How Much for an A?

I remember being a single girl watching a frazzled mom in a grocery store with her two young boys. As they squirmed out of the red car shopping cart, she leaned toward them and hissed, “If you just sit down, you can have a candy bar at the check-out.” I’m sure I was appalled.

Nine years later, hugely pregnant with my third child and pushing that same shopping cart through the grocery store, I dole out cherry tomatoes in an attempt to keep my 4-year-old and 2-year-old daughters pleasant and cooperative. They ate the entire carton by the time we got to the check-out line, and I handed the empty container to the clerk to scan. Two dollars and fifty cents worth of tomatoes traded for the opportunity to shop for the week’s groceries seemed like a bargain.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if my grocery store tomatoes or the ubiquitous M&Ms for potty training are parental gateways to more and better payments to our kids. From good behavior to school to sports, should parents pay for performance?

Nope, Parents Shouldn’t Pay

In the minds of many parents, paying kids to behave or do well at academics or extracurricular activities is the same as paying kids to do what they, as members of families, should do anyway.

“I do not feel that children should be awarded cash for every little accomplishment,” says Garner mom Lynn Comstock. “It seems society today feels that we must reward children and praise them constantly to protect their sensitive self-esteems. What we have managed to do is reward mediocrity and stifle any desire to work hard.”

Although Comstock believes it’s important to encourage her kids to do their best, she also believes achievement is part of the spiritual connection kids have with the world and that rewarding them monetarily sends the wrong message.

Mary Hunt, author of Debt-Proof Your Kids (DPL Press), agrees. “Not all kids are motivated by money. … Will the child grow up believing he must be paid to perform? This is likely to create an entitlement issue for life. ‘I don’t do anything unless I get paid for it.’”

Payment from a parent to a child communicates value. The achievement that the parent decides is worth money creates an impression that it is more important than the achievement that is not accompanied by cash. So when parents pay for soccer goals, what message are they sending about the person who passes the ball to the scorer?

Says Burlington mom Angela Kalo, “Things like soccer goals don’t tell the whole story. [My daughter] Lauren is on a team, and she leads the team in assists. To reward her goal, and not her assists, would tell her that the assist isn’t as important. But it is.”

Equally troubling for some parents is the idea that kids will base their behavior on what it brings in terms of dollars. This level of calculation and manipulation by kids makes parents uneasy. “The behavior comes first, followed by the reward or reprimand,” says Cary mother Jennifer Tavares.

Also at issue is differentiating between hard work and talent in terms of achievement and compensation. For some kids, paying them for an A is paying for what comes naturally to them says Apex financial planner and mom of two, Cat Lewis. “As far as grades go, I find it difficult to reward based solely on performance. Who says that an A is harder to achieve than a C? So much depends on the subject matter and the child,” Lewis says.

However, in her role as financial planner, Lewis feels strongly that her kids should understand the value of money, and she believes in allowances for specific chores. Says Lewis, “The important concept is that money is not free. It must be earned, and that’s the financial lesson that needs teaching.”

The biggest detractor to paying for performance as pointed out by author Hart is that it could backfire and create a situation where kids can justify “opting out.” “A lazy child might prefer remaining lazy and poor rather than putting forth the effort to do well in school,” Hunt says.

Instead, Hart recommends that children be evaluated for their individual achievements and encouraged to perform as members of a family and larger community. “There is something to be said for teaching kids the personal gratification of doing a good job for the sake of doing a good job! It just feels good to do well,” Hart says. “Helping them to experience just how good that feels aside from a monetary reward will develop good character for life.”

Kids Deserve Monetary Rewards

Other parents point out that paying a child for grades or accomplishments is no different than adults being paid to perform their daily jobs.

“It seems to me that [payment] mirrors what will happen in the real world, where good work is often rewarded by a bonus,” says Chapel Hill mother of two Jane Riepl. Though she feels this technique should be used sparingly, and that the amounts given to kids shouldn’t be too extravagant, Riepl thinks paying kids is appropriate and gives them some insight into adult experiences. “Tying their allowance to chores or offering a bonus for extra work or exceptional efforts at school can be a good demonstration of how the world works once they grow up and have to make their own way,” she says.

Dr. Jen Kogos Youngstrom, Ph.D., director of Child and Family Services at the UNC Department of Psychology Community Clinic, says, “It is important to find rewards for children and adolescents that mean something to them, and they must be ones that parents find acceptable. Rewards can serve the function of providing a little extra motivation for them to strive for success, especially if the child/adolescent doesn’t yet find the activity in question rewarding in itself.”

For many kids, schoolwork or other tasks, such as practicing a musical instrument, are tedious, and being self-motivated is hard. Monetary rewards, if they are important to kids, can help remind them that they can achieve something of value to them while accomplishing something important to their parents as well.

Particularly for kids who are struggling, providing a meaningful reward is a way to communicate to the child that what they are accomplishing is important, and that their parents are aware of their efforts.

“Parents often resist providing rewards and think of it as bribing the children to do what they expect them to do,” Youngstrom notes. “However, rewards are an important aspect of behavioral therapy, one of the most effective forms of managing and changing children’s behavior. Therapists in our clinic … work with parents and children to negotiate a reasonable plan for what activities and how much compliance would merit a reward.”

Cary mother of three JoAnn Beall believes monetary awards are appropriate. “I do feel that we can reward our children with money for a job well done if it’s done in moderation … [especially] if I know they worked really hard.”

Apex certified financial coach and father of two Justin Lukasavige agrees. “I talk with a lot of people that don’t want to pay for performance because they expect their kids to do certain things anyways. While I agree with that viewpoint, I think you also lose some teachable moments if you don’t pay for anything.”

Lukasavige has a commission-based system for his kids. “Basically, if you work, you get paid. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. … In the real world, kids will grow up and quickly find that everyone is on commission. If you don’t come to work and perform, it won’t take long before you stop getting paid.”

Alternatives to Paying

Some parents opt for a praise-based reward system. Raleigh mother of two Lisa Padgett feels the best reward for kids is to privately compliment them. “We try to do something along the lines of sincere praise, lots of hugs, and maybe let them pick out a special dinner we could make together. Maybe my kids are simple, but this seems to thrill them.”

Youngstrom agrees saying, “There are times when the reward may serve as an acknowledgement of a special or important achievement, like flowers at a recital. Rewards can send the message to children that the desired activity can be fun and good, and that their parents find the activity important.”

Finding creative alternatives to rewards may be a challenge, but it also may work well for some families. “Rewards can be monetary, but they may also be verbal praise or a hug, or working toward a family event together, or special time with a parent, or the ability to choose a family activity or meal,” Youngstrom says. As long as the reward is meaningful to the child, almost anything goes.

Question Your Motivation

Chapel Hill psychologist and mother Sara Rosenquist, Ph.D., cautions parents to evaluate why they are paying their children. Says Rosenquist, “The parent has to ask themselves what is the goal?” For example, she advises that there are many different pathways to success, and not all are contingent on education and grades. Communicating values and motivations with your kids is a good step toward understanding why you want to reward them.

“You do the level best you can, and sometimes it pays off in other ways than the satisfaction of knowing you did your best. Still, there’s nothing as satisfying as knowing that you did your best,” Rosenquist says. “Getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee anything in life. Michael Dell and Bill Gates dropped out of college. Being right is not as important as being loving. Having good relationships is more important than money in the bank, even though life is easier when there’s money in the bank.”

Ultimately, parents are seeking the best way to communicate their values to their kids. While some parents don’t believe in paying, others see this as a motivational tool. Either approach is acceptable as long as values are clearly communicated and payments don’t escalate out of control.

So how much for an A? That’s for each family to answer.

Robin Whitsell is a writer who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and three daughters. She can be reached through www.robinwhitsell.com.