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We recently spent a few days at Disney World with our two young daughters. Ton of fun, but these kinds of family trips with young children can sometimes degenerate into sibling bickering and escalating punishments as behavior deteriorates making the trip no fun for anyone, parents included.

We decided to try an approach to put the girls more in charge of their own destiny and make it more of a possitive reinforcement experience than a negative one. I think it worked pretty well. Here's what we did.

The girls each earned ten "points" per day, five in the morning and five in the afternoon, and could loose them two or four at a time from negative behavior (rudeness, fighting, bickering, etc.) and earn them one at a time from possitive behavior (sharing, helping, being courtious, etc.). Points could be cashed in whenever they wanted as a basic "currency":

  • five points = one small treat (candy, snack, etc.)
  • ten points = small prize (small toy, small stuffed animal, keepsake, etc.)
  • 20 points = large prize (big toy, large stuffed animal)

This gave them the option to have a steady stream of small rewards of their choosing without having to beg for them ("Dad, can I have one of these?"), allowed them to bank points for large things and gave them a path to recover from a mistep by earning back lost points.

In general, I think this made the trip much more fun and less stressful for everyone.

A couple things we learned from the experiment:

  • Loss rate needs be greater than earn rate. You want to have small rewards for a wide variety of possitive behaviors but mete out the losses judiciously; they should sting a little but shouldn't be capricious.
  • Kids are natural economists. We had an ongoing discussion of "exchange rate". Are a $2.50 candy and a $7.25 Sonic figure both worth five points? Will five points buy two small candies? Will 15 points buy a "medium sized" prize?
  • Keep it simple. In the end, you have to be the "market maker" and set prices in points. Don't get into pricing negotiations or be tempted into making it over complicated. Keep it fun and simple.
  • Let them spend how they like. Since the risk is low, don't try to teach broader economic principals. They're not spending their college savings, after all. One daughter really enjoyed the freedom of being able to choose lots of small rewards while the other was excited about the possibiltiy of saving up and choosing a big toy entirely on her own terms.

In a recent episode of the Vector podcast, Georgia talked about a similar system her family uses regularly in leiu of an allowance wherein stickers are earned for good behavior (politeness, helping out around the house, getting homework done, etc.) that can be cashed in for play time with video games, iPad use, TV time and so forth. While I worry about the bookkeeping overhead of a system like that, but it's not a bad idea. Might be worth trying out.