Money Smart Kids


Pay Kids for Good Grades?

Janet Bodnar

Consider rewards other than cash compensation to encourage your children to do well in school.



I just read your response to Amy Chua’s book about Chinese mothers, and I’m curious to know how you feel about paying kids for grades. When does paying money work best? Is it best to pay as a last resort? Are there certain children who respond better?

As I noted in my column, Amy Chua doesn’t address the issue of paying for grades in her book. But if I’m reading between the lines correctly, I’d say that no Chinese mother worthy of the name would be caught dead paying her kids for grades. She’d simply expect nothing less than an A -- and her kids would produce.

I have to say that I agree with Chua on this one -- not necessarily that every child should be expected to get an A, but that every kid should at least try for one, and he or she shouldn’t be paid for the effort.

That position gets me into hot water with a lot of people who feel that getting good grades is a child’s job, and, like any job, deserves compensation.

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The way I see it, going to school isn’t so much a job that demands a paycheck as it is a child’s role in the family. It’s my job as a mother to plan meals for my family, but I don’t expect to get paid.

It also seems to me that learning is a sign of a child’s natural growth and development. We don’t pay our kids for mastering skills such as tying their shoes or riding a bike, nor should we pay them for learning to read. Plus, performance in school can be influenced by so many other things -- among them, a child’s basic intelligence, personality traits, home environment and learning style.

And then there are some very practical concerns. If you go the “paycheck” route, you have to keep raising the stakes -- and once kids are old enough to earn their own money, you lose leverage. Some kids just aren’t motivated by money, and some are self-motivated. In either case, you’d be wasting your cash.

A hot topic. Plenty of families disagree with me. I recently spoke at a conference for financial educators sponsored by the University of Maryland, and the subject of grades generated lots of discussion. One mother said that she regularly pays her sixth-grader $6 for every A and for every score of 95-plus on a major exam. The system works so well that she plans to continue it into high school, paying $12 per A when her daughter is in 12th grade.

Another woman chimed in that when her 13-year-old nephew came to live with her family, she didn’t offer to pay for grades, but she expected him to study and held him to high standards of behavior. He told her that he appreciated the consistency, which had been missing from his life.

In a major study, Harvard professor Roland Fryer Jr. tested the concept of paying for grades and other desirable behavior in four urban school systems -- Dallas, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City -- with mixed results. The study found that paying for “output” performance -- such as grades or test scores -- didn’t work, possibly because the students didn’t have a clear idea of how to control the outputs. The experiment was more successful in improving test scores by rewarding kids for “inputs” they could control , such as reading books, wearing uniforms and turning in homework.

Rewards that work. If rewards can be effective in certain circumstances, how can parents adapt these results to their own families? For starters, they could reward effort and behavior, not just the grades themselves. It also seems that payment works best in well-defined situations with clear expectations and immediate payoffs -- and, I would add, parental involvement.

In fact, I’m a big backer of recognizing good grades -- or consistent effort -- by giving your kids a hug, a word of encouragement or a spontaneous treat, such as dinner at their favorite restaurant. A pat on the back helps reinforce the personal satisfaction that comes with a job well done. And, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Follow Janet’s updates at Twitter.com/JanetBodnar.



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