The Token System

An arti­cle writ­ten in 2001.

We always tied priv­i­leges (like watch­ing TV sole­ly for enter­tain­ment) to our kids’ respon­si­bil­i­ties. The idea was that when they’d done what they need­ed to do for the day, they could watch TV or play a com­put­er game or go out­side for a bof­fer sword bat­tle. They did­n’t always see the rela­tion­ship, though, and some­times whichev­er child was­n’t per­mit­ted to have a cer­tain priv­i­lege until he or she fin­ished an assigned task insist­ed that it was sim­ply unfair. 

We end­ed up with the token sys­tem. Var­i­ous tasks were assigned a val­ue based on how dif­fi­cult or unpleas­ant the task was and how long it was expect­ed to take. Var­i­ous priv­i­leges also had token val­ues, based on how lim­it­ed a par­tic­u­lar resource need­ed for the priv­i­lege might be. For instance, a mul­ti­play­er game of Star­craft took up the use of at least two PCs, so that cost more tokens than any sin­gle-play­er game or just watch­ing TV. 

Our tokens were flat glass mar­bles that we nor­mal­ly used dur­ing role­play­ing games as coun­ters. I’ve heard of oth­er peo­ple using pok­er chips in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. Dif­fer­ent col­ors had dif­fer­ent val­ues: clear pur­ple tokens were 1s, sol­id yel­low were 10s, sol­id greens were 20s, etc. Each child had a spe­cial con­tain­er for his or her tokens. We con­vert­ed plas­tic box­es that for­mer­ly con­tained Bas­mati rice and then had the kids dec­o­rate them so that each one was unique. 

Each morn­ing, the kids got their task cards and looked through them. Through­out the day, as they com­plet­ed a task they trad­ed the card in for the token val­ue of the task on it. When they want­ed to use a priv­i­lege, they went to an adult and turned in the appro­pri­ate tokens to get started. 

While we’d already come up with our list of things that need to be done while cre­at­ing our card sys­tem, the token val­ues were sub­ject to adjust­ment through­out the time we used the sys­tem as we got a bet­ter idea of the time required for each task. While we had a lot of things on the priv­i­lege list, we kept work­ing on that too. We expect­ed that things like a fam­i­ly out­ing to see a movie would be valu­able to the kids, but Katie request­ed the addi­tion of an hour of total soli­tude as a priv­i­lege. Stay­ing up late was on the list, too, although it was only allowed once a week per child. 

The token sys­tem actu­al­ly turned into a dis­ci­pline tool. Instead of get­ting angry when one of the kids was dis­re­spect­ful, they were fined tokens. If they did­n’t do one of the things they were expect­ed to do (like get­ting up on time, remem­ber­ing to brush their teeth, etc.) it cost them tokens. Of course, if they do some­thing above and beyond what was expect­ed, they got extra tokens as a reward. Since a lack of tokens trans­lat­ed direct­ly to a lack of priv­i­leges, it was eas­i­er for the kids to see that, for instance, back­talk was­n’t a ben­e­fi­cial thing for anyone.

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