Rewarding Kids May Not Be the Best Motivator for Success

Filed under: Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens, Research Reveals: Teens

Daniel Pink, author of Drive, suggests carrots and sticks might not motivate. Credit: Jerry Bauer

Whether it's getting them to master toilet training, trigonometry or taking out the trash,
motivating kids sometimes involves a reward.

But are parents doing more harm than good by dangling a carrot -- or cupcake -- before their children? Although many psychologists say yes, a multitude of programs are trying new ways to motivate kids to learn, with some offering pizza, iPods and cold hard cash to encourage students to do better in school, increase time spent reading or get better grades.

Admitting there are few benefits to the carrot-and-stick approach, Daniel Pink, in the book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," examines what truly motivates people.

And while it may seem harmless to offer something in return for a child's hard work (an extrinsic reward), psychologists -- and Pink -- promote decades of research that points to long-term success through motivation that derives from within (intrinsic).

Still, many parents experience daily "if-then" bargains with children: "If you do your reading, then I'll give you a dollar." Pink points to a study where psychologists divided preschoolers into three groups for drawing time: One group knew there was a reward at the end of the task, one group did not know of the reward and received it, and the third group didn't know of a reward and did not receive one. After two weeks, the psychologists returned to the classroom and asked each of the three groups to draw again.

The group that expected something drew much less than the other two groups. The prizes had turned the children's "play into work," Pink writes. The dangling carrot lost its allure.

"Rewards, like punishments, can produce only one thing: temporary obedience," Alfie Kohn, author of "Unconditional Parenting" and "Punished By Rewards" tells ParentDish in an e-mail. "What they can never do is help kids become more effective or enthusiastic learners.

In fact, research has repeatedly shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. So these incentives aren't just ineffective -- they're actually counterproductive.

"The bottom line is that dangling incentives in front of children is a way of doing things to them," Kohn adds. "It's a form of sugar-coated control. In the long run people react badly to being controlled, even if they like the goody itself."

So, why do educational programs offer incentives as rewards? Kohn says the practice "spares" adults from having to work toward finding out what might motivate a child on an intrinsic level and "to make school meaningful for students."

Dr. Barbara A. Marinak, assistant professor of education and reading and graduate coordinator of the education in literacy education program at Penn State-Harrisburg, tells ParentDish in a phone interview that programs with an extrinsic reward miss the point of what a child wants: dialog.

"Provide children with behavior specific feedback," she says. "'Nice job' doesn't tell a child anything. As opposed to 'Emily, you did an excellent job in your persuasive paper and your call to action is very compelling.' What she did, when she did it, and what she did well."

Marinak, a former school administrator, spends hours studying elementary school classrooms and says choice is often missing. Rarely are children asked what they want to hear, and teachers often don't ask children what books they would like added to their classroom, Marinak says.

"Look beyond the dollars and commit to building a framework within their buildings for intrinsic motivation," she says. "Moving all kids towards proficiency and teaching them that there is life beyond school and commit to engagement with kids."

Still, educational incentive programs seem to be proliferating. For some, it is less about motivating students and more about increasing available opportunities for low-income students.

Launched in 2007, and based on a model used by Advanced Placement Strategies, Rewarding Achievement (REACH) offers money to students based upon Advanced Placement scores. In 31 New York City high schools, the program is striving to level the playing field for low-income students and encourages them to take more rigorous coursework. The program also offers workshops for students preparing for the exams.

Eddie Rodriguez, co-founder of REACH and the group's departing executive director, describes the program as a type of scholarship for economically disadvantaged students.

The son of a seamstress and a livery-cab driver, Rodriguez points to his own experience, having benefited from an academic scholarship.

"It's an opportunity," he tells ParentDish in a phone interview. "Something different should be tried. In the worst-case scenario, it is a scholarship program."

Related: Reward Kids With Stickers, Not Suckers

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.