Paying for Performance

by Laura Amann

If you want to start a lively discussion, ask parents what they think about paying kids for good grades or for excelling at a sport. Then sit back and listen to the heated banter.

Most parents seem to fall squarely into one camp or the other. Some believe that money is a great motivator and a realistic indicator of how the real world works. Others say paying for grades sends the message that money speaks louder than the value of a job well done.

For some students, getting paid can be a huge incentive, driving them to accomplish something that they weren’t motivated to do on their own. For others, no amount of cash reward is going to make them do what you want them to do.

Careful Making Promises

Janet Bodnar, author of Raising Money Smart Kids (Kaplan) and author of the “Money Smart Kids” column at kiplingers.com, recommends first trying a non-monetary reward such as a special dinner, lots of praise or a favorite dessert.

If parents want to pay, she recommends a temporary monetary promise. “Tailor the monetary reward to a specific situation, say one grading term, to get a grade up.” But she cautions parents to take an active approach when doing this. “Go to the teacher and see if they need more help, go over the homework every night, show them that it’s not just a dollar sign floating out there but something that you’re in together,” she advises.

Parents who oppose paying for grades point out that just as we teach our children good manners and kindness, we also need to teach them the value of a job well done. Getting good grades, in their view, is an expectation, not something for which you get rewarded.

Another consideration is that kids are less likely to work creatively when offered money, performing for a grade rather than trying something new or taking on a challenge. And some students have true learning disabilities that no amount of money can change. In those cases, it could do more harm to teetering self-esteem.

When To Consider Paying

While most experts caution against paying for grades, parents who have tried it are often amazed at the results. It can work particularly well if your child is close to reaching a goal but needs an extra push.

“I offered my daughter money as an incentive to get straight A’s,” says Karen Weiler, mom of two daughters. “I knew it was a reachable goal, and I wanted her to see that she could do it. And she did.”

Joelle Masolowski, mother of two boys, agrees. “We give the kids money for a straight-A report card. It’s more as a reward for demonstrating hard work, responsibility and effort. They don’t expect it ... it’s just a treat for a job well done.”

And while $20 may seem like a lot to shell out, it’s cheaper than hiring a tutor. For older kids, it could even get them scholarships.

What About Sports?

In today’s world of competitive sports, money speaks at any level. Spend some time at a youth athletic competition and you’ll see parents shelling out for making baskets, scoring goals or runs, or reaching a particular score.

Dr. John Mayer, an adolescent psychologist and president of the International Sports Professionals Association, is not a fan of this practice.
“Paying for performance doesn’t teach responsibility, motivation, focus, desire, passion or even skill development,” he says. “Great athletes will tell you that they developed outstanding skills by putting in the extra time without anyone rewarding them. They were intrinsically motivated to succeed.”

Bodnar agrees. “Sports are a voluntary activity. If parents feel they must offer a reward, tie it to a very specific situation.”

Mary Beth Moore, mother of three, has seen the other side of those rewards. “My kids have been on sports teams with kids who were monetarily rewarded for baskets in basketball and it was horrible! They never passed the ball because they were only focused on making a basket.”

Parents who want to reward their children for sports should consider basing pay on how well their child plays with his team or how well he plays his team position, rather than whether he scores.
Denise Joyce, a DeKalb mom of three, emphasizes that she would “never pay for grades,” but she did opt to offer a cash incentive last year – $5 – whenever her daughter, now 11, “pushed herself” on the basketball court.
“We would never give money for grades or for winning games,” says Joyce, “but we might try it for certain tasks, such as an area of development.” Last year, her older daughter would hesitate when she had the ball. “She just wouldn’t take the shot was embarrassed to take a shot when she had the ball and the opportunity,” Joyce recalls.

Adults are certainly motivated by money, and Joyce found her daughter was, too. “We tried it just for last season, and it worked well,” she says. “Once she did it, then she did it again and again” – earning $5 each time she “pushed harder” rather than hesitated.
   “Once she did it and gained the confidence she needed, we didn’t continue” the cash incentive,” Joyce says. “It was a motivating factor for helping her do something we knew she was already capable of doing.  Now, she takes shots whenever she has the opportunity.” 

As with all aspects of parenting, every child and every situation is different. Bodnar reminds any parent who is considering using money to motivate, “Reward the effort, not the results.”