“Token economies” have been used as a behavior-modification tool since the 1960s. The idea is to catch oneself doing things right and to reinforce the positive feelings thus generated, by putting aside tangible “tokens” (such as poker chips or buttons) for each step in the right direction. Tokens are saved up to be redeemed for rewards.
Parents can use this approach, which I call the Chip System, to reinforce positive behavior in children and lead them from external to internal motivation. A child who is motivated from within will be able to achieve all he wants in life, without making “not my fault” excuses or feeling at the mercy of outside factors.
To implement the Chip System, begin by purchasing a set of poker chips or similar items to use as tokens. Then outline what your perfect day with your child would look like, emphasizing those behaviors you want to reinforce as the child’s regular habits. Be very specific; visualize a full day from getting up on time, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, getting ready for school …. all the way to post-supper tooth brushing, evening bath, and going to bed. The clearer the details, the better.
Once you finish a list of behaviors based on that perfect day, decide how many “chips” each positive action or behavior is worth. You will pay the chips out as rewards for every action you want repeated. Next, develop a list of negative actions or behaviors you do not want repeated, and for which, if a child commits one, he will owe you the chips. Important: Make this list shorter than the “positive” one; the idea is to focus attention on what you want done, not to look for things to criticize!
If you have more than one child, you may need to make separate “rewards” and “fines” lists for each.
Now, it’s time to involve the children directly. Ask them to brainstorm all the things that would motivate them to behave: a picnic, ice cream at Sonic, a trip to the science museum, a visit to Dave and Buster’s, an extra half hour of video-game time, first choice on what’s served for dinner, having a friend spend the night? Let the kids’ imaginations go wild; you (and they) may be surprised at what their personal motivators turn out to be.
Once the children have completed their list(s), you assign a “value in chips” to each reward. The children are responsible for saving the chips they earn, for keeping track of their holdings, and for cashing in chips for the items of their choice. Encourage them to save up for larger rewards and not always spend their chips the minute they hit the first level.
By involving your children in this program, you help them start taking ownership of their plans and challenges. After a while, they will begin to understand that they have power within them to do the right thing—and that’s when the real magic starts to happen!