We just switched our daughter from a “star/sticker” system to a “points/rewards” plan, and the difference is dramatic, in her and in me. I’ve decided it’s time to award myself some points! But first I should explain.

A sticker on the calendar for a successful day was a zero-sum game; while the intent was to reinforce positive behavior, holding back a sticker is more like punishment. I withheld when some infraction was festering in my memory and I wanted revenge. Served cold.

The point system, on the other hand, encourages you to give minimal attention to negative behavior, and focus (as generously as possible) on the good. “While I can’t give you all your cooperation points because of the problem getting to school, you did great at pickup, and were very helpful on the dog walk.” The same day that a star might fail, you can manage to dig up at least a few points, slowing the final reward, but keeping the focus positive.

She loves it, if maybe a little too much. It’s the honeymoon period and she’s waltzing around the house with a little broom saying “I’m just cleaning up over here; I’ll take up my brother’s dirty clothes too!” That won’t last, but given how popular the stars were, I suspect she’ll keep working to rack up points, and doing the math for the prizes. Princess puffy sticker sheet 50 points. Barbie phone 75. Cute little stuffie 150. Cash in now, or wait for bigger prizes? It’s like a crash economics forum with a lot of plastic and glitter.

But a dear friend pointed out that maybe I’m not tallying up our own points enough. The kids are great, but I often feel like I’m barely coping. Time for some positives!

Yes, it’s true I can’t give myself the full 6,789 points I might have earned this year. I’ve been yelling at the kids now and then, calming my frayed nerves with a splash of red wine, and harboring the occasional fantasy of slipping out for milk and stowing away on a train. To South America.

But on the positive side, in just about a year, we’ve transitioned from two gay guys into a family. We took in two neglected kids with an awful backstory, and you don’t have to look too closely to see that they’re both blossoming. They’ve transformed in the 11.5 months they’ve been here in ways small and large.

She’s so much more secure, less needy, more joyful. She stopped wearing outfits she thought would please somebody else and wears what she loves. She draws dogs, rainbows, unicorns, and talks nonstop about butts and poo. She came in dedicated to testing us, but at some point decided we’d passed. She’s a handful, but increasingly she feels like a normal almost-6-year-old handful. Active, happy, vibrant, and ready to kick you into a ditch for those sparkly shoes.

He’s so much more present. Angelic from the start, he was also on good behavior, and a bit zoned out. He stayed in a shell longer than she did, sweet by day, though the night terrors showed some of his inner conflict. Now those are all but gone, replaced by “I’m 2 and screw you” stubborn defiance, meltdowns, tantrums. And then he’s a little cherub again. His behavior, while challenging (see yelling and red wine, above) is a great sign that he’s comfortable enough to let it out. He’s working out what it’s been like so far, and I feel confident he’s lightening his emotional load with every howl. (Sorry, neighbors). And when he and his sister laugh and laugh at silly dance time, it’s priceless.

We’re still four. Nobody’s fled the coop or lost their mind (for more than 20 minutes). All the pets are here to tell the tale. So that’s just slightly over 6,000 points as I figure it. Time to figure out a really good prize!