Parents want to encourage their school-age children to do well in school, and sometimes may consider a direct reward for good grades.  One common reward or incentive is a monetary one.  We are often asked whether there is anything wrong with paying for grades (or similar rewards.)  Our short answer is there is nothing wrong with paying for grades. Our longer answer is that it may or may not be right for a particular child and family when parents consider their values and orientations.

What motivates a child to learn?

We are motivated to do something because we seek rewards. Rewards come in two types. One type is what we commonly think of as a reward: attaining some benefit in the wide world. We can call this an outside reward. It could be the smile of a loved one, a sticker, a job promotion ... the list is endless.

The other type of reward is an inner satisfaction within one's own mind. We can call this an inside reward. There are also numerous examples of internal rewards, and they usually involve fulfilling some wish or desire or following one's moral and ethical sense.

Let's apply this to understand a child's motivations to get good grades. From the standpoint of outside rewards, children understand that good grades currently lead to compliments from teachers, possible recognition by the school, proud parents and, in the future, benefits such as good employment opportunities and financial security. Whether these outside rewards matter to a particular child or he/she fully understands the future issues, is another matter.

From the standpoint of inside rewards, children may derive pleasure from learning about something that interests them. They might feel that knowledge will allow them to pursue their interests. This is not the same as "getting in the good university," but is about being able to continue to derive satisfaction from learning. They may want to be the best or smartest for reasons having to do with their psychological makeup. They might feel like a good person when they learn and know things. People recognize different ethics as being important, in addition to right and wrong behavior. All of these are examples of inside rewards.

What vision do parents have for their child?

Parents have the most influence on shaping their children. Although genetics plays a part, the humanity of a person, values, relationships and ability to derive meaning from life comes mostly from family and other key experiences, in addition to the individual spark that creates a "self."

Parent(s) can ask themselves some searching questions. To what extent would they wish for their child to respond to his/her inner rewards and follow their own star? To what extent would they wish for their child to make decisions on the basis of factors such as employment prospects and economic security? Most (but not all) parents hope for their children to grow into adults who pay attention to both, following their own star but also responding to a blend of inside and outside motivations.

Recognizing that most parents seek a blend of motivation is only a start. When the rubber meets the road, a parental couple may disagree about the relative balance of internal and external rewards. Parents' positions also shift.

Providing monetary rewards clearly sends a message that the reason to learn and get good grades is to achieve external rewards such as parental approval and money to spend on things that the child wants. It doesn't mean parents do not also value internal rewards, but parents would make a strong statement about the importance of making learning choices for the sake of achieving outside rewards. Even if children do not respond to the challenge, they will get this message.

There is a potential pitfall with an outside reward-based approach. A child may wish to get better grades, but have some learning or psychological difficulty that interferes with their own interest. In this event, a monetary carrot is unlikely to be effective and could even demoralize a child.

No two parents balance the world of rewards in the same way, even when they share many basic values. This is clearly a time when parental couples can benefit from some soul searching, and openly and supportively share their views. It is not a question of right and wrong, but a question of parents’ individual and collective vision of their child’s future.

Considering whether to pay for grades gives parents an opportunity to think about the broader issue of what it is that they would like to see matter to their child. As parents learn individually and/or together about this, they will be in a stronger position to provide continued guidance for their child, not only in this situation, but in many other instances in which he/she will have to weigh and balance the relative importance of being true to himself/herself and to the practicalities of the world. 

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