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Should parents bribe their kids?

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 3:10 a.m. MDT

Mary Donnellan of Pompano Beach, Fla., pays her children, Abbey, 10, above, and Abbey's 12-year-old brother, for each A grade on a test in hopes that monetary incentives will help her children establish positive life-long habits and study skills. (Mary Donnellan) Mary Donnellan of Pompano Beach, Fla., pays her children, Abbey, 10, above, and Abbey's 12-year-old brother, for each A grade on a test in hopes that monetary incentives will help her children establish positive life-long habits and study skills. (Mary Donnellan)

Gracie Donnellan waits with her brother at a large oak table with a stack of graded tests in hand, her legs swinging in eagerness.

"All A's this week," says the girl, 10, giddily sliding her schoolwork across the table. Her brother, 12, reluctantly hands his tests to his parents: mostly Bs and Cs.

Mary Donnellan and her husband dole the cash out in the sunlit kitchen of their home in Pompano Beach, Fla. "What have you learned this week in school?" they ask, but the kids have already bolted out the door with the money.

Forty-eight percent of parents pay their kids for good grades, with an "A" bringing in an average of $16.60, new research finds. Though bribery can be a positive incentive for kids, monetizing basic obligations can also undermine the motivation of familial duty. As parents work to instill positive life-long habits, it is helpful to know when it is or isn't effective to provide monetary incentives.

Mary Donnellan of Pompano Beach, Fla., pays her children, Abbey, 10, and Abbey's 12-year-old brother, for each A grade on a test in hopes that monetary incentives will help her children establish positive life-long habits and study skills. (Mary Donnellan) Mary Donnellan of Pompano Beach, Fla., pays her children, Abbey, 10, and Abbey's 12-year-old brother, for each A grade on a test in hopes that monetary incentives will help her children establish positive life-long habits and study skills. (Mary Donnellan)

"Our eldest isn't very motivated by rewards, while his sister seems to take the money and run," Donnellan told the Deseret News. "We give them the money, however, in hopes that they will eventually make the connection between hard work and success."

Temporary compliance

The immediacy of a bribe can be alluring, Seth Meyers, licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, told the Deseret News. Parents trying to get an unmanageable child to obey can see bribery as a last resort for temporary compliance.

Parenthood is stressful and bribery is often an appealing option, Jill Smokler, author of "Confessions of a Scary Mommy," told the Deseret News.

Something as simple as bath time can call for drastic measures, Smokler wrote on scarymommy.com. "Wrangle your child, bribe them with whatever it takes to enter the tub, avoid a flood in the bathroom, keep their whining and screaming to a minimum and have them somehow end up dirt-free."

Mary Donnellan of Pompano Beach, Fla., pays her children, Abbey, 10, and Abbey's 12-year-old brother, for each A grade on a test in hopes that monetary incentives will help her children establish positive life-long habits and study skills. (Mary Donnellan) Mary Donnellan of Pompano Beach, Fla., pays her children, Abbey, 10, and Abbey's 12-year-old brother, for each A grade on a test in hopes that monetary incentives will help her children establish positive life-long habits and study skills. (Mary Donnellan)

One in five parents confess to bribing their kids to get them to go to bed, according to a study released by the British company Munch and Bunch.

Such resorts, however, can give rise to a torrent of bigger problems, Meyers said. Bribery can show children they can expect a reward every time a fit is thrown.

Bribery doesn't allow children to fully individuate from their parents, Meyers said. "They cannot become their own full-fledged person; they're more like codependents."

Monetary incentives can diminish a child's sense of familial duty, Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist and author of three parenting books, told the Deseret News.

Parents who pay their children for every household task are failing to teach them the satisfaction of contribution to a whole for non-monetary recognition, Schafer said. "Kids who are indulged don't participate in what we call the give and take that is actually the mechanism that creates cohesion and a sense of affiliation in a group — any group."

Shutterstock (Shutterstock) Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

When kids get, get, get, they are never asked to give, Schafer said. They develop a "What's in it for me?" attitude.

Buying kids' attention

Clare Levison, a member of the AICPA’s National Financial Literacy Commission, sees no harm in incentivizing children to certain types of motivation.

“A lot of companies pay for performance,” Levison told the Deseret News. “I don’t see anything wrong with using that as a reward for excelling in what is basically a child’s job, which is to be a student.”

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 rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company