This is a guest post from Suba Iyer.
I grew up in India. We didn’t have a concept of weekly/monthly allowances. If we needed anything we would ask our parents. If they felt it was reasonable and affordable for them, they would buy us the stuff. We never handled cash on our own other than the occasional birthday or other holiday money. No one got allowances, so we didn’t miss it either.
When I first came to the US and heard from my friends about the allowances they got from their parents, I was amused. Why would someone pay a kid just because he/she lives with them? I didn’t understand but I didn’t have an opinion on that one way or the other, so I just filed it away as one of the cultural thing in the US. Then recently I revisited this concept when I stumbled upon a “cash for grades” experiment that paid school kids based on the grades they got.
That got me thinking. Money is one of the great motivators for making people work hard or for getting something done. So why not extend that concept and pay underperforming kids at school and incentivize them? But do I really want my kid to put a dollar value on everything, including expected behavior like chores they should be doing anyway to keep their living space clean? What are the pros and cons of this approach?
What does science say?
As I mentioned earlier there are a couple of studies that measured the impact of paying kids to do well in standardized tests. The premise is quite simple – kids were rewarded either with money or trophies. The reward was either given: (1) before the test with the condition that it will be taken away if the performance doesn’t live up to the expectation, (2) immediately following the test, or (3) promised at a later time.
The result was generally positive, with test scores improving if the kids were rewarded. What is more interesting is the way each one of these scenarios worked out.
- The size of the reward matters. Kids worked harder if the reward was $80/hr vs. $40/hr.
- Rewards that were framed as losses (e.g., you get a fresh $20 bill handed to you before the test, if you don’t get an ‘A’ on the test, you lose the $20) worked well. Loss aversion turned out to an excellent motivator.
- Non-monetary rewards like trophies worked best for younger kids.
- Delayed gratification never seems to work. If the rewards were promised with a delay, it was not very effective in motivating a better performance.
From these individual scenario outcomes, I feel like we are sending kids a wrong message – work for instant gratification.
Yes, paying kids for good grades helps
I can see some advantages in paying for performance.
Performance pays. After all, throughout our adult life we are paid for performance, why not start at childhood?
Money is an excellent motivator for most people. Most of us work for money, we budget to save money, we look out for more money making opportunities. Whether we accept it or not, money does act as a strong incentive in our lives. What is wrong with teaching kids about working hard, getting paid and managing that money wisely? Don’t most of the financial mistakes we commit during our youth occur due to a lack of financial knowledge?
Some kids need all the motivation they can get. In India I know a few people who send their kids to school only because the school provided free lunch. Otherwise, the kids would have gone to work with their parents. In the US, there are lots of underprivileged kids who are the first in their families to go to college. They could use every ounce of motivation they can get. If the money helps the family and keeps the child in the school, why not?
No, it shouldn’t be encouraged
I can find as many disadvantages to this concept to balance out the advantages. The main ones being:
It sends the wrong message. All of us have extrinsic motivation (influenced by outside rewards) and intrinsic motivation (a genuine interest in doing the best). If they always come to expect some reward for their performance, doesn’t it entirely kill any intrinsic motivation the child should develop?
It doesn’t serve the purpose. Tests are developed to measure knowledge. If the only goal is to get better grades, it is possible to just memorize things instead of actually learning about anything. A child can get a perfect score and still be void of any knowledge.
And finally, Shouldn’t we encourage kids to put their best efforts in everything they do regardless of rewards?
Should you pay your kids for better grades?
Every child is different. Some people get motivated by rewards, some are motivated by recognition, and some do the work because they enjoy it, no matter what the outcome is. I feel if someone is going to reward better performance, it is important to understand what motivates each child.
I do not have kids, so I cannot comment on which is a better parenting approach. I can see both sides of the coin but would love to hear from parents. What do you think? Does paying children for good grades help in the long run? Or does it send the wrong message?