Not All Economies are Created Equally

Can we stop jumping on emotional band wagons that decimate this thing and glorify that thing?  Every time we turn around there is someone saying we should completely stop doing this thing and do this instead.  Really?  What about moderation? Informing oneself?  Stopping to think and being bold enough to say that you do not agree.  Or that you do if these criteria are met?


Recently there has been a flurry of well-know, well-funded, and well-intentioned (giving the benefit of the doubt here) individuals and entities proclaiming that token economies and level systems are horrible for children, adolescents and others and should not be utilized.  Never ever. In any way.  As someone who has been in the trenches with these individuals and their families, I disagree.  What I might agree with is that poorly implemented and mismanaged token economies and level systems are horrible, and I would say that about anything that is poorly implemented and mismanaged. As likely most persons would.  However, this emotional response to nearly everything we do not like or agree with, quick-to-pull-the-trigger without benefit of full or comprehensive wisdom, a call to rally the troops behind what is “good” or “bad” is nonsense and bad practice.


We need a collective time-out. Oops!  Surely, I have just offended the group judging the use of time-outs as bad. Horrible even. A violation of all personhood under the age of whatever who will never be the same having been placed in a safe, monitored and supervised spot for a few minutes - while being told that they are loved, but their behavior is not - and when those few minutes pass by, having a quick check-in to talk about what might be better next time and get a hug and kiss.  The absurdity of it all. The use of anything, including social media, can be good or bad DEPENDING on how it is used. Yep, go ahead, make a mental list.  Coffee, check. Wine, check. Eating, check. Spending, check. Sleeping, check. Knives, check. Ice cream, check.  Check, check, check! You get it. 


So, back to token economies and level systems.  When they are used to control and punish, they are bad.  No question about it.  When they are used to help teach, give control, confidence and choice, they can be good. When used punitively and to threaten, bad.  When helping to build intrinsic motivation and provide predictability of environment and outcomes, good, and even trauma-informed. (The research indicates that routine, structure, being sure of expectations, knowing what is to come and how to meet challenges are benefits to those having experienced trauma.)  The questions to ask include, “What is the intent?”  “Who is the system designed to benefit and how?”  “Is implementation focused on praise or punishment?” Are the individual’s strengths or weaknesses being built on?”  


The last time I checked, most successful companies were not hiring inexperienced individuals to run their company as its CEO.  Experience is typically required in work, sports, competition…well, that’s leveling up. Earning something that is important (to you).  Working for something (you want).  Your choice.  Well-managed, effective token economies and level systems put the power in the hands of the person. They give them the instructions and then help them figure out how to be successful. The hard part is what is required from the adults: consistency, calmness, objectivity, support and kindness. Even unconditional love.


And there it is.  That is the point.  It is not the token economy or the level.  It is how it is implemented.  Used.  Intended.  To restate; it is not the thing that is bad or good; it is how it is used.  Take time to think, question, discuss, and learn.  It’s rarely all or nothing, always or never. There are exceptions and when we fail to focus on quality and outcomes, we fail our children and their families.

Michele Boguslofski