Is Paying Kids for Good Grades Wrong?

by Darwin on February 8, 2010

I watched an inspiring 60 Minutes episode on the Canada Harlem Children’s Zone project whereby several blocks of a blighted section of Harlem were transformed into a safe area spanning many blocks and the charter schools within were staffed and run completely differently than the NYC public schools.  The program employs very innovative techniques and is under the leadership of a really incredible guy named Geoffrey Canada.

The message of the project is “aimed at doing nothing less than breaking the cycle of generational poverty for the thousands of children and families it serves”.  During the interview, one question that was posed struck my interest.  Mr. Canada was asked about the financial incentives provided to kids for getting good grades.  He replied,

“I love bribing kids.  Do I wish they’d get good grades because they want to?  Sure.  But until then, I’ll do what it takes”

…or something to that effect.  The bottom line is that it’s working.  So much so, that Obama cited the program in his campaign speech as a program that should be replicated nationally.

I was Paid for Good Grades

That got me thinking back to when I was a kid.  In retrospect, I was paid for getting good grades.  It wasn’t a formal arrangement, and I never knew what was coming, but I do recall several semesters both in high school and in college where my parents would reward me for a job well done.  It might have been 50 bucks in high school or for college, a few extra bucks in the monthly budget for room and board, etc.  I don’t recall specifics, but I recall being thankful for the recognition of my achievements and on the rare occasion where I didn’t have a good semester, there was no reward.  There wasn’t a conversation per se, like “no money this time since you didn’t fulfill your potential”, there was only positive reinforcement when I did something right.  There’s much research that shows that negative reinforcement doesn’t have any discernible benefit in influencing outcomes (it actually backfires often times) and positive reinforcement tends to be a very strong incentive.  However, I recall both.  I recall making my parents proud and the occasional pat on the back, but I also remember the financial reward.  That’s just me and every kid’s different, but if it works…

Surely many parents will be thinking, “I got good grades and I wasn’t bribed…my kids get good grades because I’m a great parent, not because I pay them”, etc.  However, what matters to me is results and the reasonable means by which we pursue them.

What to do with Our Kids

Good grades by way of cheating?  Never.
Verbal Praise and positive feedback for good grades?  Of Course.
Good grades via financial incentives?  Maybe.

People respond to economic incentives.  This is endemic to human nature.  Be it praise, personal well-being, securing better future potential for a high paying career, or near term cash rewards – kids that get good grades do so for self-serving reasons known only to them.  There’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion since kids are human after all, like you and I (what’s the REAL reason you work hard for your employer?  Because you like them?).  The trick is maneuvering the right levers and balancing reasonable expectations and rewards without stoking the wrong kind of behaviors and morals in your children during their formative years.  For instance, if you pay your kid for everything – from walking the dog, to making their bed, to shoveling the snow, will they expect recognition and rewards at every phase of their life?  Will they ever do something to help someone else out just because it’s the right thing to do?  These are questions all parents struggle with.

Our kids are just approaching school age – we have our first in kindergarten now.  I’m just starting to ponder these questions and our approach to verbal praise and recognition and the question of whether to integrate financial rewards with his performance.  We have a few years to figure it out, but it’s going to go quickly.

Parents – I’m interested in your thoughts.  What has worked, what hasn’t and are there innovative methods you’ve heard of to motivate kids?

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1 Dirac February 8, 2010 at 10:37 am

I am absolutley in favor of rewarding kids for grades. The reason being that though they may be book smart, kids are generally really quite stupid. I can just see some responding how good grades will lead to a good school and, in turn, a good job and that is reward enough. Unfortunately, you are not dealing with adults but with kids. Sure, as an adult, our hindsight is perfect but when you are a youth…

Yes, there are those kids who can be solely motivated by encouragement and the reward of the good grade. I hope my kids turn out like that but for those kids who seem to lack that certain ‘umpfh’ to push over the edge, there is nothing wrong with some sort of incentive program for grades. Mine was a Commodore 64 (I am that old). Then, the follow up was not having it removed from my room and for a stellar term, a new program. Prior to that, I confess I was a lazy student. With the least effort I got Bs. Then, with a tangible goal/punishment, I started to see a result of work and it paid off.

I am in favor of rewarding marks in school. I love it when minor league sports teams have special nights with either huge discounts or even free for 3.5 GPA or higher. It is a great thing. Any argument against paying/rewarding kids must be based upon the assumption that children are rational. They are not. The carrot does not have to be big but should be meaningful to the child. Again, in hindsight, the importance of grades are of such importance to the future of a child, I wish my parents had started even earlier on this path.

2 Wojciech Kulicki February 8, 2010 at 11:53 am

What a great question! Like you, I’m in the “maybe” camp, because it’s a fine line to walk between bribery (which according to some accounts actually backfires later in life) and intrinsic rewards (the good grades being satisfaction enough).

I definitely want to help my kids develop the latter, but recognize that later in life, they will be financially rewarded for doing something well, so perhaps that’s an important lesson to learn too.

But I definitely see the downside too–as you point out, if you go overboard with payment for everything, we’re going to raise a generation of kids who feel entitled to getting things just for “existing.”

3 ctreit February 8, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I used to sit on the fence with this one, too, even though I think a kid has only one job: study hard and hopefully get good grades. (Not all kids who study hard get good grades.) A job well done should be rewarded. That is what happens to us in the workplace. So, it should be ok to reward our kids for good work, too. On the other hand, our entire life should not revolve around money only, right? So, why introduce this idea at a young age?

But over the last few years I have learned about the Say Yes to Education Foundation which pays for kids’ college expenses if they reach certain academic criteria in High School. Paying for good grades makes a lot of sense to me now. George Weiss is the founder and biggest benefactor of this charity. He is one heck of a good man. Check out how this foundation rewards good students to become even better students:

4 Craig February 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm

There is nothing wrong, shows incentive to kids, what hard work and success can bring, because that’s exactly what happens in life. You are incentivized to do well in life. I was given gifts for good grades and don’t think there is anything wrong with it.

5 Kate February 8, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I was never paid for grades and did relatively well in school. I do think that some of those B’s might have been A’s if there was a monetary reward attached! It is just another way to reinforce getting good grades is helpful later in life and also to help develop good study habits. If I would have had to try harder in high school I might have done better in my college classes.

6 jim February 8, 2010 at 6:46 pm

During elementary / middle school I was paid for good grades via trips to Chucky Cheese and gaming tokens. I think paying for A’s or B’s is a good incentive system. I would not consider for paying for anything less than above average.

7 Rob February 8, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Count me against paying kids for grades. I want my kid to get good grades because it’s the right thing to do – not because he’s getting money out of it. If I pay him for doing the things I expect him to do anyway, his lesson will be that money is the only thing that matters.

Not exactly what I want my kid to grow up learning.

When he gets all A’s (or close) I’ll treat him to a lunch or dinner out….. a reward, yes… but not money in his hand.

Anon Reply:

@Rob, Well he will end up growing up in a society that demands that money really IS the only thing that matters.

8 Financial Samurai February 9, 2010 at 10:31 am

Don’t think so. Each “A” in High School could literally mean thousands and thousands of dollars of future income i.e. compare a straight A student to a straight B student. Chances are, the straight A student makes millions more in their lives b/c of the college and job they get all things being equal.

9 Evan February 9, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Not a parent here, hope to be one day. I don’t think a set system of payments is a good way of doing it (i.e. a 20 spot every time you get an A). But why not reward the child who did well? The knowledge that he or she might get rewarded come the end of the quarter (I think it is quarter in HS and bel0w) might be enough of a push to do well.

10 Darwin February 9, 2010 at 8:37 pm

It’s a tough balance. What about instead of monetary rewards, a “life experience” reward for a job well done? In fact, it may be something we were already planning on doing – and you can just drop that “job well done” in there as if that’s part of a reward.

My 5 year old had a good report card and has been nicer to his little brother. So, we just spent a night together on a battleship for Adventure Guides. He loved it (and I planned on doing that anyway, but how would he know?). It instills some family values in doing something together while recognizing his performance and turning around disappointing behavior. It keeps him guessing and it’s not tied to a discreet cash payment.

I’ve just gotta make sure he doesn’t think he’s going to Disney each time he gets a good report card!

11 nicole February 24, 2010 at 1:12 pm

i think that they should keep their money kids should not get paid for good grades because grades are for college and the money that they give away could be used for textbooks and cumputers and fieldtrips.

12 Wizard Prang March 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm

When I were a lad, we were “paid” by being allowed to live… as in “My Da will kill me if I fail my exams” 🙂

13 Anatares March 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm

I think that paying kids for good grades, either monetarily or through some enjoyable family outing or something is a good idea. I generally got straight A’s until high school because it came easily to me and because I loved pleasing my parents, but in high school I refused homework and didn’t see how it applied to real life. Most adults don’t bring their work home with them. If I had gotten incentives for good grades rather than just being punished for bad ones I would have tried a lot harder in high school.

14 Rebecca Blackburn July 5, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I am a 15 year old kid and I am never rewarded for good grades. My 17 year old sister has never been rewarded either. My mom just tells us that we did well and that is enough for us. The way I see it, bad grades will only hurt myself. But just to hear my mom say “Good job” is good enough for me. If I didn’t do so great, I’ll try harder next time. Not because I want money, because I know I won’t get paid for good grades. I will do it for myself and know that I did a good job. Plus, I think it is my responsibility to get good grades. And I don’t think I should get rewarded for taking care of my responsibilities-it should just be automatic.

15 Nasrullah Mardani March 14, 2011 at 3:12 am

yes i think it is a great thing. Any argument against paying kids must be based upon the assumption that children are rational.

16 Kylie January 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm

This is a great article…i would liketo know more..

17 h February 2, 2012 at 12:50 pm

This is gay!

18 Derrick Rose March 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Students shouldn’t get paid for good grades. They should get good grades any way.

19 Anon May 21, 2012 at 9:25 am

I am 17 years old and work 65 hours a week at Panera bread as an associate trainer and i manage school, bills, and a social life. It would help if i could quit my job and go to school more often and still get paid. P.S. i need money to pay for my car to get to school. there are no busses in my area.

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