I have a funny story to share with you about how I accidentally came up with this incredibly effective discipline hack. I can’t wait to share it so that you can incorporate it into your own family. So if you are ready, let’s get started.
First of all, I have to give credit where credit is due. During Episode 47, I interviewed Monica Swanson. It’s called Raising Children of Character, and during our conversation I was so convicted. I graduated with my degree in Elementary Education and never formally went into teaching. I did my one semester of student teaching and then became a nanny straight out of college. Then I started photographing the little boy I was nannying, and that is how I started my photography business.
Having a degree in Elementary Education opened my eyes to the world of child psychology, child development, and brain research. It was so interesting to learn about discipline styles and teaching methods. Between my education, eight years of nanny experience, and now my nine years of being a parent, I feel like I have always had this idea in my head, this positive parenting mentality of kind of protecting our children from negative comments about themselves. It’s hard for me to express how my mind thinks about these things, but that conversation I had with Monica Swanson really challenged me.
The one that I remember the most is she said, “If we do not discipline our children and we do not give them consequences, the world is going to give them much harsher consequences.” They need to learn early on that every decision that they make has a consequence. It really just got me thinking, because I always kind of had this idea in my head that I didn’t want my children to be mad at me. I wanted them to be mad at the decision that they just made, which was the result of their behavior if you know what I mean.
The Star System
So let me give you an example. I always feel like my children have to have a natural consequence. If they’re outside riding their bike and they don’t have their helmet on, then they lose the privilege to ride their bike. And I’m not going to just be like okay, you weren’t wearing your helmet, you’re not going to the birthday party because that’s completely unrelated. And so I just struggled for so many years of like, how do I find a natural consequence. How do I make my children understand that they made a bad decision and their bad decision affects their character. And so I really just had this aha moment when I got off of the phone call with Monica and I was like you know what? I need to do something instead of doing only a reward system, there needs to be a negative consequence.
One day I decided that I was going to start to teach my children respect and responsibility. I pulled out a sticky note and I just started giving my kids stars. A literal star that you draw with your pencil. I stuck it up on the side of our wall near the fridge, and the star system was born. There’s really nothing exciting about it but for whatever reason, it resonates with my children and it is so effective. Let me explain how I structure it so that you can duplicate the same system if you choose.
1) Identify your Child’s Currency
The first step is to identify your child’s currency. Now for my children, it’s screen time. They don’t get a lot of screen time. There was frustration and annoyance about my kids always asking me for TV. I just got super annoyed with it – that’s probably what set off this original idea. I decided they needed to earn their screen time. And that is my children’s currency, but this will be different for every child.
2) Establish Rules Around How to Earn Stars
I want you to establish some rules around how your children will earn the stars. There should be a few things they can do everyday to earn stars that doesn’t require a lot of effort. Because remember, with any discipline system that you use, you want it to be effective. The only way it’s going to be effective is if your children know what’s expected. It should be reasonable for their age to attain it and something they can actually succeed at. If you’re going to put in place a discipline system and you’re not going to let them succeed at it, then it’s going to backfire and it’s not going to be effective. You want it to be something that’s easily attainable. So establish some of those rules.
For instance, my children have a checklist every morning that they are in charge of. They earn a star every morning for completing that checklist. They also earn an extra star if they do, and they both have different rules for their different extra stars. So my daughter hates taking her vitamins, so if she takes her vitamins, she earns a star. My son, on the other hand, he has to show me that he brushed his teeth. So I have to watch him brush his teeth and he has to show me that he’s wearing underwear, and that’s how he earns his extra star. It’s pretty silly that my daughter doesn’t earn a star for brushing her teeth, but my son does, and it took them a little while to understand that.
But if you just remind your children everybody has different struggles, and your brother struggles with brushing his teeth and wearing underwear and you struggle with taking your vitamins. Eventually your kids will stop asking and they’ll understand. My kids also earn stars for doing their evening checklist. Things like hanging up their backpack, making sure they’re getting their homework done, make their lunch for the next day, etc.
3) Reward with Stars when they Show Respect and Responsibility
If they show respect in any way, they are offering to help someone without being asked or they see some trash on the floor and they pick it up and I noticed, I give them a star for showing respect or responsibility. I make sure that I say those words, “Wow! You are being so responsible! I’m going to give you a star for that. Thank you so much for picking up that trash off the floor… that really helps our family and that helps our home look nice and tidy.”
I also give stars when my kids are super cheerful and being compliant. This morning, my kids came downstairs and they had already completed their checklist and they were just on top of things. We sat down at the breakfast table to eat and it was way earlier than usual. I gave them each an extra star for being on top of things and not having me remind them about everything.
4) Taking Stars Away from Your Children
This is the hardest one for me. However, I encourage you to be very careful with how you take stars away, and be very careful about how you say it. Because there have been so many times that it’s just so easy for me to be like, oh, okay you just lost a star, in a very reactive way. Instead of being proactive about it by either explaining to him about the situation and maybe saying words like, well you just chose to be disrespectful or irresponsible, so now you owe me a star.
But I am in no way, shape or form trying to tell you that this is the right way. The ultimate lesson that I want to teach them is when you are disrespectful and when you are irresponsible, there are consequences. Whether those be positive consequences or negative, there’s always a consequence no matter what decision you make.
So let me take a second, really quick to kind of unpackage what I feel like would result in having a star taken away. I would pick only a few things because if you start to nitpick every single thing about your child, they are never going to be successful. Choose the things that you’re working on behavior wise. For us, if there is any physical activity where they are hitting each other, I’m going to step in and try to remedy it. And this is up to your discretion, I mean there are definitely times where I take stars away because it happened in front of me. I was more emotionally reacting and so I will take a star away.
But I’m going to just tell you how I think you should do it, which would be to step in and address the situation first. Try to guide and direct and redirect in the moment and unpackage what else is going on. Maybe the kids just got home from school and they’re hungry and they’re fighting with each other. But I always say this, “Hey! We are working on respect and responsibility. Is the behavior you just displayed showing respect? No, it’s not. Why? Why is that not respectful? How would you feel if someone punched you? What does respect mean?” Kind of like reminding him right. I remind him the family rule to keep your hands to yourself.
In our family, that’s our rule. We do not touch other people, we do not put our hands on other people in that way. If you show me that you can not follow that family rule, you will own me a star. Do you understand? I’m not saying that you always have to give them a warning, but honestly it is my recommendation to at least try to remedy the situation before you just start yanking stars away.
Because again, you want to really teach them the heart of the behavior and why it’s not appropriate. This is really one area I need improvement and where I encourage you is not getting hung up in taking away the stars as a punishment. It’s mostly taking away the star to show them that you messed up. And it’s okay that you messed up and I love you, but I’m also trying to show you visually what it looks like when we mess up.
5) Cash in Their Stars
Let’s talk about step five, which is allowing them to cash in their stars. So you need to establish a day or maybe a certain set number of days. Even if my children earn 20 stars, which I’ll have to be honest, I don’t think they’ve ever made it past like seven or eight before they cash them in. And I have them cash in five stars and that equals 40 minutes of screen time. That’s usually two 20-minute shows or being on the computer, playing learning games or they can play a video game. Since I don’t want them to do that every single day, I have certain days of the week that they’re allowed. It’s usually like two days a week that I let them cash that in. Now you might be thinking, wow, that’s pretty harsh for them to have to save up those stars all week long. What if they earn five stars, then they lose two, and then that day rolls around…
I’m super flexible on the day. When you earn five stars, you can have your screen time two days a week. Now we also do family screen time, so we love watching TV with our kids. So we like to watch Master Chef, and then we have a movie night, one night a week. So those are not times that they have to cash in their stars. Those are just family time, kind of our rituals that we love to do together. I want my kids to know there are so many other beautiful things they can do besides being on their screens.
So I hope that you guys have found this episode helpful. It’s funny how it just randomly happened, it was totally accidental, but it has been super helpful for us. And it has eliminated so much bickering and whining and wondering when they can have screen time. Let me know if you decide to try this and how it works for you. I would also love for you to take a screenshot of this episode and share on Instagram. We can never have too many tricks up our sleeves!
As always mama, I am here rooting for you and you are not alone on this journey.