Raising a happy three year old – implement a discipline strategy that rewards good behavior

Heightened curiosity, more vivid imagination, longer attention span, and increased autonomy are a few of the neat things that have come with Calvin turning three. But with this age also came more frustration and emotion from him as tries to find his identity and be his own little person. For us, it also became the first time we realized we needed a more structured discipline strategy.

The threat of a “time-out or break” wasn’t enough to control his behavior anymore

I had been thinking about this for a couple of months, but I finally hit the tipping point during a meltdown that he had at the library. I found myself 8-months pregnant, having to strap my one-year old in her stroller and then literally chase Calvin as he ran away from me screaming because he wasn’t ready to leave the library. This was not usual behavior for him. I always give Calvin the warning of “five more minutes, pick one more thing to do then we have to go.” And that usually works really well. It was just recently that he started to fight me on this at times. I finally caught up to him and we abruptly left the library, me pushing the stroller with one hand and holding Calvin with the other, completely embarrassed, annoyed—we didn’t even get to check out the library books we selected—and sad because I knew he could be better and so could I.

Happy and Sad Jars

Rewarding good behavior is so much easier than punishing bad behavior.

I needed to reward the good things he does and bring awareness to the not-so-good things so he could re-learn that that behavior isn’t okay.

Episodes like the one at the library along with some trouble sharing, resistance to cleaning up, and sporadic rough behavior that made me realize something needed to be done. After doing some research online, I decided the best approach for us would be happy jar / sad jar. We needed something simple for him to understand and easy for us to implement and consistently follow.

Happy jar and sad jar where tokens come in and out based on behavior

The way it works is:

  • We have a bag-full of tokens, a jar with a happy face, one with a sad face, and one where he can “cash in his tokens.”
  • He can earn a token in the happy jar for any good behavior: sharing with Lucy, leaving a playdate or outing when asked, bringing his dirty plate to the sink after dinner, cleaning up his toys, following his bedtime routine at night (bath, potty, teeth, pajamas), are just a few examples.
  • A token can be taken away from his happy jar and moved into his sad jar for naughty behavior: not listening, poor manners, not cleaning up, hitting or roughness with Lucy, not helping to get his coat/boots on when its time to go, are just a few examples.
  • Our reward system is that if he earns 5 tokens then he gets 30 minutes on the iPad to either watch a show or play a game. This is something that has always been a treat for him and to have him earn it instead of just be given the opportunity has helped us limit the amount of time on iPad and has been a real incentive for him to behave well. We also do ice cream or a candy treat every once in a while as well.
  • You can select whatever award makes sense for your child and whatever amount of tokens works for you. With us, Calvin usually earns 5 tokens in one to two days. So him getting 30 minutes of iPad everyday or every other works well.
  • We can also take this on-the-go by putting a couple ziplocks in the diaper bag—one happy one sad—and we we can implement this outside of the house too.
  • We like that we can continue this as he gets older by exchanging the tokens for quarters. This would be a great way to teach him about saving and may give him more incentive if he can actually use the change we give him.

Calvin get excited about his good behavior and the more we recognize the good behavior, overall instances of bad behavior have decreased

Rewarding good behavior with an ice cream treat

Rewarding good behavior with an ice cream treat

We have been amazed at how his overall demeanor has improved. He is excited about the process. He loves counting how many tokens he has earned and is so excited when he has earned a new one. We have been able to keep it up now for almost a couple of months so it is a habit for him and us. The biggest challenge of course is being consistent with it, especially when his behavior stays pretty good. I tend to turn to it more when he is not good, but it works so much better as a reward system. And he responds so much better when we are adding tokens then taking away. Overall its been really successful and we have noticed a positive change in Calvin and find we are hardly ever giving him a timeout.

Happier child makes for happier, more stress-free life for our whole family

Just thought I would share this since it has worked really well for us and greatly decreased our number of stressful experiences with Calvin. He is still a little person who gets frustrated and tests me at times. Having something in place to encourage him to be good and to reward him has really helped us. I believe that children are overall good and when they stray from that there is usually a reason—tiredness, lack of attention from me, break from routine. But even when these things happen, its important to us that Calvin knows rough and unkind behavior is not okay and this has helped us instill that and made our parenting more rewarding and positive.

What type of discipline/reward techniques have worked for you?

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