Monday, March 19, 2012

The Bead Game

Terrible Twos? Or Threes?
I never thought the twos were terrible. Part of me actually mourned Sammy's third birthday because I thought two was so awesome.

When I told people this, a few responded, "Just wait 'til he's three." I figured they might be wrong, just as the perpetrators of the "terrible twos" myth had been wrong. I was pleased to find that I've enjoyed three very much. It's a treat watching the expansion of Sammy's eagerness to learn, understand, and make connections. It's really been fun.

Right around 3 1/2, however, some distressing changes started developing: ignoring instructions, becoming stubborn and demanding, and expressing frustration LOUDer than ever. We guessed this was what people were talking about, and it was new to our boy, who has always been surprisingly compliant and responsive. We did not want these sneaky new habits to stick, but were not quite sure what to do!

He thought getting on the green row was very cool.
Let the Game Begin!
One day on a whim I pulled out my abacus and told Sammy we were going to play the The Bead Game*. I explained that every time he followed an instruction, he earned a bead. If he did not follow the instruction, the bead was mine. To get started, we practiced some easy, fun instructions so he could earn some quick beads. He was excited about it.

For the last three weeks, we've had the abacus on the piano where Sammy can keep his eye on his beads. Keenan and I get a bead only every once in a while, not as often as I thought we might. In fact, he's much more excited about earning beads himself than worrying whether we get one (though if we hint that the bead might be ours, it becomes big motivation). At the end of the day, we write his total number of beads on our calendar on the wall. If he sets a new record, we draw a big star next to it. He's always asking what his current record is, and looks forward to breaking it. ("When do you think I will break my record?") Right now the record is 32. Average is maybe 26 or 27.

How a Bead is Earned
Through this process, instruction has became a key word. If at first he hesitates to do as we ask, and we remind him that it's an instruction, he flies into action. Since we began, he's actually earned beads for much more than just following instructions, for example:
  • Taking initiative to do something helpful (without being asked)
  • Saying or doing something kind
  • Interacting happily with his little brother
  • Greeting someone with confidence
  • Playing independently
  • Doing something brave or hard
  • Asking politely
  • Expressing gratitude
  • Being quick to apologize, even when he didn't mean to hurt or offend
  • Accepting no for an answer
  • Controlling his emotions
  • Remembering rules on his own
  • Etc.

Really, there are no real rules and there are no limits. I love this because he never quite knows when he'll get a bead. We try to be free with them. If he does something really impressive, he might even earn a double. 

Words Go with Beads
As we award a bead, we'll say something like:
  • "Sammy, you brushed your teeth without a reminder!"
  • "I noticed you found Daniel's shoe for him. I'm giving you a bead."
  • "You greeted my students so clearly when they came today."
  • "You're staying at the table. You get a bead for remembering the rule!"
  • "I peeked in the door during Primary, and saw you sitting reverently and listening."

Sometimes he does things with a bead in mind ("I get a bead for that..."), but more often than not, he's just pleased when something he does results in a bead. As with adults, children feed off positive attention and want to continue doing what we like. But we have to be very vigilant in noticing and commenting on what we like in more detail than "nice job" or "good boy." I think all parenting experts agree on that.

The Outcome
Keenan and I had already developed the habit of verbally praising Sammy, but having something concrete like the bead game has yielded enhanced results. He is besting some of the hairy little impulses that have started nipping at him, and it has been very positive motivation for Sammy to change his behavior on his own accord. In general, our house has been more positive and peaceful since we started. We are more patient and our relationships are better.

Eventually, I expect that The Bead Game will fade away, but that many of these habits will stick. The other day we asked him if he likes The Bead Game. He said with a smile, "Yes. Every instruction you give me, I follow."


*A twist on an idea (from a great friend!) that I use teaching young violinists -- the kind who can't follow instructions consistently. My students get a stricter and more direct version.


  1. Thanks for posting this! It's very timely for us. We agree with you-two was nothing. Three is where it really gets interesting (and challenging). Andrew and I have been looking for some kind of good motivator for Abe. I've always wanted an abacus, now I have a good reason to get one!

  2. Sometimes I think to myself, "Am I really cut out to be a parent?" I don't know how you all come up with such creative ideas for helping your children, but I confess, I have some creative parenting envy. At least I can read your and Ariel's ideas and steal them... Thank you so much for posting!

  3. "So I pulled out my abacus..."
    Good thing some people still have those on hand! Guess I'll have to get one too. Three? Wish I could start the bead game now. "Peter, you get a bead if you sleep until at least four thirty..."

    Great idea Nonie!

    1. Funny Meredith. I love my abacus. I got it to use for counting repetitions in my teaching studio, but it's come in handy in lots of ways!

      You could play The Bead Game with anything countable (buttons, pebbles, etc.), but the abacus is great because it displays well upright and it's easy to view progress.

  4. I'm afraid we are one of those who are in for the terrible twos :) Jackson is already showing some stubborn/noncompliant behavior! He is just barely starting do understand negotiations and rewards (if you do this first, then you can do this) so he may be cognitively ready for something like the bead game soon - I hope!

  5. Great post, Nonie! I was reading along thinking, "This sounds so familiar..." It's a concept that works for just about everything! It's the idea of a token economy to teach a natural consequence or cause/effect relationship. Pretty soon you can wean away the "tokens" and the natural consequences will remain. To this day, my rebellious teenage brother will snap to attention if someone says, "Ben, this is an instruction!" Sammy seems to get that idea really well.

    And you can link to me anytime... :)

    1. One of the main reasons we love this is because there are no tangible rewards or consequences. We don't have to buy him anything as a reward and likewise, he never feels punished (well, maybe a little if we get a bead, but we clear the board each morning). It just works.