Discipline and Reinforcing Good Behavior

Our three year old is something of strong-willed child: opinionated. determined. assertive. impossible. A pistol to be sure, now don’t get me wrong, I’m happy he’s not a bump-on-a-log, but sometimes the defiance willfulness is out of control. We are not the kind of parents that don’t believe in limits or discipline, but I find myself scolding more than I like, telling him “NO!” more than I like, feeling frustrated more than I like. All of this definitely more than my child likes; he gets frustrated, too. Obedience is a tricky principle to instill in the [always moving at warp speed] mind of a toddler, and time-outs just weren’t getting the job done on their own.

In an effort to improve the situation, we’ve instituted an incentive system to positively reinforce his good behavior (he really is quite sweet) but also teach consequences for the occasional naughty behavior, too. And so far, it’s really working well.

On our kitchen counter stands a small glass jar and a tin of marbles. For every good thing he does, no matter how small, he gets to put a marble in the jar. It might be going potty without being asked, putting his clothes away, sharing, any time at all he follows instructions or shows kindness. When the jar is full, he gets to go on a special date with Mommy or Daddy. He totally digs the satisfying kerplink! as he drops in his marbles and gives a round of high-5s every time.  I love that he is physically and visually connected to the reinforcement.

But, when he does something he shouldn’t (and I know that he knows when he has), I take a marble OUT of the jar. In conjunction with our time-out procedure. I’ll confess, his jar has been half full and then empty on the same day, but the concept seems to be sticking. He totally hates when I take the marbles away. And I’ve noticed he’s more adaptable in general, even if I don’t mention the marbles.

There are probably some child psychology and parenting experts out there who would love to tell me I’m doing it all wrong and ruining my child forever; I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know this much: we’ve had fewer meltdowns, an increase in obedience, and the level of peace in our home is definitely on the up-swing. I’d say that’s success.  And I’m no longer at risk of losing my own marbles.

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...by day, making a home where the buffalo roam. By night, pretty much the same thing, punctuated by the occasional fantasies of sunny beaches, italian movies and sparkling lemonade.


  1. Laura Ferry-Jimenez :

    love it! and great timing – told my girls that I was making new charts this weekend which have worked great in the past… which is why I stopped using them. still don't have a grasp on this whole consistency business! haha.

    this idea sounds so much easier and interesting so I'm stealing it – how many lost marbles do you think that's worth? haha.

  2. Dianna :

    I think what you're doing is perfectly appropriate. And, by the way, it usually works wonders. Kids need to be taught to recognize good choices and how it feels when good choices are made. It works for parenting and in a school classroom setting with younger children. Great work!

  3. Megan :

    This is great! I'm going to file this away for future use! I saw something similar on Supernanny once, but your version is more fun than hers. I love the prize at the end…the date with one of you. I like how the prize isn't a toy. :)

  4. Sara :

    Hi! I'm new to reading your blog. I'm working on my doctorate in psychology and it seems like you have a good behavior modification plan in place! The only suggestions I would make for such a young child are:

    Build in smaller rewards: It is great that he loves adding a marble to the jar because that is a reward itself, but getting the jar filled to a halfway point might be another goal point where he can earn a small reward.

    Make the rules for adding (& subtracting) marbles very clear. If they are arbitrary or subjective (e.g., sometimes loses one, sometimes loses three) he may get confused, frustrated, or just lose interest. Focus on a few behaviors at a time and keep rewarding the positives with gradually increasing levels of reward.

    Good luck!

  5. likeschocolate :

    I really like this idea! I wish I had thought of something like this with my first child who sounds very much like your child. However, I think I will use it for my youngest. Hopefully, it will work.

  6. Krista :

    My sons 4th grade teacher is using this same system, so what do you think that means?

  7. Cat :

    Thanks for the idea. I will try it with my four year old son. I am so tired of aways being bad cop….
    Wish me luck!

  8. Midwestern Gone Idahoan :

    I love reading your blog! I love how you blog about your family, projects, giveaways, and everything!!

  9. PMG Smith Family :

    I absolutely love this idea! How old is your son? I wonder if my son is old enough to understand this… maybe I'll try it anyway!

  10. PMG Smith Family :

    Okay, don't know how I totally missed that he's 3! My son is 2… we'll see if this works. :o)

  11. Dandy :

    I love that the reward is a special date. So cool

  12. KJ :

    krista: my husband is a teacher also, and was part of the inspiration for this whole thing. I also keep small prizes around (hot wheels, stickers, etc.) to keep him motivated and help him feel a sense of achievement as he works up to filling the jar. He went on his first reward date last night with daddy while I had girlfriends over.