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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