Why Paying Kids to Do Homework Can Backfire

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Money talks, right? So why should kids be any less susceptible to what the dollars are telling them?

They aren’t, and that’s the problem. Enticing kids with monetary rewards for reading books or performing well on tests is certainly tempting for parents, especially if their children are game.

But the latest studies on paying kids to do academic tasks like reading more books, or to improve test scores found a negligible to zero positive effect on their standardized test results, and other measures of academic performance. In randomized experiments in which children were either rewarded with money or not in over 200 urban schools in three cities, Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist, reported in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that “the impact of financial incentives on student achievement is statistically zero in each city.” Another long-term study of a “pay for performance” program in an Ohio elementary school, reported by Eric Bettinger, an education policy expert at Stanford University, reported slight improvements only in math scores. The modest improvements, where they occurred in both sets of experiments, says Bettinger,  should not be completely dismissed. “The math scores showed about a three-quarters of a grade improvement, which is nothing to scoff at.” It’s possible, the researchers say, that different study conditions might produce better results, but so far the evidence doesn’t support the benefits of enticing children with money.

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Whatever practical results parents might get from cash for performance at the kitchen table, the dangers may not be worth it. Monetary incentives for doing positive things—from homework to good deeds—can damage a child’s natural motivation to learn or do other things that are inherently rewarding. And that applies to not just financial, but material rewards as well, which can also reduce their children’s enjoyment and create anxiety.

Research has found that using material rewards for schoolwork can also cause anxiety and damage self-esteem, says John Woodward, Dean of the School of Education the University of Puget Sound. “Students focus on grades rather than understanding a subject, and this can make them anxious, as they compare themselves to others.”

Holly Schiffrin, a psychology professor at the University Of Mary Washington, says that such rewards for children undermine their intrinsic motivation for learning. In a classic study in which some children were given stickers for coloring and others were not, for example, those who got stickers as a reward began enjoying the activity less. “All people need autonomy, or choice in their actions, competence, and relatedness to others in order to be intrinsically motivated and happy,” she says. Material rewards reduce a child’s sense of choice, and, as a result, their motivation and enjoyment.

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And if these deeper or long-term effects do not seem so problematic, consider this. Paying kids for things they should do anyway, says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, “can lead to a very unattractive bargaining attitude, where kids demand, ‘What do I get if I do that?’”

So what’s the best way to get children to do their homework? Parents should help their kids to build their own internal reward systems, and experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes with learning. The same is true for doing good deeds, says Donna Pincus, Director of the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment program at Boston University. “It is important to help children see that by doing their part by doing chores or good deeds, they are making a positive difference in their family and their community.”

Praise can also be a powerful motivator, especially if parents are specific about what they liked about something their children did.

And if those strategies don’t work, Kennedy-Moore suggests delving deeper to find out why children don’t want to do their homework. For some, the tasks may be beyond their capability, and they may need additional help. Addressing these needs can produce longer term success, not just in getting children to do their homework, but in performing well in school as well.

Paying kids to do school work, on the other hand, will only work for a little while. “The occasional parental bribe won’t turn a child into a pumpkin and may be useful for getting over a short-term hump with a specific behavior,” says Kennedy-Moore. “But for more important and more long-lasting behaviors, it makes sense to look for more enduring solutions.”