Cash for grades?

Would you pay your child to make this sight a reality?
Would you pay your child to make this sight a reality? 

An article written by an economist raises the controversial topic of paying children for achieving good grades. Initially, I was horrified by the very notion but my original opposition moderated as I remembered this was a proposal by an economist. Money is their thang. That’s how they think – with dollar signs springing up in their eyeballs like characters in those 70’s cartoons we used to watch.

Paul Frijters argues that paying for good grades makes perfect sense,

“From a standard economic point of view, the question is a no-brainer: the long-run advantages of doing well at school are enormous but ill-recognised by a young kid. Hence, more short-term monetary incentives repair the inability of the kid to rationally invest in the far future.”

He offers fairly lean counter arguments for a financial contract between parent and child, concluding with:

“So who should pay for good grades? People whose kids are closely-matched in ability, prone to competitiveness, somewhat short-sighted, and eager to please the parents anyway.”

My answer would have been no-one in their right mind should pay for good grades. But I’m opinionated like that. Personally, I think it’s counter productive but I’ll get to that later.

This is not the only context I’ve been confronted with the concept of paying children for results. My nine-year-old son started competitive sport this year. Standing next to a vocal mother at one of the games, I heard her calling out “that’s $5!” as her son kicked a goal. I looked at her in shocked dismay, my squished up face communicated my distaste. She reasoned that paying incentives encouraged him to have a go. Then she joked with my son about asking us for cash when he kicked his next goal. I wasn’t backwards in coming forwards about my rejection of this theory.

We don’t pay our children for sporting achievements, school grades, good behaviour, musical ability or any other type of personal success. We congratulate them and tell them we’re proud of their hard work. We do pay pocket money though which is linked to chores however there are also tasks required because they are members of the family, which they receive nothing but a thank you for. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve also bribed a toddler with a chocolate frog for pooping on the toilet. Hell, I’d commit to buying the kid gold-plated lego if it would guarantee a poo on the toilet EVERY time!

From an economical point of view, I can see the rationale: adults are rewarded monetarily for their achievements, whether that is in a sports arena, a workplace or elsewhere, so why not offer the same to our children? Going to school is their “job” so why shouldn’t they receive an income for it?

My reservations are related to the future ramifications of a seemingly harmless decision. Once you build that predisposition into your child, it is a perilous terrain to navigate. Where does it start and where does it stop? Does paying children for achievements set up an expectation they will be paid for making any effort at all? Or can we compartmentalise this as simply achieving in a specific and agreed area?

What about when you have more than one child? Not all children learn the same or have comparable abilities, and not all children respond equally to incentives. What happens when one finds achieving the grades easier than another but is just lazy? Practically, we have four children so if I start some kind of paid regime now, I may have to take out a second job to afford the upkeep.

A multitude of studies on the topic have found there is a definitive improvement in performance for the sample group when offered financial incentives, but this improvement diminishes once the incentive is removed. It is a temporary fix that leaves you back at square one, unless you are prepared to pay for the duration of your child’s education or musical/sporting career. I’m sure if you channelled your cash incentive into a strategic timeframe, say Years 10-12, and your child responded with great grades and a subsequent university placing, this could be money well spent. When uni life beckons and their grades fall in a heap, what then? Does the wallet reappear to pep up performance?

It may seem like an innocent bribe when kids are young, but I wonder if parents who do this have asked themselves what it is they are truly trying to achieve. Is it an improvement on grades or an attitude overhaul? Is it encouragement of confidence or the need to show your child’s sporting prowess to the world?

I’ve no doubt that I’m idealistic in the hope that all my children will have an internal drive, a personal desire to achieve simply because it’s gratifying to work hard and succeed. I’d rather they not buckle down in school or kick an extra goal because they are paid for it, but because they want to.

Ultimately extrinsic rewards are short-sighted and undermine motivation. The value in learning is not found in the bottom of a wallet.

Have you / would you pay for your child's achievements? Do you think it is a system that works? Join the discussion in the EK Forums or comment below.


It is a temporary fix that leaves you back at square one ...