rewards system

This rewards system has worked for Texas mom Malissa O'Brian, whose kids get marbles in their jars when they do household chores. (Katherine Streeter/Disney FamilyFun magazine/MCT)

I have five lovely children, ages 3 to 16. They keep me on my toes, juggling activities, scheduling playdates, cooking dinner. And then there's the cleaning. My husband, Rob, and I have always made the kids responsible for keeping their bedrooms tidy, but somehow, over time, the rest of the house became my job. With five kids constantly adding to the disarray, I often felt as if I were losing the battle against chaos.

I needed help _ but I've always hated to nag. So instead, I tried to use positive reinforcement. I experimented with many different styles of chore charts, lists, and reward systems. I covered my refrigerator with colorful poster board, shiny magnets, and glitter pens. I signed on with websites that allow you to customize your child's task list each week, and I bought sparkly stickers to mark off a job well done. Unfortunately, none of these systems did the trick. They were time-consuming for me and not motivating enough for the kids.

Last year, I vowed to solve this problem once and for all. After thinking long and hard, I hit upon an approach that I thought could be a winner _ one that would give the kids more freedom to choose how they'd help around the house and that wouldn't require me to nag them about their chores. Putting my plan into practice would require only a quick trip to the craft store and a little creativity.

At the store, I bought a clear glass container for each of my kids, plus a large supply of swirly marbles for the boys and stylish glass gems for the girls. When I got home, I turned on some upbeat tunes, pulled out my craft supplies, and personalized the containers, embellishing them with beads, snazzy stickers, rhinestones, and names written in puffy glitter paint. When the jars were finished, I typed up a list of all our household chores as well as some personal tasks and assigned a value to each, from brushing teeth, which was worth one marble or gem, to unloading the dishwasher, worth three.

To unveil the new system, I called a family meeting. Showing the kids their reward jars, I was thrilled to see their eyes light up. I explained that these containers would stay in a row on the kitchen counter. Each time the kids completed tasks from the chore list, they could ask me, the keeper of the trinkets, for the specified number of marbles or gems to place in their jars.

A full jar entitled its owner to a reward: ten dollars, having a friend come for a sleepover (complete with popcorn and candy), or a special date with Mom or Dad for dinner or a movie. On the other hand, if one of the kids argued with a sibling, misbehaved, or did a chore in a careless fashion, the penalty would be to give back a gem or marble.

It's a simple system to be sure, but I'm pleased to report that it's been in place for a year and is still working incredibly well. Even now, my kids are practically knocking each other over to take out the garbage. Dropping marbles or gems into their jars gives them instant gratification, and they get excited about seeing their containers fill up. There are no lists of chores to cross off daily, and I don't have to follow up to see that every job was completed.

Thanks to the unending allure of the jars, almost all of the household duties get finished in a timely way. Most of the chores are up for grabs, but in a few cases, the kids gravitate toward certain tasks. For example, Kailey, my 10-year-old daughter, is the only one who will clean the cat's litter box. Siblings Taylor, age 16, Trever, 15, and Peyton, 12, simply find that job too gross, but Kailey is more than happy to earn several extra gems to pop into her jar.

Normally it takes about four weeks for each of my four older kids to fill a container. (Max, age 3, is working at his own pace!) I haven't found anyone trying to cheat the system by sneaking in trinkets that they haven't earned, but I have caught a rascal or two trying to remove marbles from a sibling's jar.

I've been known to award a few bonus trinkets to a child going out of his way to do a really good job. It's not uncommon for one of them to say, "I'm just doing that to help you Mom, so you don't have to give me a marble for that." This sort of thing melts my heart and makes me want to add an extra token or two to that kind soul's jar.

My husband loves the competition the jars inspire. In fact, he's often right in the middle of it, stirring it up. He'll try to place bets with me: "Five bucks says Peyton is the first one to notice the trash can is full." We have a lot of fun with it.

I'm still amazed each time I open the dishwasher in the morning to unload the clean dishes, only to find empty racks staring back at me, the handiwork of someone who has finished a job before I'm even around to bestow trinkets. I am so proud of my kiddos when they take the initiative to do chores on their own _ and so relieved that I don't have to repeatedly ask for help. At the end of the week or month, it's really a treat for me to hand over that cold cash or spend an evening out at the movies with one of my crew. It's also great for my children to have goals that they are always working toward.

All in all, my plan is working even better than I imagined it would. It turns out that those little jars of sparkly trinkets also hold a key to our home's happiness.

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