Back to school

Should you bribe your kids to get good grades?

Sep. 16, 2013 at 8:01 AM ET

Imagine you’re back in school and it’s report card day. Would your grades have been higher if you were promised $5 for every A or a video game or manicure/pedicure for earning top grades?

With the new school year upon us, some kids are digging deep to find the motivation from within, while others may be aiming for the shiny brass ring promised by Mom and Dad.

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Experts say giving kids money or gifts for good grades can backfire, impacting motivation and creativity. Still, many parents are firm believers in the practice.

The long-running issue of rewarding children for good grades with money or material goods surfaced again recently. In a Wall Street Journal column, a mom concedes to bribing her four daughters with outings and objects of desire, though not cash, for all A’s or “relative improvement.”

“I admit: It would be best if all children (and adults) could be motivated by an innate drive for high achievement and a thirst for knowledge,” writes Demetria Gallegos, community editor for WSJ.com.

“But I also believe that it's easier to accomplish good grades after experiencing them,” she wrote. “Fake it until you make it. The excitement and adrenaline of success are addictive, and if you get to experience it, whatever the motivation, you're inclined to seek it again."

But her husband, John, calls the arrangement a “bad bargain,” and says, “They must value education. Giving them bribes is corrupting that value."

When it comes to most students, educational psychologist and TODAY contributor Michele Borba agrees with John, who sees the rewards as a short-term solution that will backfire.

“Most of the research says it doesn’t work,” Borba says. “It has short-term gain but long-term pain.

“It will backfire on the love of the subject, the internal motivation and creativity,” she said. “That love of learning goes out, and instead what the child loves is cash and not the subject of the learning.”

Borba says bribes can reduce students’ abilities to realize they have control over their academic success and that is crucial because kids are the ones who are most responsible for motivating themselves. “That’s the secret,” Borba says. “To help your child learn without you.”

“What works best is inside control and inside motivation and knowing, ‘I can do it without the reward, the sticker or the dollar,’” Borba says, adding that kids could grow to want more to stay motivated, like "instead of a dollar he wants a Lexus."

Still, she says, rewards may help kids who are having trouble in school.

“For some kids who are strugglers, who are really frustrated with learning, it could be a way to get them jump-started to get them try a little harder,” Borba says. “If they at least see the joy of getting the grade going up, it could be a way to spin them to motivate harder.”

Though generations of parents have offered rewards, Borba says there’s been a spike in the last decade in the number of parents and some schools offering money and rewards for high grades, as economists continue to study the idea.

“It’s been going on forever and there’s still a split,” Borba says.

There’s a division, too, among readers on the TODAY Moms Facebook page.

Some moms had no issue with a financial incentive, likening it to the adult work world.

“I don't see a problem with offering an incentive at the end of a grading period,” Erika Douglass wrote. “It's actually very similar to adult life in the career market. At the end of an evaluation period, there is an incentive to earning high marks; a promotion, a raise ... and the threat of failing - losing your job.”

Kim Reynolds Tracy wrote: “We pay our kids for A's and B's and deduct for C's, if there ever is a D they won't get any of the money they earned. ... We also help them as much as we can to get those good grades and encourage them throughout the semester/year.”

Other posters say they never offered a reward up front.

“We have never paid for grades and never will,” Melissa Phelps Barnard wrote. “The motivation has to come from within.”

“NEVER, EVER!” wrote Mary Thorsen-Nolan. “I told my kids that their grades and their ambition was on them, not me. ... I helped them to set their goals and encouraged them to work their hardest to reach them, but I never once offered incentive other than pride in a job well done.”

Borba says praising the time and effort kids are putting into their schoolwork can help them find their inner-push to succeed.

“Praise by far, research says, is the best way to boost learning success,” Borba says.

The other benefits of praise, she says: “It’s cheap, it’s research-based and kids thrive on it.”

What do you think? Join the discussion on the TODAY Moms Facebook page.

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