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Just the Ticket: A Strategy for Improving Behavior and Building Character

The Ticket System: A Strategy to Improve Your Child's Behavior and Character
The Ticket System: A Strategy to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Character

I’m not a patient woman and I had a strong-willed son. By the time Joshua was three, I was weary of the tantrums in the grocery store. I was tired of nagging him to do his simple chores. I was frustrated with disobedience. I was exhausted from punishing him for every infraction. I longed for a more positive incentive system that would not only accomplish my immediate goals, but also train him for life—a life full of both rewards and consequences. Nothing I read at that time offered an integrated approach.

I knew what I wanted. I wanted to reward Joshua for good behavior and discipline him for unacceptable behavior. I wanted one system, not one for each type of situation. I wanted a system a young child could understand, but one that would grow with him. I wanted something that would work anytime, anywhere. I wanted something that would mirror real life so the lessons would be transferable. I wanted something that would teach him to make decisions about his behavior and learn that he was indeed capable of governing himself. I wanted something that would teach delayed gratification. And I wanted something simple enough that even I, an inexperienced mom, could implement and maintain it.

I found my answer in a simple roll of theater tickets, which became the currency of child training in our family for several years. The concept was simple and worked for virtually every situation.


We started with simple chore cards bearing a picture of the desired outcome. So a picture of a well-made bed represented his responsibility to make his bed. A picture of toys in bins represented his responsibility to pick up his toys. A picture of a toothbrush reminded him to brush his teeth. On each card I wrote three values and explained these to him. He would, for example, earn three tickets for a well-accomplished task, two for an OK job, one for doing it in a barely acceptable manner. More difficult tasks earned more tickets.

Then I added bonus points for doing the job with a good attitude. We mounted the cards with magnetic tape and positioned them at his eye level on the refrigerator. When he did a job, he was responsible to bring me the card and I’d give him the tickets after inspecting the job. If he didn’t complete the job by the family deadline, he paid me the value of a job well-done. Suddenly the daily battle of the chores became a contest that he won with increasing frequency. What he didn’t realize was that when he won, so did I.


When Joshua would disobey at home, he had to go to his stash and pay me one or more tickets.  As the disobedience began, I no longer had to yell, cajole, or threaten. I would simple say, “Minus one.” If the behavior continued, it was met with “Minus two. . . Minus three . . . “ until he stopped and obeyed. It was amazing how quickly he trained himself to change his behavior once he understood the consequences. As soon as he stopped the disobedience, he had to pay up—an immediate consequence of the behavior. Since our goal was for him to obey quickly and cheerfully, I was generous with tickets when he met that criteria.


One of my most frustrating experiences of motherhood was the tantrum, whether at home or in public. By three, Joshua had mastered the tantrum, so I was especially motivated to intercept it without doing violence to my child.

The ticket system was a miracle. When Joshua would begin a tantrum, I could calmly say, “Minus one. . .  Minus two . . . Minus three. . . After about five, I’d calmly ask, “How much is this tantrum worth to you?”  Sometimes he’d stop immediately and sometimes I could see him pondering, counting the cost. At times, however, he’d continue until he reached his “price,” then he’d stop and cheerfully go get the tickets he owed me. This gave him a sense of control, but the reality is that tantrums never lasted as long once we implemented the ticket system. When I caught him deciding not to even begin a tantrum, I rewarded him generously with both praise and tickets.

Once he learned the system, I could use the same approach in public. Instead of experiencing that helpless feeling that every mother knows, I would quietly begin the count. Tantrums in public cost double, so I’d count by twos. It didn’t take long at all for him to stop. As soon as we got home, he had to pay up. Numbers took on real meaning and he learned to count by one’s and two’s at an early age.

Skills Training

We also used the tickets to learn and practice skills. A card with a full place setting encouraged him to set the table properly rather than just flinging dishes and silverware this way and that. Later we used them for other age-appropriate household chores. It was helpful to have an objective standard rather than letting my little attorney try to argue that “good enough” was actually “good enough.”

The Reward

So what was so special about the ticket system? What made it work? The answer is simple. Rewards. When we began, I developed a set of rewards for various numbers of tickets. Ten tickets would earn him an ice cream with Mom. Twenty would earn a trip to McDonalds. Thirty would earn his choice of menu for dinner. Forty would earn a small Lego.  When I explained the system to him, my little negotiator immediately said, “I’m going for the Legos.” Unfortunately, what I meant was the small single person/vehicle toys. What he meant was the big (read: expensive) systems. So we renegotiated and gave each ticket a value of ten cents that he could spend on almost anything he wanted. He could save them for something big—teaching saving and delayed gratification—or spend them on immediate desires—avoiding the constant “I want…!” everytime we went to the store.

Now it may seem that a dime per ticket wouldn’t be enough to motivate a kid, but we were amazed. Occasionally he’d spend some tickets frivolously, but he quickly learned that the key to stocking up on his favorite toys was obeying and saving. The system accomplished every goal I had set and provided an incredible training tool for my son.