Token Economies: How We Get our Kids to Behave

dollar bill

Our Family’s Experiences with “Token” Economies

We get up in the morning, and I REALLY need Dude to get himself dressed.  He may only be 4, but he’s perfectly capable of dressing himself.  Throughout the day, chores need to be done; pets need to be cared for.  My husband and I both work full time, and when we come home, we’re mentally exhausted.  We can’t manage all the household duties alone, so the kids must help.  Through the 11+ years we’ve been parents, we’ve tried many strategies to get our kids to help out, everything from using a sticker chart to punishing for what doesn’t get finished.

After trial and a lot of error, our therapist recommended a household “token economy”.  A token economy is one in which the kids earn tokens throughout the day for any desired behaviors, and then can exchange them for small items/privileges.   There are as many varieties of token economies as there are opinions about them, and all have their own pros and cons.  We’ve tried many over the years, so I’ll share as much as I can remember about them, and you can decide if one of these will work for your family.

Before I go into how each program specifically, I want to share a few things that we’ve learned about token economies in general.  These little nuggets can help set you up for success from the very beginning.

  • First and foremost, if the kids don’t buy into it, it ain’t gonna work! They need to feel like they’re part of the whole process.
  • Secondly, keep it simple! If it’s too confusing or requires a lot of ground rules, no one will stick to it, not even you!
  • When you introduce the program to your child, make sure you present it in a very positive light! Be sure to explain that it’s a way to reward them for his good behavior.
  • Each kid needs a piggy bank for whatever tokens you choose. Let them pick out their own, but make sure what they choose is suitable for the tokens you’re using.  If you can’t get the tokens out, it won’t work.  Or, if you make banks at home, let each child decorate his.
  • When using a token economy that allows kids to purchase different rewards, you’ll need to create two separate menus. If your child can’t yet read, then create picture menus, either with posters or in a notebook.  One menu outlines the items for which he will be rewarded and includes behaviors, tasks, or skills that you want him to work on.  The other menu defines the rewards for which he can use the tokens.  To feel included, kids should be allowed to add items to both menus, and you can decide together how much he earns/pays for each.  But beware.  Think hard about the values, because if you pay too many tokens, or don’t charge enough for the rewards, it could become very expensive, very quickly.  My four-year-old saved up almost 50 tokens in one week, just by behaving the way we expect him to, like getting himself dressed in the mornings and brushing his teeth.
  • If you reward a child in the moment (instant gratification), she is more likely to connect the reward to the behavior that earned it, and is more likely to repeat that behavior, so tokens should be “portable” so you can give them out at a restaurant, running errands, grocery shopping, etc.
  • On the other hand, systems that make her save up tokens to get something can introduce her to the concepts of saving real money in the future.

Version #1:  The Grab Bag

grab bag stuff

Grab Bags are so simple, making them ideal for young kids or when you’re working on only one goal.  When Buddy was ready to potty train, we decided to use a grab bag of goodies to entice him to use the potty.  After purchasing a bunch of little toys and a gift bag at our local $1 Store, Buddy could choose one of the goodies out of the bag if he used the toilet instead of wetting his pants.  It worked like a charm and he potty trained in less than a week.

Having said that, grab bags do have their pitfalls.  Buddy always took a long time to choose the item he wanted, or he’d pick one out and change his mind a few minutes after he got it.  My suggestion is to wrap each item in tissue/wrapping paper before putting them in the bag, so the kids truly don’t know what they’re getting, or what’s left in the bag.  This does make the program more time consuming and a little more expensive though.

 Pros: 

  1. Very simple, great for young kids
  2. Cheap, in the short term. Find packages with multiple items to make it even cheaper.
  3. Instant gratification

Cons:

  1. Not readily portable
  2. Expensive over the long haul
  3. Lots of crappy little toys floating all over the house

Version #2:  Sticker Charts

sticker chart.jpg

With Buddy and Snix, we created posters showing their morning, after-school, and bedtime routines.  They’d get a star every time they completed a task.  At the end of the day/week, if they had a certain number of stickers, they’d get a reward.  Daily rewards are smaller trinkets; weekly rewards were only slightly nicer.  The boys liked the system and could easily tell what needed to be done and when.

With three kids to monitor, this system just became too cumbersome, especially during chaotic mornings and at bed time.  It was hard to keep track of who had done what, who still needed to get stickers and who didn’t, and God forbid if one of the stickers ever slightly ripped!  After a month or two, we basically just gave up on this one.

 Pros: 

  1. Simple enough for young kids
  2. Saving the stickers for larger rewards introduces the kids to the general concepts of saving up for something

Cons:

  1. Works better with fewer kids
  2. Expensive over the long haul
  3. You think stickers would be portable, but when you are running errands and give your daughter one, where is she to put it? My boys always wanted to put the stickers on their shirts and then transfer them to their charts at home, but the stickers wouldn’t stick, or they got washed, etc.
  4. Must have daily and weekly rewards on hand
  5. Lots of crappy little toys floating all over the house

Version #3:  Five-Star Bookmark

5 star bookmark

The Five-Star Bookmark is by far the simplest of all the systems we’ve tried, and is especially suited to very young kids.  We have only used it for Dude, so I have no experience of using it for multiple kids, but we started this after it was suggested by his special ed teacher, who used it for several of her students at the same time.  It was a laminated bookmark with five numbered squares on the front.  On the back were five separate gold stars, roughly the size of the front squares.  They, too, were laminated and had a bit of rolled up tape on their backs.

Every time Dude displayed desired behavior, we’d move a star from the back of the bookmark to one of the numbered squares on front.  Once all five squares were filled with stars, he got some extra special time (we called them “time-ins”) with Mom or Dad, snuggling, reading, or playing with Legos.

The bookmark generally worked quite well, and lasted a month or two before he tired of it.

Pros: 

  1. Simplest version yet, perfect for preschoolers
  2. No purchase required, so it’s also the cheapest version
  3. Very portable
  4. Instant gratification, yet encourages saving too
  5. Can earn multiple “time-ins” throughout the day (could also be considered a “con”.)

Cons:

  1. When the 5th star is earned, the parent has to drop what they’re doing for the “time-in”. What if the child earns his 5th star while you’re driving or cooking dinner?
  2. Can be time intensive for the parent because child can earn multiple time-ins throughout the day
  3. Not necessarily suited to older kids

Version #4:  E-Tickets

pokered chips

I admit it, my kids are addicted to their electronics.  At times, they hate leaving the house because they don’t want to stop playing the Xbox.  If we go out for dinner, they don’t care WHERE we go, AS LONG AS the restaurant has wi-fi.  Electronics cause bedtime to be a fight, and that’s NOT how anyone wants to end the day.  So on the recommendation of a previous therapist, we instituted a token economy strictly as a way to earn electronics time.  I will also admit that this was my least favorite of all programs, but it still might work for other folks.

We used poker chips we found at a local thrift store, and the children could earn chips by behaving as we desired, such as doing their chores, completing homework, holding doors for strangers, etc.  Each chip was worth 5 minutes on the ipad/Xbox.  If you used it as a way to earn a variety of rewards, instead of just one type, it would probably work better.  In fact, if your child is older, each color chip could be worth a different value.

This sounds like a very simple program.  Actually, it’s very similar to what we use now; however, the more we used the program, the more we had to set a whole lot of ground rules.  The ground rules became cumbersome and they caused arguments anyway, so we ended up ditching the whole thing.  Our ground rules were:

  • No ipads at the dinner table
  • You can’t buy e-time after 8 pm (30 minutes before bedtime).
  • You can use ipads in the car for free, but you have to give them up or pay for more time as soon as we get home.
  • You don’t get ipad time on credit. If you don’t have chips, you don’t get electronics.

Here are some of the sticky situations we had to work through.  Note they are all related to the use of electronics, NOT the use of the tokens themselves:

  • At one point, I was working from home and had a conference call. I gave the boys an hour for free, so I could take the call in quiet.  After that, all I heard for a week was “You let me have it the other day for free.”
  • Whenever the boys were grounded from electronics, they temporarily were not interested in earning the chips, thus didn’t try to behave.
  • My kids do NOT self-police very well, and we were notorious for forgetting to take the ipads away when their time was up. We set timers on our phones, but with multiple kids earning varying amounts of time, that because a nuisance.  We bought kitchen timers, but the kids just broke them.
  • And finally, because their little brains are addicted to the stimulation, they’d still argue with us when their allotted time was up.

Pros: 

  1. Poker chips are cheap at your local thrift store
  2. Portable
  3. Works best for older kids who understand time
  4. Works best when there are multiple rewards that can be earned

Cons  

Most of the cons can be attributed to the reward itself (electronics time) rather than the program itself.  But the poker chip program is almost identical to version #5: Toy dollars.  So keep reading for more details.

Version #5:  Play Money

toy money

After trying the aforementioned programs with little success, I was skeptical (and still am, a bit) about yet another token economy when a new therapist recommended it.  But, Dad and I decided to go ahead and try this version just a few weeks ago, so we have no “what ifs” to wonder about.  This one has good and bad parts but it seems to work, FOR NOW.

Instead of using poker chips or some other arbitrary token, I purchased a couple packages of play money at our local $1 Store.  The bills are smaller black-and-white versions of actual money, so the kids seem very interested.  One side note: After thinking about it for all of 30 seconds, I discarded the coins because that’s too much hassle.  We work in whole dollars only!

For their banks, I then gave each boy a tin can that I pulled out of our recycle bin, and supplies to decorate them however they wanted.  As they were decorating, we discussed ways to earn money.  I made sure to include the tasks/behaviors they wanted rewarded for, as well as the ones I needed them to improve on.  We developed a menu of about 15 behaviors and how much each behavior was worth.  The more difficult or time-intensive the task, the more money it’s worth.  Remember to be generous, but not TOO generous that you can’t afford it!

We did the same thing for the rewards menu.  That list has only a handful of items like a trip to the park, or a fancy cupcake, but honestly the kids usually want to use their money to buy a toy.

Here’s where the problem comes in, so you’ll want to be careful.  It’s so easy for them to earn money throughout the day that we’d go broke if each fake dollar was worth one real dollar.  So we created a two-to-one exchange rate. In other words, if something costs $10 in real life, they have to save up $20 fake dollars to pay for it.

Along the way, a few questions came up.

  1. Are there tasks they DON’T get paid for? Heck yeah!  Some things are just expected of them. Buddy does NOT earn money for getting himself dressed because he’s 11 years old, so that’s just expected.
  2. Can each kid have a different “menu”? Yes, but be sure to keep the menus simple.  Our menus are based on age and ability.  Dude is 4 years old, and he earns $1 if he dresses himself in the morning.  Snix and Buddy don’t.  Buddy is the only kiddo responsible enough to take the trash to the curb, and he earns $1 for that.
  3. Can we take money away if they misbehave? According to the therapist, yes.  And I will tell you taking away their money is currently the most effective way yet to get them to behave!
  4. Be careful what you ask for! Funnily enough, this program can work a little too well.  My kids started doing things VOLUNTARILY around the house to earn more money.  Last night, Buddy wanted a new gaming headset at Target.  He already had saved some money, so to earn the rest, he cleaned two toilets, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, folded and put away laundry, took some icky left-overs out to the compost pile, picked up his brothers’ toys and made their beds for them, and folded some blankets on the couch.  That sounds absolutely lovely; however, I ended up making an unexpected trip to Target right before bedtime in return.  We now have a new ground rule that forbids special trips just so buy rewards.  (Also set ground rules like “No buying candy right before bed”.)

 Pros: 

  1. Simple enough that our four-year-old understands the basic concept
  2. Fake money is very portable
  3. Improve counting and sorting skills
  4. A nice blend of instant gratification and saving skills

Cons:

  1. Can be expensive if you don’t design the menus properly
  2. My kids now want to be paid for the smallest spur-of-the-moment task we ask them to do
  3. Preschoolers may have trouble equating the value of money to the value of toys, and with the different denominations. Dude got upset because he was saving his money, but wanted to buy something little at the store, so he just brought one dollar.  It was difficult for him to understand why he couldn’t get a large Lego set for that $1.

So now that you’ve read the pros and cons of the various token economies, do you think any will work for your family?  What other varieties have you used with your family?