Why This Marble Jar Is My Favorite Mom Hack

It was happening again. James was in meltdown mode – a tearful, snot-dripping mess spewing all the “cold pricklies” he could think of from his car seat as I drove him home from camp on a 90-degree Wednesday.

My Favorite Positive Reenforcement Tool: The Marble Jar

“You are SO mean, mommy! You hurt my feelings and now I am going to take away your car!” he sobbed.

Part of me wanted to laugh at how ridiculous it was that my 4-year-old was threatening to punish me, but it also troubled me that his go-to way to hurt me was to take away a privilege. I knew that James was acting out because he was hot and tired – he’s generally a good kid – but I also felt like I was constantly harping on him and punishing him for minor misbehaviors. I knew that an increasing number of psychologists are now arguing that punishment neither works nor does it promote accountability for one’s behavior. But what was my other choice? He needed to understand there were consequences for poor choices.

That weekend, I took James for a play date at my friend Sara’s house and vented my frustrations as we sat in the shade of her porch watching our kids play.

“Have you heard about the marble jar?” she asked me.

“You mean like the Brené Brown thing?” One of my favorite parts of Ms. Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, is when the sociologist likens interpersonal relationships to the marble jar her daughter’s teacher kept in the classroom. When the class did something kind or showed good judgement, the teacher added marbles. When they made poor choices, they lost marbles. Ms. Brown draws the analogy that all of our relationships are like that marble jar; we’re always adding marbles and taking them out. When someone puts a lot of marbles in their proverbial jar, others feel safe being vulnerable with them and it creates intimacy. When they make choices that cost them proverbial marbles, others withdraw.

“Yes, that’s exactly it! I’d never heard of it being used outside of a classroom setting, but my friend is doing it and says it works great!” Sara answered. She promptly sent me screenshots of the genius way her friend had rigged the jar to motivate her child to add more marbles. I ordered supplies on Amazon before I even left Sara’s house.

Here’s how the marble jar works:

Supplies: 24oz Mason Jar, large marbles, small marbles, labels

Earning marbles: Children earn small marbles for things that are already expected of them and large marbles for learning new tasks, volunteering to help, or going out of their way to do something kind or thoughtful.

Losing marbles: Marbles are lost for failure to listen, disrespect, and general misbehavior. The number and size of marbles lost is commensurate to the severity of their misbehavior.

 Reward system: Place three labels on the jar with escalating levels of reward or privilege. We started by placing a “dessert” sticker at the lowest level, “TV” at medium, and “Disneyland” all the way at the top. To be clear: we did not plan a trip to Disneyland just because he filled up his jar. This was something we wanted to do anyway, and he’s generally well behaved enough that we knew he could earn enough marbles to “earn” his trip. We also didn’t want to spoil him with toys when he was already going somewhere special.

 The marble jar gives James a visual representation of all the good he’s done, which is a great way to reward and encourage good behavior. When we take away marbles, he can see how his poor choices detract from the work he’s done.

James earns a reward every time the marbles reach the bottom of the sticker bearing its name. So he earned dessert first, then the ability to watch 30 minutes of TV after dinner, and then his trip to Disneyland.

Is it working? 

While James still experiences the normal ups and downs of being 4 years old, the marble jar has motivated him to express himself more respectfully and effectively when he feels sad, angry, or frustrated. While his thoughts are often immature (“You hurt my feelings because you took away marbles!” is a common one.), it keeps him grounded enough to actually reason with him so that he learns from his mistakes.

James is also actively finding ways to be more independent and helpful, which is a welcome and significant change. As an only child, he hasn’t had the benefit of being forced to learn those things because he doesn’t share our attention with a sibling. I also admit that my I-can-do-everything-myself-no-problem personality has at times enabled laziness.

This is where earning big marbles by taking initiative has worked like a charm! James learned very quickly that the bigger marbles were the fast track to earning his trip to Disneyland. As a result, he started volunteering to help prepare meals, set the table, clean up after meals, and get ready for school without being asked. This not only makes our lives easier, but it also brings us closer as a family.

 When I do have to take away a marble, it’s easy to position it as a consequence brought about by poor choices as opposed to a punishment that happens because Mom or Dad is angry. We try to head off the misbehavior by addressing it before it starts. I’ll say something like, “James, I see you’re having trouble listening right now. I’m asking you to put your shoes on. If you don’t do that, the consequence will be that you’ll lose two small marbles.”

Usually, this will send him straight to the shoe closet to grab his sneakers. But every so often he’ll call my bluff and say something like, “That’s fine with me. I just really don’t feel like putting my shoes on right now.” This is my cue to drive the point home by calmly responding, “Okay. Then you can go and take two marbles out of your jar right now.” I’ve had to do this a handful of times, and his reaction varies. Most of the time he whines a little bit and then complies with my original request, but it’s also provoked a temper tantrum at least once. As I stood there watching him cry, I asked myself why I was surprised. After all, choosing a negative consequence is not rational behavior, and temper tantrums are simply the result of a child’s inability to think rationally at that moment. On that day, I carted him off to the car without his shoes, which he put on by himself when he got to school because he didn’t want to be barefoot.

Later that day, I reminded him that he had made a poor choice that morning and as a result needed to take two marbles from his jar. “Ugh, fine!” he sulked as he removed the marbles. Then he checked to see how much damage he’d done.

“That’s so sad that two things you did well were just undone because you didn’t make a good choice,” I said. “You’ll do better next time, right?”

“Yeah because I want to earn my trip to Disneyland!” he responded.

And he did.

James in costume at Disneyland. 😂
James in costume at Disneyland. 😂

 Our proudest moment came just as we walked into the park. As he went through the turnstile, he proudly told the ticket taker that he had earned his special day by making LOTS of good choices. His confident smile told me the marble jar should remain on our kitchen counter for a long time to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *