Home economics: Token parenting

My MPR colleague Andrew Haeg talked recently with a parent in our Public Insight Network about using incentives to encourage good behavior and savings among her children. She has some unique challenges. Here’s Andrew’s report:

The challenge of raising four young boys combined with a massive recession can call forth from parents unexpected reserves of creativity.

Take Trista Matascastillo, a St. Paul mother and source in our Public Insight Network. She has hit on a strategy for saving money and encouraging good behavior. When kids act particularly well, give them a token they can exchange for candy, food or something else they value.

Matascastillo has four kids, ages 1, 7, 10 and 12. The 10-year-old is severely autistic, and is prone to screaming or hitting himself. He attends a school for special needs kids in St. Paul. Last year his teacher, John Hartshorn, implemented the token economy to encourage his kids to control their behavior.

For Hartshorn’s class, the results have been remarkable. At the beginning of the year, the class was “a little wild,” and he had trouble getting the kids in their seats. Now after starting the token system (with an exchange rate of one token to one Skittle or cracker) they’ll stay put and attentive for 25 to 30 minutes.

Trista Matascastillo liked the system so much, she started using it at home. To her surprise, her 12- and 7-year-olds showed interest in the system, so she started giving them tokens for behavior “above and beyond” what was normally expected.

What constitutes token-worthy behavior depends on the child.

For the 12-year-old, it might be helping his younger brother learn how to skateboard. For the 7-year-old, it’s consistently saying “please” and “thank you.”

Even the 1-year-old is starting to get it–for him blowing a kiss is enough for a token. Matascastillo has set on a fairly stable exchange rate: each token is worth 10 minutes of free time, or 50 cents. When they wanted to see the movie “The Transformers” with their dad, they had to save up a week’s worth of tokens.

The system is teaching them better behavior, along with the rudiments of economics, negotiations, and exchange rates. A bowl of ice cream might suddenly take on far greater value if the child wants it badly enough, so they’ll have to negotiate out a token exchange that both child and parent can accept.

“It’s really them comprehending what it’s worth and how we get to an agreement,” Matascastillo says. The neighbor kids have taken a shine to the system, and she now uses tokens to reward them for good behavior.

And lest you think this just for kids, there are plenty of adult versions of token systems. Frequent-flyer miles, hotel points, and other reward systems are token economies which encourage more buying and consumer loyalty. Psychologists (including the renowned B.F. Skinner, who was the chair of the University of Minnesota’s psychology department) call this sort of behavior management “operant conditioning.”

At the Matascastillo house, there have been a few cases of attempted hoodwinking (the 7-year-old once “lost” a bunch tokens he never had) and suspect token behavior (i.e. gratuitous sweetness: “Mom, I love you” plus lots of hugs and kisses). But Matascastillo can see through their ruses, and the kids know it.

And as certain positive behavior becomes normal, she can raise the bar whenever she wants, and in the process encourage even better behavior. All the while, she and her husband are spending far less than they would with allowances — in this recession “we don’t have money to give away,” she says.


Matascastillo was also featured in a recent MPR Commentary on the need to help female veterans.

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