bunch of beads

Beads on a String

In an ideal world, kids would be motivated to try new things and develop new skills for the sheer purpose of increased independence and self mastery. In my kid’s world it is maybe a tiny little bit all that other stuff, but mostly, it’s beads on a string. The beads are our chosen method of bribery, in place of sticker charts or tasty treats, that started with potty training. It worked so well that we have kept it ever since, with a few adjustments over time.

The idea is simple; the kid gets beads for doing good stuff then he (or she, but since my only bead earner so far is a boy we’re going to go with he.)  can ‘cash in’ beads for for things kid wants. On occasion though, he does not so good things. Usually we like to let things ride out and let the natural consequences teach the lesson, but sometimes (alright, so a lot of times) those consequences are going to arrive a little too late to be very effective or they put an undo burden on other people. In these times, he will lose beads.

The Basics

We decided to put the beads on a length of bright green parachute cord that has a very beautiful monkey fist knot on the end (thanks to the hubby and YouTube) so that the beads don’t slip off. After putting on or taking off the beads we just tie a simple slip knot loop on the end and hang it somewhere he can see but not reach it. We  just stick it on the top hinge of our coat closet, but someday maybe we’ll go all out and pound in a finishing nail or put up a 3M command hook. When the next kid is ready to earn beads of her own, she will just have a different color cord.

For the actual beads we chose to go with some glass beads with a colorful marbling type of effect, mostly because I like pretty things, but also because we thought it would be a little more motivating to earn than just regular plastic pony beads. The awesome thing is that we have been reusing the same beads for almost two years now. I shutter to think how many stickers we would have blown our money on in that time and it’s hard to take away already eaten candy for poor behavior. However, we did find out that we would need to expand our collection of beads.

Negative Beads

The first addition we made were plain black plastic pony beads. Now I realize that I just dissed plain pony beads in the last paragraph, but hear me out. Shortly after we started the bead system we ran into situations where he would earn enough beads to finally get the thing he wanted (at this point in the game it was candy) and ‘spend’ his beads, have/eat the thing, and there we are with no beads on his string. Then he would do a not so good thing, but low and behold, he had no beads to lose. We thus instituted ‘negative beads.’ It didn’t matter that they were ugly and boring because we really hoped to not see a lot of them anyways. Excepting one or two… um… “phases” we really don’t see them. We have really liked this for a few reasons.

  1. It takes care of the obvious dilemma of not being able to take away beads when he’s already spent them and enjoyed his spoils.
  2. It introduces the idea of negative numbers in a relatable way before he has to learn about them in math class.
  3. In order to get good beads he must first pay off his debt. We actually use the word “debt” with our preschooler. Hopefully we get him thoroughly brainwashed in the idea that debt really sucks a lot before he is making serious financial decisions of his own.

Decimal Place Beads

I know. Math. Again. What can I say, I married a nerd and he’s rubbing off on me. (note to self, write blog post about why nerds make the most awesome husbands) Or maybe it’s that I spent so much of my life loathing all things mathematical and basically avoiding any situation where I could not bring a calculator and still managed to get the wrong answers. Seriously though, as a parent I will do anything I can to shield my children from math anxiety (Is that really a thing? Because I totally have it if it is.)

The glass beads that we got and were using worked great for a long time. Recently, however, he has been working on some very valuable skills combined with saving up for a shopping spree or super good toy. Thus, accumulating more beads on his string than we have or that will fit on his string. We solved this problem by getting some other type of pretty beads that represent 10 glass beads, and yet another type of pretty bead that represents 100 glass beads. Problem of the over filled string solved and a bonus of introducing more good math concepts in a relatable way.

Cashing in

At first we had a box filled with prizes that had labels for how many beads each item ‘cost.’ It was great for him to have the instant gratification when we were introducing the idea but not only did he outgrow it quickly, I also really stink at picking out good non candy prizes. It’s a personal flaw that I have, but don’t lose any sleep over. What we adapted to works better and makes my life easier anyways. Basically he shops for his own prizes.

What we have determined as a couple is how much money each bead will convert to. Since the kid doesn’t really know the math we change this up based on our budget. We try to keep it high enough that he can bring things home that are… how to put this… not junk I’ll throw out as soon as I get the chance. We like to see him using his purchasing power to get things that aren’t a TOTAL waste of money, so we do have veto power over his purchases. The best thing he has gotten so far has been a bag of jolly ranchers. Not only did that bag last weeks and weeks, but because he felt like he had an abundant supply of candy, every time he had a piece for himself he also shared with his sugar loving little sister- OF HIS OWN FREE WILL! I only coached the little one to ask politely and to say thank you. It gave me the mom feels to watch so many times. I hope he chooses to buy another bag soon so I can watch all the sharing and hear all the polite words ring through my home once again.  Now to find a way to get the sharing to translate to all the other things…

Another reason I really really really really really like this system is that it’s inevitable that while walking through stores to hear your kid say; “I want that”    “Mom, can I have that?”    “I need this in my life or I will surly perish”    … you get the idea. Well, every time I hear one of those phrases I get to use an awesome comeback. Usually something along the lines of; “Save up your beads and someday you can have it”      “That is worth __ beads. Do you want to spend __ of your beads to have it?”     “Sadly you don’t have any beads/have a bead debt right now to get it.”

It. Is. Awesome. Sure he still is disappointed that he often doesn’t get the thing, but it gives the ownership of the cause for  disappointment back to him. What an awesome lesson to teach our kids before they have to go out and function in the really big adult world. Plus, I don’t have to be the bad guy at the store. Unless I really don’t want that item to be in my child’s possession. Then I am the bad guy at the store and say, “Sorry, that won’t be coming home with us today.” I’m also a fan of plain ole, “Nope.”

More Reasons I love it

I could really go on and on why I love this method, here are just a few

It is easily adapted to learning new skills without forking over beads for mastered skills.

While we started out using this as a potty training tool, we no longer give him beads for making it to the potty.  At this stage in the game that’s just expected. For that we tapered off the beads he could earn. When it started off we would give him beads for each success (1 for pee, 2 for poo). After he got that down and was piling up quite the stash of beads, we changed the game on him. He would get beads for going certain lengths of time without an accident. Again, when that got easy and he had basically mastered it, he couldn’t earn beads for using the potty, but  he could loose them for not making it. (Except at bedtime. Night time accidents wouldn’t cost him anything but sleep while we changed the sheets).

Another way to do it is have a diminishing returns sorta deal going on. I’ll use the example of him learning to buckle in his car-seat all on his own. (Because he is going to be in the third row when his brother is born.) At first it seemed like an impossible task to him and the only way he even tried was because we offered a HUGE amount of beads. 20. It was 20. but to an almost four year old, that was HUGE! He also knew that the Second time he did it all on his own, he would get 10 beads (still, quite a lot/). Then 5 beads (But you guessed that, didn’t you?). Then finally he would get 1 bead until we felt he had mastered it, after which he could loose a bead if we thought he wasn’t putting in a reasonable effort or we had to tell him 6 trillion times to get buckled and he didn’t. Now we’re using this same method with learning to tie his shoe laces. it’s not going fantastically- we might have to up the ante on the bead count so that he will actually put in more of an effort to learn it. Not because it’s something he really needs to know right now, but mostly because the more independent he is at getting ready, the less strain there is on our whole family when we need to go somewhere.

Encourages them to stick with a task they might otherwise give up on.

Once upon a time we were on a road trip. (or I think that was how this use of beads came about) Needless to say we had kids and they were stuck on their butts for hours on end. Things got ugly. Luckily, My son had recently received a toy from the grandparents. The perplexus. It’s a spherical obstacle course you rotate ever so carefully to move a tiny ball along a tricky track to the end. Now, I’m a fully grown, mostly intelligent adult with about average fine-motor skills, mmmkay? I could not, for the life of me, complete the dang thing. Without really expecting him to live up to the task, we offered the boy 100 beads if he got the silver ball to the end. It actually kept him occupied for a really long time! We had a nightmare of a road trip sprinkled with moments of quiet from the backseat nice peaceful road trip. Fast forward months later, while vigorously shaking the ball, he accidentally landed the sucker in the goal. Yeah…. No, he did NOT forget about the 100 beads! We never specified how it had to get there. More of a cautionary tale than anything, but it does illustrate my point a little, right?

Use as a sort of ‘fee’ for destructive behavior.

Love this boy to pieces but he is kind of a wild-child sometimes, and he doesn’t always think things through. It almost never happens but every once in a blue moon he will damage something of value. Now, I get that kids can accidentally bump something and it breaks it. That’s not what this is about. I want to teach my kids responsibility for their actions, but I also want them to know about forgiveness and mercy. The times we institute a fee for damaged property are after he has received VERY clear instructions not to do something (often, multiple times) and still does the thing. The fee is usually equal to the cost of replacing the item, or (if the value is way more than he will earn in his childhood) it will be a hefty fine that he will remember and other non-bead consequences.

Gives me the freedom to reward him for anything that I choose.

One of my favorite ways to use the beads is as a surprise reward for when he is “caught being good.” He doesn’t always get a bead for doing good things, because I hope that he finds doing good things to be a reward in and of themselves. Nevertheless, on occasion, when he absolutely bowls me over with how awesome he is (being extra polite and kind, looking outside himself and serving others unprompted, you get the idea) and I get to acknowledge that with my words and a token that he was not expecting when he did the thing. I try not to go over board with this so that he doesn’t learn to expect a bead for choosing to do the right thing.

Please leave a comment with how might you use the bead system differently in your family! I’d love to hear it!
As always, If you liked the idea, please pass it along (social media makes this really easy!) Thanks for all your support!