Dr. David Lose: Kids and Incentives

If there is one element of parenting that I have consistently found confusing it's the role of incentives in a child's life. That is, should we set up concrete and clear goals and rewards for our children? And, if so, when do we offer incentives, for what kinds of activities, and how much?

One of the first times (of many!) that this came up for my wife and me was when our kids were a few years into an excellent Suzuki violin program. At the recitals each fall, winter, and spring, kids would be called forward, recognized, and awarded ribbons for practicing for a hundred days (or 200, 300, etc.) of continuous practice. Simple enough, and yet we hesitated to participate because we'd been trained somewhere along the way that once you assign a reward to an activity you've moved the motivation for doing that activity from the internal ("I'm practicing violin because I like it") to the external ("I'm practicing to get ribbons").

When we raised this concern with our kids' teacher she said that she didn't see this as all that different from receiving a trophy for a sporting event or an "A" for achieving good marks in a class. It's not meant to be a major reward but rather recognition for hard work. And, indeed, we found that it motivated our kids without affecting their enjoyment of (or struggle with) practicing.

That seems harmless enough. But what about school work - paying kids for As or allowing them to get a cell phone or drive only if they keep a certain GPA? Or what about chores - is allowance "payment" for chores done or are both chores and allowance part of being members of the family? Seems like a small difference until you have to decide whether to award allowance when the chores aren't done.

By and large I've resisted the idea of rewarding good performance, still fearing to shift from internal to external motivation. (Maybe it all goes back to wondering if one of the reasons I never learned to enjoy playing the piano was that I did it for a reward - downhill skis!)

But lately I've been reconsidering, in part because I've realized that as an adult there are all kinds of things for which I am externally rewarded - from my paycheck and royalties to "views" of a blog article (thanks, btw, for reading this!) - and while I have to admit that I do find such external rewards motivating, I haven't found that such tangible incentives diminish how much I enjoy my work for its own sake.

I've also been struck by a lot of the more recent literature on the subject. In a recent article on the website Futurity, for instance, researchers from the University of Chicago found that kids not only performed better on tests when there was a clear and visible reward at stake, but that they actually retained the information better. That is, they didn't just cram for a test but rather saw their efforts linked to a tangible and immediate outcome and so performed significantly better over a longer period. One sentence in particular, reflecting the sentiments of John List, professor in economics at the University and a leading scholar in experimental economics, caught my attention:

List points out that the results of the experiments challenged a conventional theory that giving students tangible rewards "crowds out intrinsic motivation, rendering such approaches ineffective in the short run and potentially detrimental in the long run."

This has been helpful to me in thinking a little differently about incentives, rewards, and accountability, as it frees me from the fear that any tangible reward will distort my kids' motivation, kill their intrinsic enjoyment of an activity, and turn them into greedy little capitalists always on the lookout for a return on their physical investment.

But I still struggle with, for instance, paying for grades or wondering what appropriate rewards are. Should we be discriminating, that is, between some things that do you do just because you're supposed to, some because you really want to, and some because there is a tangible incentive? And do you ever tie one of these - an activity your child loves to do, for instanece - to another - something he or she would rather skip?

These are just a few of my lingering and persistent questions. I'd covet your wisdom and stories on the matter. What have you tried? What's worked? What hasn't? What are some of the better resources you've come across? And, most generally, where are you with incentives and your kids? Thanks so much!

Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime."