Comedian Carey Reilly had to take an important call, and she didn’t have time to entertain any funny business from her 7-year-old son.
So the 30-something mom offered her daughter $10 to occupy her brother—which was met with a demand for $20.
This clearly wasn’t the first time Reilly had resorted to bribery. In the past she’d gone so far as to persuade her 10-year-old daughter to read by plying her with cash—hence how the little girl knew the art of the counteroffer.
"I get very easily frustrated, and it gets them to do what I need them to do in the moment," Reilly admits. "I need an immediate payoff."
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Turns out Reilly has plenty of company.
But while cash rewards can deliver satisfying short-term results for Mom and Dad, what's the long-term impact on the bribee?
According to Michael Yogman, who chairs The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, bribing kids is a dangerous slippery slope.
“The notion that the only value is in monetizing everything robs kids of control over their own decision-making,” Yogman explains. “There are things you want to do because they’re correct, ethical and socially appropriate—and you want kids to internalize those values.”
To see just how slippery a slope the practice can be, we shared parents' confessions with psychology and money pros for their no-holds-barred insight on kiddie bribery.
Confession #1: "I Paid My Kid to Get Good Grades"
Last spring, teachers had to have a heart-to-heart with Catherine Hunter-Gould, 48, about her 11-year-old son—and the news wasn't good.
The Hopkinton, Mass., mom learned that her kid was seriously slacking when it came to his effort grades—the rating he receives every two weeks for the effort he puts forth for each subject. On a scale of 1 to 5, his grades were fluctuating mostly between 2's and 3's.
Hunter-Gould and her 47-year-old husband, Dan, decided to give their son a motivational boost by drawing up a contract that revolved around cash and other incentives.
If he scored anything above a 3, he'd be incrementally rewarded—say, with an extra half hour of electronics game time per day. But if he achieved at least a 4, that was worthy of an X-Box.
While Hunter-Gould's son never quite reached X-Box level, he did rise to the challenge, reaching 3.6 on three occasions—enough for three $50 iTunes gift cards.
"For us, the big bonus was no longer having arguments about the importance of grades and working up to his potential," Hunter-Gould adds.
Clever kids may game the system by signing up for the easiest classes so they can get an A with the least effort.
The Experts Weigh In ...
Diane Sanford, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, says that if bribery must occur, it’s best to leverage it to reward effort as opposed to outcomes, as Hunter-Gould did.
“[Hers is] a great example,” Sanford says. “You’re teaching children more when you reward them for studying or applying themselves—the building blocks of self regulation and internal motivation.”
Another great example of this theory in practice is a Harvard study published in 2011 that explored the effects of various cash incentives on students in 203 schools.
Researchers found that second-graders who were paid $2 for each book they read showed more improvement in comprehension skills than those who went uncompensated.
An even more enlightening finding: Paying kids to just achieve good grades—the ultimate outcome—wasn’t effective.
According to Brad Allan, chief of staff at Harvard’s EdLabs, the results show that
“‘input’ incentives were more effective than ‘output’ incentives, suggesting that students don’t know how to increase their test scores and grades.”
“If you tell a student to get an A, or to score an 85% or better on an end-of-year test, it doesn’t matter how large the incentive is if they fundamentally don’t know what inputs lead to getting an A,” he explains.
So Allan suggests parents encourage kids to understand the value of inputs like staying on top of homework and asking for extra help—all factors that can help them develop the skills necessary for academic success.
Yogman points out another problem with incentivizing kids based solely on good grades: You may have clever kids who game the system by signing up for the easiest classes so they can get an A with the least effort possible.
“We should be motivating kids to be curious about the world and interested in learning,” Yogman says. “Children should be given incentives to problem-solve and to ask better questions—not just achieve better scores.”
Confession #2: "I Paid My Kids to Play Sports"
Julie Lawson Timmer of Ann Arbor, Mich., believes in a “healthy body/healthy mind connection,” and wanted to urge her son and daughter to follow her lead by playing high school sports.
“A vigorous workout regimen will set them up for the rest of their lives,” Timmer says. “Plus, I wanted them to have some early Saturday morning activities so they wouldn’t be out late on weekends.”
She recognized that demanding sports schedules might make it tough to fit in a part-time job, so she decided to compensate them for their effort. When they each hit 10th grade, Mom began shelling out $50 for every week of participation in a competitive school sport.
Her son, Mason*, did crew for two years, while her daughter, Jill*, now a junior, has signed up for equestrian activities and field hockey.
They've even embraced staying fit outside of school: Mason joined a cross-fit gym this summer, while Jill enrolled in an Alaska-based adventure camp.
“I didn’t want them to quit a team sport so they could get a job just to buy the latest gadget or clothing item,” Timmer says.
"I’d feel better rewarding them with some of those things they want—like a movie pass—rather than with money itself."
The Experts Weigh In …
Yogman isn't a big fan of Timmer's approach.
Rather than bribe the teens to play sports, Yogman would have preferred that Timmer had discussed why exercise was so important—and then given her kids a chance to weigh in.
Timmer was lucky that Mason and Jill both ended up enjoying it—but other kids may not be as gung-ho about team sports.
And that's why Yogman believes kids should be able to take the lead when selecting extracurricular activities.
“[Making their own choices] gives them a sense of empowerment, and enhances self-esteem,” he says. "If they're only doing it because they're getting paid, what happens later in life?"
In fact, some parents who provide rewards for exercise may actually be doing their kids a disservice.
“If your child is not athletic, you’d be putting them in an impossible situation by giving them money to do something that could humiliate them,” Yogman adds.
Carl Hindy, a clinical psychologist in Nashua, N.H., says paying cash for sports participation makes him uneasy because he believes exercise is an activity that should be intrinsically rewarding—rather than be treated like a job.
If parents still want to use sports as a way to help their kids buy stuff, a better middle ground might be to use products as incentives instead.
“I’d feel better rewarding them with some of those things they want, like a movie pass or tank of gas, rather than with money itself,” Hindy says.
Confession #3: “I Paid My Kid to Volunteer”
Last summer, Lisa Edwards’ 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, wanted to earn some money before heading into her first semester at the University of Wisconsin.
Edwards agreed that it would be good for Sarah to have a productive summer, but she wasn’t thrilled with her daughter’s proposal: a minimum-wage gig at a frozen yogurt store.
Mom preferred the sound of a hospital volunteer program, thinking it would help further Sarah’s premed aspirations. “We felt this was such a great opportunity," Edwards says, “but she was fighting the idea because she wasn’t going to get paid.”
So Edwards’ solution was to bankroll Sarah’s efforts, paying her daughter $10 per hour volunteered—$3 more than the froyo wages.
And Edwards has no regrets spending about $2,000 for her daughter to complete the 10-week volunteer stint—an investment that has already showed signs of a pay-off. Sarah was accepted back at the hospital this summer—in a paid research position.
“At 18, the daughter let her mother’s agenda intervene, sacrificing some degree of independence—and she lost a real-world experience.”
The Experts Weigh In…
Carl Pickhardt, a Texas-based psychologist and author of the Psychology Today blog Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence, acknowledges that this arrangement was a success in some sense—Edwards got the enriching experience for Sarah, while Sarah got her spending money.
But at what cost?
“At 18, the daughter let her mother’s agenda intervene, sacrificing some degree of independence—and she lost a real-world experience with entry-level employment at the store,” Pickhardt says.
Hindy raises another point: By definition, the hospital program is for volunteers, so Edwards’ payment plan undermined its intended nature—it's disingenuous to have her daughter pose as a volunteer when others were motivated to turn up for free.
One alternative, says Hindy, could have been to have Sarah fit in some limited shifts at the frozen yogurt store—with Edwards augmenting those earnings, if she felt it wasn’t enough—so that her daughter could be a true volunteer at the hospital.
If Sarah was serious about medicine, Don R. Wilde, an Arizona-based Certified Financial Planner™, feels she should have jumped at the chance for the professional leg up, even if it was unpaid.
“At 18, I’d hope that parents have already instilled proper principles and that paying for any kind of volunteer work would be unnecessary,” Wilde says. “It teaches that any action must require monetary compensation—probably not the message parents want to give their children.”
*Names have been changed.