More on Incentives and Rewards

Dear Reader,

I 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 issue since then. In the Wall Street Journal (read it here), I read a book review discussing how rewards and prizes in our society have run amok. The article points out that there is some economic reason behind this. That is, subdividing the marketplace into narrower and narrower categories gives every customer their niche and hopefully leads to more buying (from the marketer’s perspective of course).  But what about the proliferation of prizes i, for example, a high school? No longer is it just valedictorians. Now there are prizes for many different achievements so that none will feel left out. And I wonder if part of the problem is that as we use more and more incentives and rewards, we need to keep escalating the prizes. What  worked once may no longer be enough. And so the next time the payoff must be bigger. And when it comes to parenting, this is where negotiations begin. The kids come to see the reward as their right and ask for more and more.

This is what worries me about buying my kids’ good behavior in the grocery store. If a treat is promised once to assure good behavior, what will happen next time? What if we can’t afford a treat or choose not to get it for some other reason? Or what if the next need is good behavior at the doctor’s office? Will the good behavior from the store translate into another scenario or will I just have to buy my kids off again? That is the problem with incentives. The incentive becomes the goal and what should have been the goal (the good behavior) is lost. It is only a by-product and if the incentive is gone, then so is the good behavior.

The second place I ran into the idea of incentives was in Ted Tripp’s book Shepherding a Child’s Heart. In the introduction, he says that bosses have come to use incentives more and more for their workers because the workers no longer just respond to them as authority figures. This is part of a larger point he is making about how our society has lost its sense of and respect for authority. So here the use of incentives is seen as the opposite of authority. And I think this can be seen in parenting quite well. If I have authority over my children and if they recognize and respect that fact, then they will obey because I tell them to do (or not do) something. If I have to sue incentives, I do not have authority. They are obeying for the bribe, not because they recognize my authority over them. Furthermore, I think the use (or overuse) of incentives over time erodes  or undermines authority. It shifts the focus away from simple obedience and once again the goals are shifted. The outward result might appear the same, at least for a time. But true authority has been lost.


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