In a recent attempt to get our kids to consume some vegetables, we offered them the bribe — I mean, incentive — of a brand-new toy if they each ate a carrot with dinner every night for several weeks. After the carrot challenge ended and the boys were delighted with their new toys, we faced the problem of both kids declaring that they would never eat another carrot again as long as they lived. So much for fostering an appreciation for carrots.
This is the central paradox of incentivizing good behavior. You may be able to get your children to do what you want them to for a short time, but will it ultimately result in changed habits?
Here’s what you need to know about paying your kids for good grades, so you can decide the best way to encourage them to succeed.
Cash incentives may work
One of the most compelling arguments for paying kids for good grades is that it’s how the world of work is structured. Most adults wouldn’t go to work every day without getting paid, and they are incentivized to improve their performance by the promise of bonuses, raises, and other perks. So it does seem reasonable to offer kids compensation for their hard work at school.
In fact, research has found that this kind of incentive can actually work to improve student performance and test scores. According to Education Week, Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, conducted a series of experiments in the mid-2000s in which he paid $6 million to over 18,000 low-income students in several U.S. cities to incentivize them to improve their test scores. However, the results indicated that when offering cash for school performance, the important thing to focus on is rewarding something students feel like they have control over.
That means using money (or other incentives) to motivate inputs, such as number of hours spent studying, rather than outputs, such as grades or test scores. Students may want to improve their performance, but not know how to budge the needle. Rewarding them for their effort will be much more effective in encouraging better outcomes than rewarding them for a specific grade. (See also: 5 Money Moves Every Single Parent Should Make)
Tread carefully with multiple kids
If parents do decide to offer financial incentives to their kids, another potential landmine can be knowing how to handle more than one child in the family. If one kid is a born scholar and another struggles with learning disabilities or behavioral issues, rewarding the first for what they’re already good at and giving nothing to the second will not end well. The student you most want to motivate will learn to hate and resent school.
On the other hand, it can be tough to offer a sliding scale of payment for each kid. The high-achiever might resent that their struggling sibling gets the same money for worse grades or test scores. Making it clear that you’re rewarding effort rather than results is the best way to make sure you don’t discourage the very behavior you’re trying to encourage.
Incentives can backfire
While paying kids to improve their grades can result in better studying habits and improved scores, it may not effectively encourage them to engage with school. Studies have shown that rewards incentivize students to do the minimum necessary to receive their prize, after which point they lose interest. This was the exact problem my family encountered with our carrot-eating challenge, as the incentive was the only reason the kids were eating their vegetables, and they were not interested in trying to find a way to like eating carrots.
This is unsurprising when you think of all the disengaged workers who only show up and do the bare minimum to keep from getting fired. Without the intrinsic engagement with the work, whether that’s learning literature and history, or filing TPS reports, payment for this kind of work becomes the only thing the recipient cares about.
In addition, likening school to work by offering cash incentives can also backfire. That’s because schools can’t fire underperforming students the same way an employer can fire a lackluster worker. Nor do schools have access to any of the other negative consequences an employer can use to improve an employee’s poor performance. With a carrot and no stick, students will both get a false sense of what work life will look like, and feel more comfortable simply opting out of incentives, since there are no negative consequences for bad grades that they haven’t already felt.
Instilling a love of learning in disengaged students is not an easy task, as any teacher can tell you. But paying them is no way to create that enjoyment for school. A better way to help kids engage with their studies is to encourage their interests and show how school relates to the subjects they are most passionate about. This may take more effort than simply handing out the dollar bills come report card time, but it will have better outcomes for encouraging a love of learning. (See also: 7 Parenting Mistakes Everyone Makes But No One Talks About)
Should you pay for good grades?
Bribery as a parenting tactic is not going away anytime soon. It’s effective in the short term, and sometimes Mom and Dad simply need to get their kids to do something. However, paying kids is not always the best way to encourage them to engage with their school work.
If you’re considering paying your kids for their school work, make sure all of your kids understand what they can each do to earn their rewards, use the payments to incentivize behavior they have control over, and continue working to help them see the joys of learning.