Should You Pay a Child for Good Grades?

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Q.My husband and I disagree about how to respond to our 9-year-old son’s grades. He is a B student and we know he is capable of doing even better. My husband would like us to tell him that we will give him $15 for every A on his next report card. I can’t say exactly why, but I am not comfortable with this approach. Is there anything wrong with paying for grades?

A. The short answer is there is nothing wrong with paying for grades. The longer answer is that it may or may not be right for your child and family when you consider your values and orientations.

What motivates a child learn?

We are motivated to do something because we seek rewards. Rewards come in two types. One type is what we commonly think of as a reward: attaining some benefit in the wide world. We can call this an outside reward. It could be the smile of a loved one, a sticker, a job promotion … the list is endless.

The other type of reward is an inner satisfaction within one’s own mind. We can call this an inside reward. There are also numerous examples of internal rewards, and they usually involve fulfilling some wish or desire or following one’s moral and ethical sense.

Let’s apply this to understand a child’s motivations to get good grades. From the standpoint of outside rewards, Tommy understands that good grades currently lead to compliments from teachers, possible recognition by the school, proud parents and, in the future, benefits such as good employment opportunities and financial security. Whether these outside rewards matter

to him or he fully understands the future issues, is another matter.

From the standpoint of inside rewards, children may derive pleasure from learning about something that interests them. They might feel that knowledge will allow them to pursue their interests. This is not the same as “getting in the good university,” but is about being able to continue to derive satisfaction from learning.

They may want to be the best or smartest for reasons having to do with their psychological makeup. They might feel like a good person when they learn and know things. People recognize different ethics as being important, in addition to right and wrong behavior.

What vision do you have for your child?

Parents have the most influence on shaping their children. Although genetics plays a part, the humanity of a person, values, relationships and ability to derive meaning from life comes mostly from family and other key experiences, in addition to the individual spark that creates a “self.”

You and your husband can ask yourselves some searching questions. To what extent would you wish for Tommy to respond to his inner rewards and follow his own star? To what extent would you wish for Tommy to make decisions on the basis of factors such as employment prospects and economic security? Most (but not all) parents hope for their children to grow into adults who pay attention to both, following their own star but also responding to a blend of inside and outside motivations.

Recognizing that most parents seek a blend of motivation is only a start. When the rubber meets the road, you and your husband may disagree with the relative balance of internal and external rewards. Parents’ positions also shift.

Providing monetary rewards clearly sends a message that the reason to learn and get good grades is to achieve external rewards such as parental approval and money to spend on things Tommy wants. It doesn’t mean you do not also value internal rewards, but you would make a strong statement about the importance of making learning choices for the sake of achieving outside rewards. Even if Tommy does not respond to the challenge, he will get this message.

There is a potential pitfall with an outside reward-based approach. Tommy may wish to get better grades, but have some learning or psychological difficulty that interferes with his own interest. In this event, a monetary carrot is unlikely to be effective and could even demoralize Tommy.

No two parents balance the world of rewards in the same way, even when they share many basic values. This is clearly a time when you and your husband can benefit from some soul searching, and openly and supportively share your views. It is not a question of right and wrong, but a question of your individual and collective vision of Tommy’s future.

Considering whether to pay for grades gives you an opportunity to think about the broader issue of what it is that you would like to see matter to Tommy. As you learn together about this, you and your husband will be in a stronger position to provide continued guidance for Tommy, not only in this situation, but in many other instances in which he will have to weigh and balance the relative importance of being true to himself and to the practicalities of the world.  n

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. To submit a question, email with “Ask Lucy Daniels” in the subject line. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents’ questions.


Categories: Early Education, Education, Health and Development, School Kids, SK Development, Sk Education