The Use of Incentives

Dear Reader,

I was reading here how incentives don’t seem to work in motivating students. I have found this recently in my own life. Our adult Sunday school class began studying a new book a few weeks ago. In an effort to get more participation, the pastor has been assigning homework and checking up on it. Every week we are to read one chapter and write out answers to the questions that go with it. Those who are faithful in this will receive another book as a prize at the end. Now having to read at least is not new. Our previous study was of another book and there was a chapter to read every week. And I did read it. I don’t think there was a time when we were there when I had not read the chapter. But this time, I can’t seem to force myself to do the homework. Mostly I read the chapters, but I don’t do the questions. Something about it being an assignment makes me not want to do it.

I have had similar thoughts about how rewards affect our work when we visit museums. Some museums will have scavenger hunts for kids to do as they go through the galleries. While on the one hand, I appreciate that the museum has taken time to put something together and has an interest in having kids visit (some don’t and just snarl at groups of kids coming in, you kn0w), I also have mixed feelings about these sorts of activities. If my children are truly not interested, a scavenger hunt can get them to focus and look at displays and maybe learn something. But just as often a scavenger hunt, which usually includes some sort of small prize at the end for finishing it, will keep them from fully appreciating what they are seeing. They become focused on getting the answers on their sheet and getting their prize and do not look as well at anything that they are not required to find.

I did use an incentive to good effect a few weeks ago, I think. We had to take my youngest daughter to the allergist which I was told ahead of time would be a long appointment. I debated finding someone to watch the other kids but in the end that didn’t work out. So I took all four with me. I told them that if they behaved themselves quietly in the waiting room then we would have a special (read: fast food) lunch and go to a play area nearby. They behaved and got their reward. This is not the sort of thing we usually do. I do not, for instance, buy them treats for behaving in the grocery store. That is just expected behavior and I don’t think it deserves a reward. But the allergist was a one time thing and so I did the reward and I think it worked well.

I guess the difference to me is that it was a one-time thing. We may have to go back to the allergist or other similar appointments but it is not an everyday or every week sort  of outing. I needed one time good behavior and I go it. If I had been aiming for long-term goals, I do not think a reward would have worked so well. When there is a reward for something, I think the reward becomes the focus and the main goal or activity is lost. I remember children in my high school being very competitive about getting good grades. There was quite a race to be valedictorian. But I don’t think any of us really cared about learning. The reward (good grades and recognition by peers) had replaced what should have been the real goal, learning. The times when we as a family use rewards and incentives tend to be times when I think, “I just need to get through this.” Times like the allergist’s appointment which was supposed to be so long or perhaps long car trips (when my dad died, we had to drive 600 miles unexpectedly without being able to prepare the kids or pack well so again our mindset was “we just have to get through this”). When I have a longer perspective, like on those trips to the grocery store, my goal is to produce regular good behavior. It is not just about this trip but about learning to behave in public and having to do it again next week. Then I think rewards can short-circuit the main goal.

So how do you use (or not use) incentives in your house? And I would love to hear especially how others inspire their kids to take pride in their work and to do their best job without the use of rewards (which really produce not pride in one’s work but reward-seeking anyway).



2 responses to this post.

  1. […] posted recently on the use of incentives (see here) and when I think they work and don’t work. A couple of things have made me revisit this […]


  2. […] result is that one’s innate love of learning is suppressed (Gatto, pp. 100, 123; and see this post on the use of incentives). Testing, and particularly standardized testing, largely contributes to […]


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