Rewards and children

Dennis AkersDennis Akers | Director, IH Mataró

Aquesta pàgina en Català English

Is it a good idea to offer children rewards to pass exams or a level at school? The straight answer is no, although it's difficult not to fall into temptation. As parents we might offer X-Boxes, motorbikes or even holidays "on condition" a child does better at school or passes exams and although this might have a short term effect it is profoundly negative in the long run. But why is this? This is a traditional way with children, isn't it?

The problem with a reward system is that it secretly hides its opposite – punishment. Good behaviour is rewarded, bad behaviour punished. If a child passes an exam, he or she is rewarded. However, if the child does not pass the exam the reward is withdrawn, which in effect, is punishing the child for "bad behaviour". What's more, a reward is also a bribe for a child to make him or her modify his or her behaviour. If the child modifies his or her behaviour to get one reward, then the next time you want him or her to pass an exam you have to offer another reward. And, what is worse, it has to be a better reward. So if your first reward was an X-Box it is clear where that path leads!

But there are more subtle and subversive reasons why rewards are negative. A reward system simply takes away value from the exam or level that is being studied for. The child is only studying for the reward, not for the knowledge needed to pass an exam or level. Worse, it creates anxiety. The disappointment a child might experience when they don't get the X-Box promised might only cause resentment and a negative response to the reward offer the next time for fear of not getting it. Better than rewards are spontaneous celebrations – if your child passes an exam, take them out for a pizza, but never give anything that looks like a reward because then your child will ask "…and what will you give me if I pass the history exam?"