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Why parents should stop paying kids to get good grades in school

Studies show paying kids to get A's on their report cards does more harm than good.
/ Source: TODAY

It’s that time of year again. Kids are back in school, their first report cards will be arriving soon and their parents are eager to see A’s. In fact, some are so eager that they’re offering cash incentives. What can it hurt — right?

The truth is that paying for grades hurts more than it helps. Study after study shows it results in the opposite of what parents hope for. Here’s why:

It’s external

More than 40 years of research suggest that external rewards dampen internal/intrinsic motivation. When you dangle a financial “carrot” for a good grade, you put the emphasis on the reward (payment) instead of cultivating the drive to excel and a love of learning. The child begins to perform not because of intellectual curiosity and interest in a subject, but for the payout.

It presents a classic Give a Mouse a Cookie conundrum.

Kids soon realize that they can continuously up the ante. When $5 for an “A” doesn’t seem worth the effort in a tough class, they look to raise the stakes. Maybe it’s $5 and a movie, or $10 and a new pair of boots. If your son doesn’t enjoy math, will you have to dangle a $20 payout to keep him motivated? It’s a slippery slope, and it doesn’t end well.

You become part of the entitlement problem.

Paying your kids to do what they should be doing anyway — working hard in school and paying attention —creates the perfect environment for entitlement. Before you know it, the “What will I get for it?” attitude prevails, and everything —respect, good manners, household contributions, family time — comes with a price.

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You can actually de-motivate them.

For some kids, A’s are just out of reach. Even if they do everything right — study, listen in school, do their homework, seek help when they don’t understand — they will still come up short. This leaves them feeling that they aren’t good enough, because they haven’t met your expectations. It also creates an environment that’s ripe for sibling resentment if you have kids with different aptitudes. So what’s a parent to do?

Try this four-step plan:

1. Emphasize action, not A’s. Instead of grades, focus on the actions, behaviors and attitudes that lead to success. Praise your kids for their efforts and hard work when you see them studying hard for a test, practicing vocabulary words every night, persevering through challenging problems and putting in extra effort to find the answers they are looking for.

After all, these are the behaviors and habits that lead to success in all aspects of life. If your daughter gets a good grade on her chemistry test, link the grade to the hard work it took to accomplish that feat. By focusing on the action, rather than the grade, you will nurture her internal drive to excel, and she won’t have to depend on external rewards (payment) to be motivated.

2. Practice the “when-then” routine.

To help your kids develop good study habits, implement simple “when-then” routines that lay out your expectation for how things are done in your family. “When your homework is complete (and I’ve checked it), then you can play your games.” Stick to your guns and your kids will realize there’s no point in arguing about homework.

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3. Help, but don’t do.

It’s hard not to jump in when kids are struggling, and it’s important to be helpful. But not too helpful, if you want to foster good work habits. If you’ve been in the habit of doing more than supporting, consider establishing a homework help policy.

Your dialogue should go something like this: “I’m happy to help with homework between 6 and 8 p.m. (this ensures you won’t be helping with algebra at 10:30 p.m., and it forces your child to plan the evening accordingly) — but only after you’ve completed everything you know how to do and can share with me your thought process for finding the answers you are struggling with.”

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4. Put the “no-rescue policy” in place — and stick to it!

If you have a kid who forgets a lot, or a “do it for me” kind of kid, it’s time to put responsibility squarely on his shoulders, where it belongs. Tell your kids (upper elementary and above) that they are growing up and are old enough to remember what they need for school, sports and other activities. Let them know that from now on, you will not drive to school with their homework, lunchboxes, permission slips, equipment or anything else when they forget what they need, and they will have to find another solution or experience the consequence of forgetting.

Encourage them to find ways to remind themselves, and then refuse to cave when they call or text you that they left their notebook on the table or their book on the counter. It won’t be easy to stay the course and not rescue them, but the lessons they will learn about responsibility will far outweigh what they learn when you constantly come to their aid.

It's hard to break away from the way things “have always been done.” But if you’ve been paying for grades, have faith in your kids and make the break. Implement these four steps and watch with pride as they start to show more internal motivation, as they begin to lean into their responsibilities and as they demonstrate intellectual curiosity and a genuine love of learning.

That will get them much further in life than a 10-dollar bill for an A ever will.

Amy McCready is the founder of and the author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World as well as If I Have To Tell You One More Time: The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, Or Yelling.