Thursday, September 18, 2014


Almost two years ago, I attended a parents of kids under 5 event at our home church - open to moms and dads. The speaker showed us her chores and rewards system, which used popsicle sticks. I cannot remember her name, but searching online for "popsicle stick chore" yields many variations of the system.

What I like about our adapted system -- we call it Sparkle Sticks -- is that the sticks are durable, easily adaptable to not-yet-readers, and the rewards don't involve real money. One downside that we've run into is that the parents must think carefully about what is being reinforced, and what is being rewarded. In the end, that's really a positive thing!

Materials Needed:

  1. Wide popsicle craft sticks
  2. Narrow popsicle craft sticks, if you like for the reward sticks
  3. Permanent marker
  4. Paint, glitter paint, or glitter glue of your choice (left over from another project)
  5. Time with your spouse to get on the same page about chores and rewards
  6. Dinner and/or breakfast together as a family to review the day

Which Ages?
This depends on the child. Abigail started when she was 30 months old (when I attended the parent's event), Evan started at 26 months (23-26 months were potty learning and summer outdoors play). The system can be adapted and changed: we certainly did this for Abigail at about 3 years and 4 years of age, adding and subtracting chore sticks.

We keep about 2-3 "no brainer" sticks in the mix that the kids either love doing or do without thinking. We readjust the sticks if we've run into a parent/child head butting rut. In other words, when we're having difficulty with our kids, we have to stop and ask, "Are our expectations as parents clear? Is __ chore necessary? Who is really responsible for reminders?" There are about 2-3 sticks that address the biggest most recent challenges.

Which Chores?
Nick and I found that grouping what we want our kids to do into categories helped us better evaluate if something really needed to be a To Do stick, or not. We don't call them "chores," we just talk about it this way.

"Everyone, kids and adults, have things that they do for themselves and ways they should love others each day. Our adult work looks different than yours. But something we both have in common, is that we usually do our work without being told."

Love God, Love Others

Love God, and put his Word into your heart, Memory verse -- For a 20-30 months, it may be appropriate to just have them learn basic Bible stories and be able to retell or reenact them with you. The goal is to move to picking a memory verse that goes with a story or weekly theme. Evan surprised us by reciting Abigail's memory verse just a month ago (she was being stubborn and pretending she didn't know it). Now he does the memory verse, too. We keep the same verse for 7-14 days, until it is memorized; and we talk about what it means, not just repeating the words.

Last month the kids memorized The Lord's Prayer and had to explain each line to us; we had been encouraging them to say the last word of a line in corporate church worship, now they say the whole prayer and understand it. This month we started working through some Moses and Exodus stories while memorizing a commandment a week.

Love __ (family member), one stick per family member -- These sticks build name recognition. They also provide an opportunity to clear the air and forgive if a disagreement lingers. We ask, "What is something that Evan did for you, that made you feel loved?" These sticks are also an opportunity for us as parents to 'see Jesus' in our kids and name that! It helps me look for unsolicited love coming from my kids to each other, which can only be from a heart in the process of being transformed by Jesus.

Set the table, Clear the table, Wait to pray before eating -- If you're worried about a 20 month old clearing his plate, just sweep extra food onto yours, and make sure he uses an unbreakable plate. My job as the adult is to provide nutritious food in a timely way; their jobs as kids are to set silverware, thank God for the food, eat it, and clear their plates. While this isn't love so much as basic courtesy and politeness, demonstrating those things forms a good foundation for undeserved love... when I may not feel like loving someone. Waiting to pray is hardest for Evan, who loves to eat! We've talked a lot with him about why we thank God for his provision.

Clean Up -- Keeping our common spaces clean helps and loves everyone in the family. We clean up before lunch and before dinner. Enough said :-)

Personal Responsibility
All of these sticks are really things the kids do for themselves!

Make lunch before school, eat most of lunch, clean up lunchbox to kitchen counter after school -- We found that when our kids make their lunch, they are more likely to eat it. They chose the foods and quantities, say 5 green beans instead of 5 broccoli florets. Sometimes lunch is more like social time for Abigail, so she is accountable to eat most of her lunch at school. There is rarely a dessert type item; instead, all of lunch must be eaten at school, and the child gets the sweet treat upon returning home (if they remember it!). Even though school is just 3 days a week for Abigail, and 1 day a week for Evan, they make their lunch 4-5 days a week while I get their breakfast ready. That way, on non-school days, we can just pick up and go somewhere!

Eat healthy food -- We don't expect plate clearing, but a good try at 80% of "big and strong" food has to be made before any dessert. Our kids know that food is only offered at meal times... so they need to ask for second helpings of healthy food after dessert if their tummies don't feel full enough. This has been hard for Evan, who has been waking between 10pm-2am saying that he's hungry, or suddenly stalling bedtime saying that he's hungry! We've stretched him to the point of taking several large gulps of water, and laying back down with quiet music playing. We've also served leftover lunch to our kids at snack time... they just need a second try to like some things, and they do fine.

Put clothing on/off, put clothing away -- For Evan, the goal at 18-30 months is to put on and take off his clothes with increasing independence. Besides assisting in the potty learning process, he insists, "I can do it!" If I open the drawer and fold the clothes, he's good at neatly putting the clothes away. Abigail has handled since 3 years everything except picking out clothing appropriate to the weather ;-) We usually give a choice of two outfits at bedtime and lay the outfit on her dresser for the next day. I can't handle arguments at 7am. Evan needs prompting for which basket (dark, or light?) his dirty clothing goes in at the end of the day, but Abigail is fine.

Put on/off socks and shoes, put shoes away on rug -- This was an Evan-only stick for the same reasons as clothing... but since school started we made it apply to Abigail, too. All of last year, the biggest battle at school was transitioning to leave because she loved preschool! We call it having a "good good-bye" and she needs to put her socks and shoes on immediately after I greet her, without reminders.

Wait until Owl is green -- The basic idea is, get enough sleep for your body. So, when Evan was born, Abigail was only 2. I relished a few minutes with Evan since he usually woke before Abigail, and I didn't appreciate being woken by her at 6:15am. Because we lived with family members who rose and got ready for the day well before 7am, we researched glowing clocks and found this Owl. Nick was right: the Owl is way cooler to a 2 year old than a clock. We set Owl to a 7am wake up, and he just glows 'green' silently for 30 minutes. Our kids usually wake between 7-7:30am, but Owl is so helpful for those few mornings when they wake 10-15 minutes before 7am... now they just lay in bed and talk to each other. Over the summer, Owl was set to 6:30am for a time, because the early light kept waking Evan and he wasn't patient beyond 15 minutes. Then we began moving the time closer to 7am. Once Evan got good at morning waking, we started using Owl's nap timer :-) Owl sings and glows orange for a time you preset if the kid is supposed to be asleep. Abigail doesn't really need this stick and we had taken it out of her rotation around 3 years of age, but because of Evan's habits after 23 months, the stick is back in.

For the brain, the heart, and the body

ABC, Read a book, Do preschool cutting and puzzle sheets -- Both kids have reading time with us after lunch and after dinner. For Evan as a two year old, he is learning his letters and numbers, plus the sounds the letters make. So as I read, I'll stop and ask him questions. He loves stories and fulfills this stick easily. For Abigail as a four year old, we're practicing sight words or sounding out words. She doesn't have to do every word (she hates slowing stories down), but she'll do a few per page. She hasn't napped since around the time she turned 4, so afternoons are very quiet work. I bought her a Kumon cutting skills book (she loved it and is on book 2). She can also choose from Highlights Hidden Picture puzzles, mazes, or a School Zone Preschool skills workbook. Because she's 4, she usually does 4 pages: 1 cutting, 1 coloring, 1 puzzle page, and 1 of her choice. She can also choose to do a jigsaw puzzle between 30-50 pieces. As a teacher, I know worksheets aren't the best, but I need 1h of quiet time to work on our budget, plan my grocery list, or phone to make appointments. Abigail likes her work, and is proud of what she does, and I can tell her fine motor muscles are improving as well.

Now that "official" preschool has begun, it takes care of most of the ABC stick and the Creative stick below for the kids.

Puzzle -- As parents, we count general problem solving. So for a much younger child who cannot complete even a 4 piece chunky puzzle, or any jigsaw puzzle, you could put their snack in a "problem solving container." Like a marshmallow in a paper towel tube. Ah, the humor of parents for the sake of their children's learning! When we've had a busy day as a family, sometimes we all play a game together. Both kids can successfully play these games with little parent coaching: Candy Land, Memory, Go Fish open handed, Mouse Trap, Bingo with pictures, Jenga. Really, any game that advances play by color recognition, a spinner that uses numbers 1-4, or unique picture cues would work. Abigail has enjoyed these since 3 years of age: Chutes and Ladders, Slapjack for kids, Dominoes, an I Spy game. These were games after age 4, but could work for any age child who is good with spatial reasoning: Chinese checkers, regular checkers no kings, mancala.

Make something, Be creative -- This could be coloring or painting, playing with play dough, stranding beads on a bracelet, creating a story with toy characters, building a zoo or castle or something with Duplo blocks, or anything creative! Both kids love this stick. It's open-ended :-)

Outdoor play -- Originally, this was simply a playground visit or playing catch and throwing indoors if rainy. Since this past summer, we added the swim and bike pictures. We often remind the kids of this stick (and ourselves) on those particularly hot or frigid days, "But we need to go outside for a little while!" If crunched for time, we just do a several block walk and the kids *must walk* without piggy back or stroller rides.

Puffy glitter glue was on hand, so Evan's sticks have his name
or basic shapes on one side, and stickers on the other side.

What about Sparkle sticks?
Sparkly sticks are our reward sticks... just because that's the paint we had on hand that appealed to the kids.

Glitter paint was on hand when Abigail's were made;
Gold pen squiggle on the other side.
They have different tiers. Usually at least 5 sticks must be earned (5 days) for a minor reward. It was important to us that if food was used as a reward, it had to be making the recipe together with the child. We also value more relational rewards than tangible toys or things. Evan's system involves only 10 sticks; Abigail usually saves until she has all 20 of her sticks for maximum choice. Rewards would match your child's favorite interests. If our kids repeatedly ask for something, we help them add it to their reward chart. The chart is simply a Word doc with a "5 sticks" box and pictures of the reward, ie. a muffin for baking muffins.

Minor reward ideas, 5 sticks

  • Bake muffins with mom or dad
  • Extra bedtime story
  • 20 minute Screen Time card (we have a separate system for screen time... but this is an alternative way of getting TV or Kindle time)

Medium reward ideas, 10 sticks

  • Stay up an extra 20 minutes to play a game, whichever takes less time
  • Pick the playground of the day and stay 40 minutes
  • Nail stickers (Abigail likes these, I like that they aren't toxic like many polishes... she chews her fingernails but doesn't eat the stickers)

Large reward ideas, 20 sticks

  • Play date with friend
  • Go somewhere with an admission fee (under $20 for whole family), or somewhere that's a little bit of a drive (30 min)
  • Choose a toy. This is usually a Papo figurine for Abigail. Usually under $6... and since there are days when she doesn't earn a sparkle stick, it can take her a month to get 20 sticks.

Both chore and reward sticks are stored in a jar decorated with stickers and yarn
The Memory verses we're working on are clipped to a paper clip that hangs on the side.
The Bible we're working through goes underneath... and it all sits right in front of the kids' seats.
Do you have a system that works for kids under 5?
In adulthood, do you see the wisdom of your parents' systems?
Share a comment below.

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