Knowing When It’s Time to Let Up

In early March, shortly after arriving home from a trip to see Brian and Michelle, we instituted a chore chart for Graham. Charlie has a chore chart and loved it. Graham was intrigued. Seemed like a time to give it a go. We’d been looking for a way to encourage some good routines – washing hands when we get home, good manners at the dinner table, helping brush teeth – and BOY has the chore chart worked! Not even like ‘presto, magic!’ either, but looking back, we’ve made huge strides since starting it.

For the chart itself, Andy and I bought a fairly simple dry erase board. We then sat down after the boys were in bed one night and listed all of Graham’s trouble spots. All the places we wished for better behavior. (If this were a corporate environment, these would be known as your “opportunity areas” as in, “you have a big opportunity to improve here.” Haha.) Then we chose our top four (maybe five, I can’t remember) and listed them on our chore chart.

Graham loved it immediately. And, while not perfect by any means, he noticeably started rising to the challenge of checking off the chores on his list. If he demonstrates the behavior (eating dinner, for instance), he gets a star. If he earns stars for all his chores that day, he earns a quarter.

By the time he finally was able to earn a quarter, we devised a menu of prizes. His menu looks like this:

reward menu

I’ll take you through it briefly.

  • 2 quarters and he gets to take a bath in our whirlpool tub
  • 3 quarters and he can watch two TV shows after dinner on a school night
  • 4 quarters and he can choose his dinner for the night
  • 5 quarters and he can have a scoop of ice cream after dinner
  • 6 quarters and he can either choose for us to go out to eat OR he can have movie party downstairs (popcorn, DVD, etc)
  • 10 quarters…. the grand prize… a trip to Toys R Us to pick out the toy of his choosing (within reason, obviously, but he’s a pretty reasonable kid)

Graham has taken advantage of a few. In the beginning, he mostly got excited about getting two whole quarters(!!!) and immediately cash in on a whirlpool bath the next night. One time he got up to six quarters, but cashed in four of them to have a chicken patty sandwich instead of whatever healthy meal I was preparing that evening. He also decided we should have a pizza party one night. It’s been great. He’s been digging this so much.

The chore list has evolved too. Things that he started nailing every single day across the board started to disappear (ahem) from the list, and Graham started to add things to the list himself. One of his additions? “I should use my good listening ears.. write that down!” If you know Graham, you know that this is like me putting “Don’t cry during an episode of Parenthood” on my chore chart.

Basically impossible to do.

In parallel, he started accumulating a short toy wishlist. Namely the movie Frozen, a toolbox like daddy’s, a basketball and a Nerf gun. We urged him that he can get one of these things if he earns 10 quarters.


And so, the gauntlet was thrown. He set out to earn his 10 quarters so that he could go get one of those toys.

Meanwhile, his completely overbearing mother decided that she was tired of hearing the words “poop” and “poopy” thrown around when Graham is feeling silly. (And, let’s face it, Graham is almost *always* feeling silly.) So, in a moment of frustration, I told him that I was done hearing that word used in silliness and every time I hear it out of a bathroom context, he would be paying me a quarter.

Yep. The word “poop” said at the dinner table is now apparently equivalent to a day of perfect behavior. Because THAT SEEMS EQUAL.

It was pretty effective though. The use of the word went from about 10 times a day to nothing. One morning he let the word slip, and I made him pay me a quarter. He was so bummed, but it made an impression. He even told my mom while we were visiting over Easter, “I don’t want to say the word that makes me have to pay a quarter!” Those quarters are so precious to him.

Yesterday was a big day. Graham had 9 quarters saved, and he got super silly and said the-word-that-shall-not-be-said twice. We got to the end of the day, and Andy and I agreed that he’d also EARNED a quarter that day – which would bring him to 10. But seeing as how he also LOST 2 quarters, he was now back to a net count of 8. We obviously reached the gravity of that realization before Graham did.

I consciously decided to play the scenario out in the way that would drive the point home most acutely. We filled out his chore chart, and he earned his quarter. I then – ugh, I am such a monster – had him count out the quarters so that he could experience the jubilation of reaching that big goal that he’d been working so hard for.

And he did. He was so excited, you guys. Geez, Debbie, he is *only* 4, woman!!! Give him a break.

Then, while Graham was still wiggling from excitement, I held out my hand and said, “You owe me two quarters, remember?”


Oh. My. God…. It was exactly the impression I hoped for, but his reaction… I instantly regretted it and felt like a complete ass.

Graham’s face morphed from a smile to an open-mouthed stare. Then his chin dropped to his chest, his shoulders squeezed to his ears, his face went red, and he started weeping. Just weeping. It wasn’t for effect. This was real grief. He said something, but his throat was so tight with tears it was unintelligible. I asked him to repeat what he’d said.

“I said… [sob, gasp] I… [sob].. worked… so… so HARD.. [sob-sob-sob] for those quarters!!!!” 

And then he was consumed with fresh sobs and tears at having heard that out loud. He sat on the bed and cried, and I sat next to him feeling sort of shocked and miserable. I set out to make a point, and I did exactly that. How was it possible that it felt so awful?! :(

Then, I swear I heard the word “grace” in my head. Loud and clear as if someone had said it standing next to me.

I took Graham’s hand, and he looked up. I put the two quarters that he’d given me back into his little palm and closed his fingers around them.

I told him that he had worked hard. And that I was so proud of him and everything that he’d done. And that he’d earned his trip to the toy store. And that I forgave him for using bad language. We talked about bad words and how they made us sound like we aren’t smart. Sometimes they make people around us feel embarrassed. Those sorts of things.

Basically, we had a total Tanner family moment. I could almost hear the music playing overhead.

Then, even though it was bedtime, I had him get out of bed and come downstairs with me so we could celebrate his 10 quarters with Daddy too. So there were smiles and hugs and, of course, Graham rehashed the entire upstairs scene, play-by-play, for Andy’s benefit. Including all the sage lessons he’d just learned. 😉

Soon, there will be a trip to the toy store to be had. And Graham will come home with a physical token of all that he worked so hard for. I’m proud of him. I’m also so, so grateful for the chance to raise these boys. I always thought that parenthood would be about teaching someone smaller life lessons. I had no idea that *I* would learn so much in the process.


  1. Michelle says:

    Loved this post! Great idea on the rewards chart….we made poor Charlie earn 20 quarters before he went to the toy store! I like this solution better :)

  2. So very cool.

  3. I agree with Michelle.  I like the rewards menu because it gives the kids some short term goals to shoot for.  With Charlie’s long term goal of 20 quarters, the goal of earning the quarter has sort of lost its luster since the real payoff is so far away.

    Also glad you gave him back those quarters.  Poor little guy.

  4. Grandpa C says:

    Now I’m crying at this episode of Parenthood

  5. Grandma Sue says:

    Looking back I regret some parenting moments.  I’m glad my kids understand grace.

  6. Amazing Debs. You guys are awesome parents and I will most likely be referencing this in, oh… Say 4 years! :)  

  7. Amelinda says:

    I loved this post! You write so well and this resonates with me so much. I also struggle with standing my ground to teach a lesson and make sure the kids don’t manipulate me to get their way versus realizing they are just kids. Thank you :-)

  8. Great Uncle Mark says:

    i really enjoyed reading this post. You are such a good writer and capture thoughts and feelings so well. Thanks for sharing.

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