Should parents bribe their children?

By Jake T. Erlendson on August 4, 2014
Categories: KIDS & MONEY

In a new survey by T. Rowe Priceopens PDF file , the mutual fund family, 48% of parents admitted that they bribe their children with money to encourage good behavior.

Traditionally, bribing children for good behavior or better grades has been frowned upon, but should it be?

This is a topic that Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and the co-author of the popular Freakonomics books, has explored. Levitt hasn’t been shy about sharing that he bribes his own children and that the practice has worked with them. The professor is carrying on the tradition that his parents used with him as a youngster. Levitt’s parents paid him $25 for every “A” he received in middle school and high school.

In his musings about this issue of childhood bribes, Levitt has had this to say about the controversial practice:

We use direct financial incentives to motivate so many different activities in life. No one expects workers in a fast food restaurant to flip burgers for free. No one expects teachers to show up and teach without getting paid. But when it comes to kids in school, we think that the distant financial rewards they will earn years or decades later should be enough to motivate them, even though for most kids a month or two feels like eternity.

In a study in 2012, Levitt and other academics explored the merits of paying students to get good grades at low-performing public schools in Chicago. The purpose of the academics’ field studies wasn’t to prod students to study harder or learn more, their intent was simpler. The researchers showed up right before a test and told each student that he/she would get cash or a trophy – depending on the age of the students – for score improvements.

The academics generated some interesting results. Money, they found, did work and higher amounts worked better. The students were willing to put more effort into the test if the reward was $80 versus $40. The trophies worked best with young children. The authors believed their test was the first to demonstrate that a student’s responsiveness to incentives was tied to the size of the award.

The researchers also discovered that the awards were most powerful if the students received them before the test, but were told that they would lose them if they didn’t perform well on the tests. This study dovetailed with the findings of other research involving investors that has shown that we feel our investment losses much more keenly than our gains.

Finally to make the bribe effective, Levitt suggested, the students needed to know they would be paid right away. Students who were promised the money sometime in the future did very little to improve their scores.

This study will hardly stop the debate about paying children for doing what you’d hope they would do automatically. Some parents worry that paying a child for good grades will make them dependent on outside rewards as they go through life.

The studies on this issue have tended to be short-term ones. For instance, a Harvard professor conducted a study of Dallas grade school children who were paid to read books. At the end of the year, their standardized test scores improved. What would be nice is to have longer tests that could explore what happens to children who grow up with a steady diet of bribes.


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