Bribe Your Kid for Good Grades: Is This A Good Idea?

By Lyle Green, High School Personal Counselor
Should we give our kids incentives to boost academic performance? Some would say, “It works!” Yes…but:

• When “it works,” does the higher grade indicate a positive shift in values and priorities?
• Does an uptick in the GPA translate into a life-skill that will remain stable over time – on into college, a career, or life in general?
• By what means was this better grade obtained?
In a Group Publishing survey, 74% of American teenagers – from private, religious schools – admitted to cheating on schoolwork. The reason? It’s all about the grade. If a grade comes in under par, the student is less worried about the deficit in learning and most concerned about the loss of some secondary reward. This might not be the value system we want to perpetuate.

How can we help our kids get better grades without undermining the educational process?

  • Let’s cultivate an emotionally safe environment for discussing academic matters. Indeed, an “unacceptable” grade can send a parent’s emotional barometer plummeting. But emotional reactivity blocks effective communication. On the other hand, a calm, emotionally safe conversation can keep defense mechanisms minimized so that a parent’s wise, insightful words are more readily accepted by a child.
  • Be intentional about discussing the school day – and not just academics. School-life is multi-faceted – each with its own set of experiences to be explored and managed. Listen, and then listen again. Key words? “Tell me more.”
  • Check grades regularly – but not as the Grand Inquisitor. Be the veteran trainer in the kid’s corner to whom he/she can retreat after a couple of hard rounds at school. Share perceptions, strategies and personal examples of your own school experiences.
  • Encouragement is a positive reinforcement – and it doesn’t cost anything. One of the best strategies for boosting academic performance is giving verbal praise for responsible behavior. This is the intentional pause in a busy day to look straight into a child’s eyes and say something positive about his/her accomplishments—academic or otherwise. It’s powerful and hugely formative.
  • Keep it real. An accurate assessment of a child’s innate gifts, passions and skills can better inform a parent’s expectations and responses to the student’s performance. Are you absolutely sure he can do better? Should she really be spending four hours per night on homework? Does he really want to play that instrument? Whose dream is driving this thing anyway?
  • Use rewards strategically. If a material reward is deemed justified for improved performance, consider when and how the reward should be presented. Here is where science can teach us something. Research indicates that unexpected rewards, presented intermittently, and after the fact of a desired behavior inspire and reinforce the more intrinsic and enduring motivations we want to cultivate in our children. The upside to this reinforcement schedule is that the positive behavior is more resistant to extinction. The downside? It’s not a quick fix. The desired behaviors take a while to acquire. But why trade the whole orchard for a single apple now?
  • Be involved at school. Values are usually caught not taught. When kids see their mom and/or dad actively invested in the educational process, intuitively they know that school, and the responsibilities that attach to it, are worthwhile pursuits.
In the final analysis, every child should go to bed at night knowing he/she is unconditionally cherished on the home front without ever drawing the inference that Mom’s or Dad’s affections are somehow keyed into academic performance. Of course, no loving parent would intentionally make such a suggestion. But until that frontal lobe of the brain is fully developed (about age 24, I’m sorry to say), children feel and intuit much more than they are able to think and reason. Let’s leave no doubt in their tender hearts and minds that they are loved beyond comprehension and we, their parents, have only the greatest confidence that they will land well and find their unique place in this world.
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