine no longer runs exactly by my rules, and that she needs to have some say over this part of her day. She still likes to get out of bed at least once after she’s tucked in, just to prove that she can, and accepting that this will happen makes it a little easier to manage, but just a tiny bit.
My patience is still drained by bedtime, and I have to find extra reserves to get through the routine. My husband is a huge help, but when he’s out of town, I head for bed as soon as she’s down. Is there anything more exhausting than wrangling a toddler?
I know that this, too, shall pass, like all the phases before it. In the meantime, the bunny alarm clock will stay in the rotation, I’ll stay as patient as possible, while I’ll look for other strategies to try.
So, tell me: How does bedtime go at your house, and what secrets do you have to getting your kids tucked in once and for all at night?