I like to call this phenomenon, in which reward systems become pervasive in family life, a “reward economy.” In reward economies, kids learn to trade desirable behavior for a reward. Sometimes the reward comes directly, in the form of toys, ice cream, or books; sometimes its value is stored, like currency, in stickers or other objects that can be exchanged at a later date. Whatever the system, reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to “give it away for free,” like the 8-year-old boy who wanted a reward for helping his brother.
Some of the hazards of sticker charts include the much-discussed risk of undermining kids’ intrinsic motivation, or the need to offer more and better rewards as the original ones lose their appeal. But perhaps more distressingly, reward economies also affect how children think about relationships.