In fact, when framed as a reward, incentives can be one of the best investments parents can make in motivating children to build up good habits and persist over time, Freakonomics economist Steven D. Levitt said in an interview with Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal.
But how you present the rewards makes all the difference, Levitt said.
Levitt and three other colleagues conducted a study this year on more than 6,000 Chicago students in low-performing schools, offering them money or trophies just before they took a test. They found that the students did better on tests when a reward was promised for improvement.
The timing of the reward, the study found, was an important factor. The children who were promised the cash or the trophy immediately after the exam exerted more effort into getting better grades.
Donnellan found that to be the case with her children as well. "A week is a year in their time," she said.
"We're much more likely to do things — large and small, easy and difficult — when we can see the immediate benefits," Levitt said.
Rewards were also more powerful when framed as losses rather than gains, the researchers found. Children were more protective of money they had — or thought they had — than they were aggressive about seeking money they didn't have.
"The technical term for this is loss aversion, and it's endemic," Levitt said.
The study also found that non-monetary incentives, such as trophies, worked best with young people.
"The lessons of attention might be the most lucrative for the country. If we can buy their attention today, we'll all be richer for it," Levitt said.
Preserving natural motivation
Monetary incentives can be used to break a habit, Edie Raether, best-selling author of "I Believe I Can Fly!," a character-building program for children, told the Deseret News. "But there is a time when that external support needs to be removed and one paddles on his own."
Raether suggests having a discussion with children once that habit is set, so they can make that connection and internalize what they have learned. "We want our children to be a product of their experiences, rather than their environment," Raether said.
Raether recalls once asking her son to clear the table. "He asked 'What's it worth?' and I told him, 'no, no, no, you're part of this family and you clear the table because you contribute to this team.’ ”
To this day, Raether's sons remain tied together by this mindset.
Rewards don't have to be about receiving money each and every time, Christy Whitman, creator of the Enlightened Kid Program, wrote in an email to the Deseret News. Allow kids to watch their favorite television show, or spend time with mom or dad.
"First and foremost, love, attention and affection should be unconditional and they receive it regardless if they do something or not do something," Whitman said.
A well-adjusted child who has received consistent, positive parenting doesn't need to be bribed, Meyers told the Deseret News. That child seeks to win and keep the approval of a parent, rather than material gain.
For Raether, the strongest motivation that comes from the inside out is respect.
"I trusted and loved my parents and would do anything to avoid letting them down," Raether said. "It's the kind of motivation you find when you're at a triple overtime and you get a free throw, and you don't want to let down the thousand people that are watching.
"It's a simple way of parenting, but it's powerful."
Should parents bribe their kids?
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.
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