As I was stacking the pizza boxes on the table my seven-year-old kid, the middle child of three, came into the kitchen. He was utterly devastated. His feisty little sister had robbed his handheld video game and she was not giving it back. In no uncertain terms, he insisted this madness was resolved before we ate.
I looked over his sister perched on one of the dining chairs. Under her mass of curly blonde hair, I saw the scowling little face of our four-year-old, who we call “Queen,” lit from underneath by the haze of Galaga on an LCD inches from her nose. Adorable but terrifying at the same time. I wanted nothing more than to avoid the horrors of trying to pry it from her powerful little meat hooks.
But there was a system now: The Reward Jar. It was my duty to use it.
The system had been developed a week earlier on the advice of my wife. It was an act of desperation after the four-year-old Queen had received a timeout at her aunt’s house, screaming, at the top of her little lungs, that she wanted to “kill everyone in this house and make them dead.”
It wasn’t an isolated incident. We’ve been having problems with anger and disrespect and acting out for quite a while now, especially with the youngest two kids. We’d long ignored their behavior when it was in the house, as long as it wasn’t particularly mean or violent, but it had now spilled over beyond our immediate family. Something had to be done.
My wife suggested a course of action she’d heard had worked with her sister. It’d been recommended to her by their behavioral therapist. The rewards jar. It seemed so simple.
This is how it was supposed to work. We’d buy a massive glass jar for each kid, and drop a fluffy pom-pom ball into the jar whenever they “made the right choice”. As the jar filled, the pom-pom level would reach rewards marked like a graduated cylinder or measuring cup on the jar. They reward would be fulfilled Immediately. No questions asked.
The worst behaviors, yelling “kill” physical aggression, or wanton destruction, would be punished swiftly and without warning. Minor misbehaviors would slide. But when the kids were told to “make the right choice or else … ” they’d have to step-up or receive swift punishment.
We purchased, marked and decorated the jars (so much glitter) and had a family meeting to lay down the new law. They seemed to get it, though our middle kid skillfully explored the gray areas.
“What if you hear me say ‘shut up’ but I was gonna say ‘shut up and dance with me?’”
I don’t know! I didn’t even think about that! I have literally no idea what to—
“If it is said in anger, it still counts,” replied the wife. Clutch.
We explained the punishments. And launched
On day one, I came downstairs from a bath and 4-year-old was on her knees, shuddering in rage that her llama had been taken by mom. I pulled my wife into the kitchen for an emergency crisis meeting. “She said ‘hate,’” my wife said. “So I took Llama away for 24 hours.” Matter of fact. Consistent.
It got messy, but we stuck to our guns. Nine confiscated stuffed animals in the hallway closet later, the dust settled. The next day, llama and company were returned to their owner in a tearful reunion.
After that, it got kind of weird. In a good way. When I picked the kids up from the in-laws after work the next day, there was an eerie calm. They were wonderful, they said. Each kid earned a pom-pom for being so good, they said. The drive home was even more bizarre. Kind words and sing-a-longs, the sort of things had been a rarity for months. That evening, middle kid got a bit ornery about bath time, but “made the right choice” and ended up finishing the bath without the world ending.
Then came the birthday pizza and the stolen video game.
I kneeled beside the 4-year-old. “Queen,” I said, firmly and with all the seriousness that our ridiculous affectionate nickname allows. “Your brother wants his thing back.”
I knew there would be silence before the storm. There always is. “Please give it back to him.”
No reaction, so I doubled down.
“Please make the right choice and give it to him. I know you can do the right thing. If you don’t make the right choice… Well, I’ll have to give you a punishment. It’s a rule.”
Immediately—if somewhat reluctantly—she flicked the on/off switch and set the game down on the table. A face of thunder and fury, but no outburst. Middle kid snatched it away in a theatrical victory and took it up to his room to hide it—and himself—from her.
Five minutes passed and we were tucking into the pizza. Queen was giggling and plucking the pineapple chunks off my slice like we didn’t just avoid World War III. The middle kid even joined us too. Everything was resolved, I guess. Huh.
Maybe we fixed the kids.
Obviously, there were hiccups. Llama bit the dust twice more. The middle kid went to his room three times. Daily, though, pom-poms built up and by day seven both younger kids had hit the “CHOOSE ANY CANDY” jackpot. I took them to get their reward and they dutifully gorged as they waited for mom to get home. The sugar had made them a bit feisty, but even the combination of sugar and possessive jealousy couldn’t defeat the Reward Jar Rules.
At first, I was amazed that the rewards jar had been so effective in moderating their behavior. But as the week went on, and I found myself being more consistent and calm and patient, knowing that I had The Rules behind me to defer to, I understood that the kids were—always are, in fact—reacting to my parenting. The Jar and the codified law that went along with it hadn’t given structure to my four-year-old or seven-year-old kids. What a ridiculous notion that would be. Instead, The Rules had acted as a goal for me to refer to, as well — a boundary outside of my own frustrations that I could reference while parenting. I used it not only when talking to them, but also for measuring my own reactions to them being assholes. The sparkly jars had shown me how to control my reactionary parenting, remain consistent with punishments, and, most importantly, to tell them they’re awesome.
Which, for the most part, they really are.