“I feel sad, because I’m not nice enough,” was how my son greeted me when I picked him up from school earlier this week.
It turns out that his kindergarten class had started using a sticker chart for niceness that day. This may sound innocent and sweet in theory, but I cringed at the very mention of it. Don’t get me wrong, I think there can be a time and a place for sticker and visual charts, but I don’t think they belong with a group of highly suggestible 4 and 5-year-olds who are learning how to get along with their peers.
According to my son, every time someone is nice to one of their classmates, that child will receive a sticker. After three stickers there will be some kind of reward.
“I wonder if I’ll get a toy,” my son mused after he finished explaining the process to me. My heart dropped.
You see, kindness should not be something we do in hopes of receiving a reward. Kindness is its own reward, and that is what my husband and I have been working hard to teach all three of our children.
We teach our children to hold doors open for the people behind them in order to help make someone else’s day a little easier. We encourage them to ask their friends if they are feeling okay when they look sad, so that their friends know that someone cares. These are some of the small acts of kindness that lay the foundation for the larger ones. These are the steps we take toward understanding compassion, and knowing that the world revolves around all of us equally, and at the same time.
My son’s educators had the very best of intentions when they introduced their sticker chart, and I applaud their efforts to promote kindness in the classroom, but I wonder if they thought through the possible outcomes of this reward system:
-Focusing on getting a reward, rather than on the act of kindness itself
-Seeing a visual comparison among all the children
-Feelings of failure for not earning very many stickers
-Feelings of superiority for having more stickers than someone else
On that first day of the sticker chart, my son explained more about why he felt he wasn’t nice enough. “Mom, I’m kind and nice every day. I always help people, and I always say and do nice things, but it’s not good enough, because some kids got more stickers than me today. It’s not fair.”
He’s not wrong. My son is a very thoughtful, kind and considerate person, and it’s not fair to measure those types of traits in a way that could make him feel as though he is less than someone else.
“You don’t need stickers to prove that you are kind,” I explained. “Tell me, how does your heart feel when you do something nice for someone?”
“It feels good,” he replied. “It feels full. I like it.”
“And what do you like more?” I asked. “Having a full heart, or seeing a sticker on a chart?”
“My heart,” he said immediately. “I like how I feel when I make people happy.”
“Then that’s your reward, and it’s the kind of reward that will stay with you forever. It’s the reward that you should be proud of the most.”
Perhaps for some of the kids, this system will encourage them to think more about kindness, and maybe it will make the classroom a nicer place overall. For my son though, I will continue to work on teaching kindness as a way of life, and maybe those stickers can serve as something pretty to look at, but his heart is far more beautiful than any sticker will ever be.