Recently, a mom I know learned the hard way that bribing a kid can backfire — in a humiliating way. Jana was at a playground in Queens with her Messi-obsessed six-year-old, when he booted his soccer ball into a tall tree. The kid was inconsolable. Jana was desperate. She approached a pack of middle schoolers, wagging a dollar bill: Whoever could retrieve the ball would be one greenback richer.
The tweens took one look at her and — because, you know, they were tweens — fell out laughing. Apparently, one crisp single wasn’t enough of an incentive.
Jana isn’t the only Payola Parent. A March 2016 survey showed that 48 percent of you are bribing your kids for good grades or behavior. With the end of the school year, final exams and report cards looming, I thought it was high time you knew that if you’re paying your kids to do right, you’re doing it all wrong.
Your kid is not an ass
Harvard economist Roland Fryer proved it by doling out actual dough to tens of thousands of kids in more than 250 schools nationwide. The upshot? When students were offered cash incentives in exchange for good test scores, results did not improve. In many cases, they actually worsened. (Full disclosure: I recently had a chance to hang out with Professor Fryer, and, let me tell you, he’s my personal econ-nerd crush.)
But Fryer only confirmed what researchers have known for decades. Received wisdom tells us that students are like donkeys. A carrot gets them going; a stick (or a ruler) keeps them in line. But in 1971, psychologist Edward Deci began with a radical premise: Kids actually like to learn.
Maybe you’re looking at your teenage son drooling on his algebra book right now and thinking, “Please, Beth… go on.”
Oh, I’m just getting started.
Bribery turns your angel into a heartless monster
Deci recruited a bunch of college kids and put them in a room with a pile of magazines and some puzzles. (Add Pink Floyd and a black-light poster, and it was just your typical ’70s Saturday night at the dorms.) One group was promised a dollar for each puzzle solved; another got bupkis. After a while, the experimenter called time and let the kids do what they wanted. Here’s the surprising thing: The coeds who’d been paid abandoned the puzzles and started flipping through the glossies. The ones who didn’t get a cash incentive continued to work on the puzzles.
The unpaid subjects had developed a sense of the intrinsic value of the task — puzzles are cool. The paid group, on the other hand, was all about the almighty dollar. Without cash, solving puzzles seemed pointless. In other words, that bribe is actually making your kid care less about achieving. Since then, study after study has shown that rewards for outcomes degrade cognitive ability and creativity — they can even make your kid less nice.
Seriously. In another what-the-what! study, elementary school kids were asked to help hospitalized children. Some were offered toys for their efforts; others did it out of kindness, bless their little hearts. Later, both groups were given a second chance to help out, but no reward was involved. The tykes who’d gotten toys earlier spent way less time helping than the ones who got nothing.
Fine — but my kid is still failing social studies
So you can’t buy an A+ or a shred of human decency. How should you spur kids to do well? In Fryer’s study, kickback paid off in one instance: When students got incentives for anything that contributes to learning ($2 for reading a book, for instance, or mastering a particular math skill), performance saw a bump. Researchers call these “inputs,” as opposed to outputs, such as test scores and grades.
Want to know another sneaky little trick? If your kid does something well, do something nice for her, but don’t tell her it’s a reward. She might subconsciously tie the good feeling to the success and develop positive work vibes as a result. Psychology!
Whatever you do, try your best to avoid praising results. Give it up for good study habits. If they lead to a stellar report card, let your kid know how proud you are of the hard work that got him there.
Which brings us back to the soccer ball, which was still up in that tree. And the kid, who was still bawling his eyes out. When bribery failed, Jana tried another tactic. She appealed to the tweens’ sense of pride. As in, “I bet you couldn’t climb that tree.” (Back in the day, there was a technical term for this: the double-dog dare.) Before she knew it, an older boy was tossing the ball down to her beaming son. You’d think Leo Messi himself had saved the day. And unlike the Barcelona forward, he didn’t need 38 mil a year to do it.
Beth Kobliner is the author of The New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life, and the forthcoming book, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), to be published by Simon & Schuster. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.