Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lessons from a Jar of Marbles

I'm convinced that parenting is the hardest, and most important job that I will ever have. It induces a swirling tornado of emotions inside me every day.  Deep satisfaction,  complete frustration, boundless joy, resolute determination,  fierce protectiveness, sheer terror, and sacrificial love all flow from the same fountain in the heart. I'm often on my knees in prayer, seeking wisdom to raise the three little souls I've been entrusted with.

When our school year started a few months ago, things seemed a bit status quo. I'm not one to settle for "good" when things could be "great", so I started praying about some changes I could make in the household.  

I had the following verse in mind:

"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works." Hebrews 10:24

I've been fairly successful at spurring my girls to love each other and be helpful, but finding ways to motivate my son has proven to be tricky. His little mind works differently, and I don't dare try to lump him in with his sisters when it comes to motivation.

Around the same time I was seeking the Lord in this matter, I had a great conversation with one of my dear homeschooling friends.  She shared a great idea with me.  One that I had heard of many times, but never implemented.

The idea is simple: Get a jar, and a bag of marbles.  Give the child a marble for chores done well, excellent school work, kindness showed toward others and obedience.  Have a prize that the child is working towards, and reward him with it when the jar is filled.

Here is my son's jar.   I purchased a bag of decorative glass stones from the dollar store, and he's been working on filling it for six weeks.  He's almost there!  When he fills it, his reward will be to go on his very first rifle elk hunt!  He's been dreaming of this day for several years. He successfully completed his hunter's safety course, and we've purchased his elk tag for him. Now all he has to do is earn his hunt!

This has been a fabulous motivator for my son.  The jar is a visual reminder of his "goal" and the glass stones are tangible little rewards to put in the jar throughout the day for his faithfulness in the areas we are working on.

We often talk about the Biblical reasons for working hard, showing kindness, and being obedient, but sometimes these concepts seem a bit abstract to children. A physical reward helps to cement those concepts in their little minds.  Hopefully, as they mature, the heart reasons behind their obedience will solidify in their minds as well.

There are obvious results from our little rewards system: high quality school work, chores done cheerfully, and immediate obedience.  My son looks for opportunities to show kindness to the family and even to people out in public. We still have occasional set-backs, and when those occur, we simply remove a marble from the jar.

But, do you know what? There has been one HUGE and unexpected result from having a jar of marbles.  Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with my son, and everything to do with MOM.

That's right, I started this jar system to help my son, and it ended up helping me.  If there's one thing I've learned in my Bible reading, it's that God always works in unexpected ways.

During the past six weeks, my entire thought pattern has changed.  Instead of concentrating on the negative things my son was doing, I began to look hard for opportunities to catch him being good. The Holy Spirit often reminds us of our righteousness in Christ. When our lives aren't reflecting Jesus, the Holy Spirit  reminds us that our behavior is not becoming of a child of the King of Kings.  In the same way, I began to re-enforce the idea that my son was an outstanding young man of God. As a result of my reminders, he has risen to the occasion to become those things which I spoke over him.   

Each and every little glass stone in that jar represents a kind word spoken to my son, or a small celebration given to him for a job well done. It takes a whole lot of positive affirmation to counter-act one harsh word. Each stone in the jar is a tiny victory of motherhood, representing a pattern of praise. Each stone is one less criticism and one more compliment.

In the unfortunate event that my son disobeys, I no longer feel compelled to raise my voice. I simply tell him that I'm sorry that I have to remove a marble from the jar because of his disobedience.  I really want him to succeed, and it genuinely hurts my heart to have to remove marbles.  Instead of anger, we both show sorrow over his sin.

Most importantly, those little tokens of glass show him that I'm paying attention to him.  In Luke 27:23, it says, "Be diligent to know the state of your flocks, and attend to your herds."   The very same concept applies to raising our children.  I need to be watchful over them so that I know the state of their well-being.  Opportunities to praise your children only come with a watchful eye.  I must be observant to notice when my son clears the table for his sister, holds the door for an elderly woman in the store, or loads the dishwasher without being asked.  Each marble tells my child that I see him for who he is.

Who knew there were so many lessons to be learned from a little jar of marbles? My son is learning to be a young man of God, and I'm learning to be a better mother.  It's a win-win situation for all!


  1. That is great! Thanks for the the form of the idea and your personal testimony!

  2. That's a great idea! I'm a teacher and have seen other teachers use something similar to this. Glad it's working so well for you! :)

  3. Wow, Thank you for sharing this. I am having problems with my son and his manners as well as some really out of control behavior. He's only 5 though, so I don't know if this will work, but I am definitely keeping this in my memory for when he is older! I don't work enough sometimes to praise him when I catch him being good. This has inspired me to do better!

  4. I haven't seen any new posts in a while. Hopefully that is because you are just having so much fun with your family.

    I saw this post a few years ago, and I borrowed the idea to use with my daughters. We were so struggling with them picking at each other. We gave them a jar to work on together. Both were able to have stones added for kindnesses and jobs well done. Both were able to cause stones to be removed. If one person picked at the other, they would remove a stone...but if the other chose not to respond to it, they would add one. It worked on them and us as parents. The reward? A family trip to Indianapolis...without all the picking and fighting that had caused us parents to avoid it. They still talk about it, especially when they have started getting pick-y with one another...but now we don't have to pull out a jar. They recognize it for what it is and make the change on their own. Thanks so much for your inspiration.