It’s tempting, isn’t it? Your child’s grades take a dip. You start to worry. And then it comes to you: I can pay the kid. Just about every parent I’ve spoken to has entertained the thought of paying Johnny or Janie to keep those As and Bs coming. I certainly have, especially around this time of year, when final report cards loom large on the horizon.
Suzanne Rasmussen (not her real name) actually did it. Drawing on her own childhood experience, the Calgary mother offered her two boys $5 for every A and $3 for every B on their report cards. “My father was a strong believer in making the link between hard work and earning money,” she recalls. “It worked for me as a kid.”
But the deal Rasmussen offered to her kids didn’t work nearly as well. It appealed to her six-year-old, but did nothing to motivate her eight-year-old. “Just like his dad, my older one resists doing any work that doesn’t interest him,” she says — with or without a cash incentive. “Within a couple of days I knew the deal wasn’t working. He still sat grimly at the kitchen table, staring at his blank sheet of paper.” Rasmussen says she’s come to realize that internal motivation plays more of a role than she thought.
Dr. Wendy Mogel, a parenting expert and author of The Blessing of a B Minus, isn’t surprised the experiment failed. She believes offering cash for grades is a terrible idea. “Study after study has shown that external rewards decrease intrinsic motivation,” she says. “Kids become motivated by the product and lose motivation for the process.”
Parenting guru Alfie Kohn, author of the seminal book Punished by Rewards, takes even less kindly to the practice. “Giving kids money, stickers or any other incentive for grades can produce only temporary obedience. It will never help kids become more enthusiastic learners.”
The lure of lucre doesn’t cause even surface behaviours, such as the number of hours spent studying for tests, to budge very much. In 2007, a Harvard economist launched an ambitious study involving more than 38,000 children in 261 schools, half of whom were given money for performing well on tests. The plan was to motivate low-performing students to “up their game.” What happened? The money had either a marginal impact or no impact at all on student achievement.
So if money doesn’t do the trick, what does? Dr. Ester Cole, a Toronto clinical psychologist and chair of the Parenting for Life program, suggests asking your child what she thinks might help. “Make it a partnership, rather than a regimen you’re imposing on your child.” At the same time, help her develop a schedule that builds in time for study, review and desired leisure activities.
As for rewards, Cole sees nothing wrong with a joint activity chosen by the child. “The reward need not be for results, but for effort.”