Paying Your Kids For Doing Well In School Or Sports Might Actually Worsen Their Performance

When it comes to putting in hard work, some children find it more difficult than others to stay motivated and focused. Naturally, many parents will want to help incentivize their kids to put more work into their school assignments and extracurriculars, and some might even use rewards like money to do the job.

However, psychologists suggest that these tactics might actually hinder performance in the long run.

It’s A Pretty Common Practice

person holding money
Photo Credit: Unsplash / JP Valery
Photo Credit: Unsplash / JP Valery

Growing up, I had classmates who would have deals with their parents based on their grades; for example, one boy’s parents offered to pay him $5 for every grade above a B on his report card.

Similarly, when I was playing competitive soccer as a kid, parents would give players on my team a cash reward for every goal they scored in a season. It seemed like a natural way to make the kid work harder, right?

Psychology Suggests Otherwise

child holding book looking surprised
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Ben White
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Ben White

There’s a psychological principle called the “overjustification effect,” which is a phenomenon where getting externally rewarded for doing something makes you less motivated to actually perform the activity.

For example, if a child is given a monetary reward for practicing basketball every day, he might actually feel less inclined to keep practicing.

It’s Been Observed In Clinical Studies

child coloring with markers
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Sigmund
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Sigmund

In one psychological study on the overjustification effect, young children were left alone to scribble with markers on paper. After a short period of time, the researchers offered to give a reward to students if they were to continue drawing. What happened is that many of the students stopped drawing at all.

In contrast, students who weren’t offered any rewards happily continued to draw on their papers for the duration of the study.

Why Does This Happen?

student doing homework
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Ben Mullins
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Ben Mullins

Some psychologists suggest that the reason this happens is that it causes the children to focus on the external rewards for performing the tasks rather than their intrinsic motivations.

Another theory is that the offer of an external reward can feel coercive or like bribery, causing them to feel like they are only doing an activity for the reward.

But Isn’t That How Jobs Work As Adults?

man walking with briefcase in hand
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Marten Bjork
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Marten Bjork

You’ve probably heard the phrase “do something you love and it will never feel like work” tossed around a few times. However, the overjustification effect can be just as prominent in adults, especially when it comes to work they like.

For example, someone who loves knitting and tries to create a business selling their finished products will likely find themselves less inclined to do the activity anymore.

In The End, Performance Can Drop Significantly

child with hands up hiding their face
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Caleb Woods
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Caleb Woods

If a child no longer feels inclined to do things of their own accord and instead relies on external rewards as motivation, they can lose all motivation when the rewards are no longer offered.

Another implication is that commodifying performance by rewards can truly cause children to lose interest in things they love: they might cease to enjoy learning or engaging in the extracurricular activity they started because they had a passion for it.

So Is There A Healthy Way To Reward Kids?

girl smiling really big
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Jonathan Borba
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Jonathan Borba

Going back to the marker study, there was a third group of children who, at the end of their drawing session, received a treat that they had not been told about before. In this scenario, the children were able to continue performing and enjoying the activity while still getting an external reward.

Essentially, not setting up an expectation for a reward is key to helping children feel accomplished without diminishing their internal motivation for performing an activity.

It Can Help Them Develop Healthy Habits For Adulthood

woman working on desk with laptop
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Avel Chuklanov
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Avel Chuklanov

By teaching your children to rely on themselves for motivation to perform activities and developing a healthy work ethic on their own, you help set them up to be more self-sufficient once they reach adulthood.

Especially since external rewards are less frequent in adulthood, learning to develop motivation and diligence on one’s own is key to being healthy and happy as an adult.

Lastly, Focus Verbal Praise On What Your Child Does

mom whispering into daughter's ear
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Sai De Silva
Photo Credit: Unsplash / Sai De Silva

Verbal praise in itself is a pretty great reward for anyone—validation for one’s accomplishments always feels good. However, it may be healthier to praise a child’s overall effort (e.g., telling them that they’ve worked very hard to do well on a test) rather than their characteristics (e.g., telling them that they are smart).

The reasoning is that praising hard work will associate hard work and discipline with good outcomes, whereas telling them they’re smart can create self-esteem issues and cause them to internalize feelings of failure when they underperform.