Should You Use Money to Bribe Your Teen to Do Well in School?

Posted on August 6th, 2012, 0 Comments

Last week NPR’s Kai Ryssdal spoke with Freakonomics coauthor Steve Levitt in a segment that endorsed the use of money to bribe kids to do well in school. (You can see the interview here.) Levitt’s recommendation flies in the face of what researchers who study motivation (e.g., Alfie Kohn, Edward Deci, and Rchard Ryan) have shown about nurturing enthusiasm for learning.

For many kids bribing is counterproductive.
Studies over many years have found that bribing kids to get them to alter their school achievement behavior is rarely successful at producing lasting change. Typically, when the rewards stop, kids return to the way they acted before, often with even less enthusiasm for learning.

Motivation experts explain this discouraging but remarkably consistent finding by describing two distinct types of driving forces: 1) intrinsic motivation, which is a desire to complete a task for its own sake and 2) extrinsic motivation, which is a desire to complete the task mostly because it’s a requirement for getting something else). As educational researcher Alfie Kohn put it, “The more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.”

Most schools use grades to quantify learning. And grades spur many kids who are motivated by a combination of ambition and fear of what will happen to them in the near and distant future if they don’t do their homework and get good grades. For these kids grades add the extra nudge they need to get at their homework when their intrinsic interest in learning isn’t quite enough to get them there.

But bribing can help some kids.
Some kids are not motivated by grades. And if these kids’ intrinsic interest in school achievement flags, they can get off track and go nowhere. In an earlier blog, I suggested that when this happens, parents intervene and provide more structured, supervised study time to help get their kids back on track. In my practice, I’ve found that these kids often put up less resistance when they are rewarded for studying. And I often recommend that parents use money or other tangibles as bribes to get their kids to do the required studying.

Rewarding these kids for regularly doing their homework makes it more likely that they’ll go along with the new regime and stick with it long enough to experience some of the intrinsic benefits of getting their work done. Most find that they like getting less grief from their teachers and parents. Most like the fact that they’re earning better grades. And a series of small successes can help these kids build self-confidence and provide an opportunity for them to view academic success as a source of personal satisfaction and perhaps even a matter of self-responsibility – instead of just a way to please others and earn tangible rewards.

The bottom line …
So while I’d not suggest rewarding your teen for studying if they’re thriving academically, I would encourage you to consider doing so if you have an unmotivated teen who is floundering. Some experts advise letting floundering teens fail, claiming that they’ll learn from their failure. My experience indicates that most teens don’t learn from failure. Instead, they just keep floundering as their attitude, self-confidence, and willingness to work go further downhill.

Bribing your unmotivated teen just might get them going in the right direction. And there’s a chance that the extrinsic motive for getting assigned work done will eventually be transformed into an internalized, personally endorsed value.

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