In my house, report cards are usually greeted with dread. But it’s not my kids who feel clammy at the sight of the brown envelopes—it’s me.
While my boys have always done well in school, my husband’s desire to keep them motivated and spur them to even better results is having a serious effect on our bank account. Since December 2012, he’s been paying them for their grades.
At $10 for an A and $5 for every B, the boys have been raking in a small fortune three times a year.
I was initially against the outright bribe. (I should be clear: I fully support bribery in other circumstances. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to use it for their education.) But even if my bank account would suffer, I came around to the idea—at least for a while.
The Cost of Bribing
I don’t give out an allowance at my house. At the ages of nine and 11, I’ve still got my sons convinced that they must do as they’re told and that living in this home comes with certain responsibilities. No one pays me to clean my room; I’m not paying them to clean theirs.
But I do get paid for my work. For now, school is their job. Shouldn’t they be paid to do their job, too?
Alyson Schafer, parenting expert and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids (HarperCollins), says no. “The problem is you’re moving the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic,” she says. “Your child is no longer working for the love of learning or to be proud of themselves.” Schafer notes that it’s important that kids learn how to face a challenge and find reward in doing so. Adding a financial reward shifts the focus to “Where’s my prize?”
And it won’t stop when they head off to university, warns Schafer. Choose the pay-to-play path and be prepared to have it used against you down the road. “They may ask for money, or a car, and use the threat of dropping out to get what they want.”
Supporting Your Child By Boosting Self-Esteem
Schafer points to studies showing that happiness decreases when tied to financial incentives. Studies on volunteers, for example, have also shown that once payment was introduced for their work, absenteeism, a sense that they were underpaid and overall unhappiness increased, she says.
Her philosophy is in line with recent changes to the student loyalty program at Kumon Canada, which offers popular math and reading programs. Until recently, students earned points for both their length of study and for successful achievements; these points could then be redeemed for prizes. No longer. Students now earn points for prizes only as a result of their length of study.
“Essentially, the new loyalty program rewards perseverance rather than any specific achievement,” says Vernon Gonsalves, marketing manager for Kumon Canada. The idea behind the program—as well as Kumon in general—is to maximize a child’s academic ability by encouraging confidence and self-reliance—characteristics Gonsalves says are “consistent among children [or adults] who are intrinsically motivated.”
Motivating Student Success
But are there ever circumstances that merit a paid approach? Two aboriginal groups in British Columbia have had success with a pay-for-grades program aimed at addressing high dropout rates among students. It led to higher graduation rates in both the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc (formerly, Kamloops Indian Band) and the Williams Lake Indian Band. “We have been paying students to attain good grades since 2003, and it is a great success,” says Heather McKenzie, education manager for Williams Lake Indian Band. “In fact, we’ve added several new categories to reward, including attendance.”
The small city of Coshocton, Ohio, described as a poor, disadvantaged community “nearly in a state of academic emergency” 15 years ago, has also had some success with a pay-for-performance program. There, school students were paid for successfully passing standardized tests in Grades 3–6. Eric Bettinger, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, reported on the results in a paper published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in 2012.
While that review found there was no measurable effect on reading, social science or science test scores, it did note slight improvements in math (maybe because they were counting their cash?). It also concluded that there was no negative effect on the internal motivation of the students who participated.
Avoid Raising Entitled Children
But Valerie Class-Knight, a Grade 7 teacher from Milton, Ont., isn’t buying it. “There’s usually one or two students each year that make comments about being paid for high marks,” says Class-Knight. These kids tend to skip past the constructive life skill comments at the top of report cards in search of the letter grades that will determine how much money they’ll rake in when they get home.
“I’m trying to teach these kids that whether or not they get a better job is not going to be dependent on whether they get 80 per cent or 90 per cent. What matters are the learning skills at the top of the report card. Are they collaborative? Are they showing initiative?” she explains.
It’s no surprise then that the mother of two teenagers isn’t paying her own children for their academic achievements. “My husband and I felt that the only reward should be the learning itself,” she says. “And where does it stop? When you take the money away, then what’s left? ‘When I was eight you gave me $20, now that I’m 15 I need $120’?”
Class-Knight says she believes paying for grades has contributed, in part, to a generation that includes “entitled children” who need instant gratification and aren’t willing to do anything that they aren’t being paid for.
Setting Personal Goals to Achieve Good Grades
Schafer says she believes the best practice is to work with your child as an ally, identify a goal that is meaningful to the child (their desire to do better in math, not yours) and help them come up with ideas that are motivating. This approach is less likely to feel like manipulation by parents and more likely to help children feel better about their achievements.
Looking back, I’ve realized that the excitement my kids felt at getting paid for each letter grade only surfaced around report card time and as the payment opportunity neared. During the year it was business as usual. That leads me to think the cash reward wasn’t really affecting the outcome. The reward at the end was a great boost when the report cards came home, but it wasn’t enough to sustain their mojo in between payments.
My husband says he was after better grades, but I think what we got were kids who were paying more attention to their grades when tests or report cards arrived but not necessarily upping the ante to affect those grades.
Forming a Well-Rounded Successful Student
Will we still hand out cash when their report cards arrive? Probably. But we’re dropping the direct correlation between grades achieved and the amount of money they receive and instead tying their rewards to a more well-rounded idea of a job well done.
With their last report card we stressed the importance of those comments on responsibility, collaboration and initiative. We’ve made it clear to our boys that, while those values may not have letter grades attached to them, they reflect the kind of people they’re becoming. We’re hoping this will lead to even more conversations about the efforts and behaviours that result in good grades, as well as the results. I’m thinking of it more like a bonus than a paycheque.
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Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based freelance writer and mother to two boys with bursting piggy banks.