The Rock Jar

Four has been… It’s been a challenge. I mean, the other years had their challenges, too, but this was the year Kendall moved beyond simple tantrums into full-blown negotiations. The kid has opinions and plans, y’all. STRONG SET IN STONE ONES. And he’s not going to take no for answer. He won’t even take “No, if you do that one more time you’re going to time out,” for an answer.

I’ll be honest, there’s been a lot of yelling. From all of us. And I’m not going to guilt myself into feeling bad for ever yelling at all because that’s just life, and it’s who we are. Sometimes yelling happens. But I can do better. Everyone in this house can do better. So we’re trying.

This week, I started a system with Kendall where he can earn rocks for anything from getting ready for school on time, to playing nicely with his sister. We use them to reward him for trying the food we have for dinner, and for leaving the playground without a fit.

The idea is he has to fill this entire jar with river rocks (2 bags, purchased from the floral section of Hobby Lobby). Once he gets all the rocks in the jar, he gets the coveted prize taped to the front of it. Right now, it’s a Zelda (Link) costume he’s been asking for for ages. We try to be pretty generous about giving out the rocks, but here’s the hitch…

He can lose them, too. Hit your sister? Boom, you just lost a rock, buddy. Make us late for school because you’re throwing a fit and won’t dress yourself or let me help you? Say goodbye to another one.

So there are 3 levels of play here. You do something awesome, you get a rock. You don’t do that awesome thing? Hey, your call. No rock for you. You do something unacceptable, you lose a rock.

I tried something similar when he was younger with pennies or something. I can’t remember if there was a prize, but I remember a lot of people telling me that you should only reward the child, never take away the rewards when they behave poorly. So for years I’ve tried the “focus on the positive” approach with him. I’ve tried not giving his negative behavior attention. I’ve tried ignoring.

It’s not working. It’s simply not enough for him to be ignored when he does something “bad.” Timeouts are useless. Rewarding only the positive seems to… fuel his bad behavior. I can’t really explain it other than to say this kid knows how to work someone. He will make an EXCELLENT lawyer someday.

Meanwhile, he has to see that there are tangible consequences to his negative actions. So taking away a rock and putting it back in the pile that he can try to earn rocks from seems fair, and effective. I mean, in real life, if you behave poorly, you lose stuff. You lose friends, you lose assignments, you lose jobs. I’m okay with teaching that lesson early for this kid.

You know what? It’s working. It’s only been 4 days, but it’s been a fantastic improvement so far. No more arguing about stuff. You don’t want to get dressed before you watch TV? Then you don’t get a rock, AND you don’t get TV. You’re going to keep yelling at me about how that’s not fair? You lose a rock. 5 minutes later, he’s dressed without a fight.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I focus on the possibility of losing rocks. I try to enforce and reward good behavior, and wind up giving him about 10 rocks a day, and he’s losing about 3 a day at this point. But, I’m not afraid to try out something a little beyond  strictly positive reinforcement because you know what? It’s 100x more positive an experience than all of us losing our cool with each other on the regular.

I’m not claiming this system would work for everyone. Obviously, you know your child best. Just wanted to share something that, for the first time in a long time, seems to be working ok for us.


50 Things to Do Before You Deliver: The First Time Moms Pregnancy Guide
Available now: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

  • 168


  1. You rock. Sorry. Had to. I’m apparently from the “old school” way of thinking and in our house, for the past 14 years, it has ALWAYS been – You do good, you get good. You do bad, you get bad. Why? Because that’s life. If I screw up one of my client’s assignments, I’ll probably lose them as a client. If I make them look like a rockstar, I’ll probably get more business from them. See… it works 🙂

    So you keep up with giving out and taking those rocks because if they want it bad enough.. they WILL bust their little butts to do good. And get good!

  2. Tracy @ The UnCoordinated Mommy on

    I am definitely filing this for when the boys get older, right now Noah probably throw a rock at Bryce and then he would try to eat it and choke 😉 we have enough projectiles and choking hazards to deal with. Lol
    Very awesome idea and I love the river rocks, perfect for a boy! And I support negative reinforcement 100% because, hey, that’s life!! I just try to outweigh it with positive reinforcement.

  3. I get so tired of people claiming that just focusing on the positive works. For some kids (like mine), it just does not. Our kid can gain a piece of candy (from her stash, she’s almost out of Christmas/Halloween candy-and I gave a lot away, mind you) by being a BIG helper. We have high freaking standards. If we go somewhere and she doesn’t throw a fit and does what she should, she’ll get candy when we get home. This keeps her from having a fit at the check-out, and ensures good behavior all the way home (for the most part). If she behaves badly during the day, then she doesn’t get dessert after dinner, or she’ll get her tv time or movie or whatever taken away. I’m not sure how my kid would react to a long-term goal. Plus, once they get the big thing, do they automatically revert to bad behavior? Or are you footing the bill for awesome ‘prizes’ constantly? Hmm. Definitely something to think about as 4 rolls on. Right now the ‘treats’ thing seems to work for us fairly well on a day to day basis.

  4. Oh thank you! I am implementing this now. Are 4’s sound a like yours, lots of yeliing all around(although I wish I hadn’t 🙁 ) Lots of time outs, that just result in tantrums and more yelling, and don’t seem to get any where. I am open to trying something new, she turns 5 Friday, and with baby number three only 4 months away something has to change before I loose my sanity.

  5. I actually really love this. We have a 3.5 yo…strong willed we’ll say…little boy and I think this would really work with him. Totally going to try it out!

  6. YES! Definitely trying this. 🙂 Your post makes me think of an article I read last month that really stuck with me: “I think I know why you’re yelling.” Here was my favorite part: And it’s no wonder! If I attempted to absorb all the vague, contradictory advice I’ve seen and heard regarding discipline, I’d be blowing a gasket on a regular basis myself. So many of these theoretical ideas are seductively warm and fuzzy, but they come with a whole lot of scary don’ts (“don’t punish, reward, control, give time-outs or consequences, use the word ‘no’, expect obedience, be authoritative, etc”), and very little in the way of practical tools.”
    Just focusing on the positive is a complete non-starter when your kid wakes up having meltdowns and standoffs–there’s literally nothing to reward in our home on some mornings!

  7. I think this is great. Only reinforcing positive behavior does not work in this house either. Going to her room for bad behavior did nothing either but you know what does work? Taking away her beloved Rapunzel doll for the day. We don’t do it on a whim, but if she’s having a bad enough day in terms of behavior, Rapunzel goes to mommy & daddy’s room and she has the chance to EARN her back.

    So I love this. We’re working on a chore chart with her. She’s been helping out with things like feeding the dogs and making her bed and I’ve told Clint that we should work something out where we reward her for doing those things and I think incorporating her behavior into the chart somehow would be great.

  8. I completely agree. My little boy has just turned three and is very strong willed. The only thing that seems to work is taking something away and timeout only works when he is put in his room. He told me the other day that he pushed a girl at school. Although, I was torn about taking something away because I don’t want him to not tell me things I wanted to get across that we don’t treat other people that way. The new book he picked out and got that day was taken away for the evening. There is nothing wrong with showing them there actions have consequences…good and bad.

  9. Fantastic idea. I could see this working really well with our son, too. We have a “sticker” chart for specific things we’re trying to work on (getting dressed by yourself, eating all your dinner), and at the end of 10 stickers, you get a “special surprise”. He LOVES that chart and getting stickers, and working towards an ultimate “big” goal. I’ve been struggling with timeouts too though, and finding things that he understands as punishment that make sense for the act. Definitely keeping this idea in my bucket of things to try!

  10. Awesome system! I hope it continues to work for you! I do, however, wonder if those rocks are looking tasty to you yet? Sorry, had to ask, since your pregnancy with Leyna brought on pica 🙂

  11. I think this is a wonderful idea. I think you absolutely have to have some “negative”by taking away rocks for bad behavior. Before you wrote that I thought” wow, how easy would it be for a kid to be extra good for a day or two just to get a prize”? This is wonderful!

  12. Serious question. After the tv/won’t get dressed rock loss, you say he got dressed quickly. Did he gain a rock back at that point? Or is it more of a “maybe you’ll remember this for next time”. I’d love to do something like this for my kiddo in a few months when she can better grasp it. But she would totally be asking for that rock back once she got dressed.

  13. I have a question- if he loses a rock due to throwing a fit, but then immediately does what he was asked (getting dressed, etc), does he earn the rock back, or does it stay gone?

  14. So, you have a lawyer on your hands too? My Ady is going to make a great lawyer one day too! I swear that girl is going to make me go gray! It’s going to take a very strong man to be with her one day! lol
    I’ll have to give this rock system a try, on her and her brother!

  15. We are actually about to start the same thing, but with dimes. (I figure as they get bigger we’ll upgrade to dimes, quarters.) The boys are all about money, earning it, etc. It’s going to be our alternative to an allowance. We shall see.

  16. What is it about kids and rocks? They just love them, don’t they? This is a great idea to get kids to make the right decisions. Thanks, Jill!

  17. What a neat idea! I’m wondering if this would work with my super opinionated, bossy three year old, or if she is still a little too young. I try to do positive reinforcement with praising her for doing the right things, and we do time outs for negative behavior. Did you quit time outs altogether, or do you still do those too?

  18. I have a similar almost 3 year old. I am having such a hard time trying to figure out how to effectively discipline him. I think I am going to give the rock idea (with a few modifications since he is younger) a try. Thanks for the great idea!

  19. Stephanie Lewis on

    I do this with Pom Poms! We call it our fuzzy jar. It works great for my strong willed little boy too. Good luck!

  20. My Girlfriend does the same with sea shells and her girls. Has worked like a charm for years and they even take breaks when the girls are good overall. When times get tough the shells come out.

  21. Great idea! Thanks for sharing, especially how it plays out in your home. Our almost 4 year old has been pushing the boundaries and I think some tangible consequence for both acceptable and unacceptable behavior is in order. Thanks again!

  22. Great idea! Nice to have something to back you up when you’re battling an obstinate little person and they decide to see exactly what “or else” means – I always feel like she’s calling my bluff. She knows I’ve got nothin.

    Also, good for you for yelling and then letting it go! No, it’s not the most productive. But yes, you made mom angry, and mom is human, and it’s ok for you to get angry sometimes too.

  23. I love this concept, Jill. I was doing a penny reward bank system for potty training, which was working really well. So I think your rock jar idea would work great with my kids for everyday behavior management.

    Thank you for the awesome idea!

  24. I think consequences – good or bad – are the perfect way to teach kids about how life works. Each kid responds to different methods. I don’t think you need to feel bad about yelling or have to bend over backward to explain why you take away rocks. That’s how life works. The kids whose parents reward whining are the ones who are being done a disservice but the world will teach them eventually.

  25. I love this idea – thanks for sharing! My 2.5yo son won’t get it yet (the whole delayed gratification / saving up thing), I’m totally pulling this out when he’s Kendall’s age. I’ve already learned that positive-reinforcement-only doesn’t work with him – this kid tests limits ALL DAY LONG and needs firm consequences. Time outs aren’t especially effective, but you know what is? The threat (and follow-through, if necessary) of losing a cherished toy for awhile. It’s all communicated very calmly and respectfully, but like you, I’m a-okay with teaching my kid that if you’re a jerk, you lose things. That’s how the real world works, after all.

  26. First, I’m curious about your choice of rocks – are you craving them again?!

    Years ago I heard Nesta Aharoni on the radio and found her parenting advice very interesting – of course there are things are totally disagree with but her ideas on negotiation in particular stood out to me.

    She was talking about not only letting, but encouraging kids to negotiate. Her reasoning was that as teenagers throughout adulthood we have to negotiate ALL the time and yet we usually have zero experience doing so end up agreeing to/doing something that doesn’t benefit us.

    Hope you have a Starbucks Plug Free day!!

  27. We’ve just started a similar system with our boy, but with stickers… Which I don’t like because I can’t take them away for hitting his 5m old brother, or telling me to shut up… It was pretty bad around here, but it’s getting better. And, at the end of 80 stickers, he’ll get that Lego Fire Chief car he’s been coveting!

  28. We’ve been doing the same thing with my 3 year old for 2 months! …except it’s stickers on a graph & the prize is a princess dress she’s been begging for. It’s definitely been a help, but geez it’s taking forever… she will definitely have earned it!

  29. Mav Gonzalez on

    At age 4 we had the same issues with our son and also did a rock jar. I don’t remember if I took any rocks out, but it worked beautifully for our family. We only had the jar for about 6 months, when he just started “getting it” and his behavior improved. Now at age 6 he earns money for doing chores – since he has a better understanding about what things cost.

  30. Jennifer Armstrong Hicks on

    Just read about this on The Paper Mama’s site…she credited you so I checked out your original post. OMG–this is so exactly my 2.5YO. She’s adorable and amazing and then…she turns. Timeouts are useless for me too, ignoring doesn’t work and she has a scream that can shatter windows. She’s just clever–which eventually will hopefully be a good quality! I can’t WAIT to get some pretty rocks and some cool jars and give this a go. thanks!

  31. I do this with a marble jar in my classroom – I feel the same way, in real life there’s a consequence to your actions and some times you might miss out on keeping your rocks.

  32. Lori Krzykowski on

    When I stumbled across this I thought perhaps you had my child…pretty much everything you talked about with your 4 yr old….we were encountering…and I was at the end of my rope! We’ve been doing the rock jar for about 2 months now and I can not believe the results! AMAZING! Nothing else has worked like this does. Period. I used an empty plastic Peanut Butter jar and we tote it back and forth to Preschool/Daycare. Works like a charm for them and at home too. So glad I found this – it’s been a sanity saver! 🙂

  33. Pingback: Our Boy, His Joy, And A Homemade Skylanders Costume

  34. Pingback: Elf On The Shelf Leaving - Creative Ideas to Say Goodbye | Our Knight Life

  35. Pingback: He Is The Grit The Wears Us In

  36. Pingback: Pica- It’s Back

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.