Backfiring Incentives

I don’t know many kids that enjoy washing dishes, vacuuming, or doing laundry.  Most parents get their kids to do these things by providing incentives, which can take many forms.  Some parents give their kids an allowance, others threaten to take away privileges.  There are also those kids for whom the desire to please their parents is a sufficient stimulus.  But at the end of the day, the kids are doing a chore and their goal (as well as that of the parent) is to get the job done, not to enjoy the process or fall in love with it.

But what if we want to expose our kids to something we hope they will take a liking to?  How should our process of providing motivation change, if at all?  Do certain incentives signal to the kid that something must be a chore?  For example, if I tell my kid, “You can watch a minute of cartoons for every minute you spend reading”, does that give her a sense that reading must not be fun?  (They KNOW that watching cartoons is fun.)

On the other hand, reading (as well as many other interesting and ultimately rewarding pastimes) has a steep learning curve, and some encouragement is almost certainly needed at the beginning.  Ideally, the end result would be a strong incentive in itself, such as finding out how a story ends or discovering the solution to a fun problem.  However, depending on how hard the task is and on the kid, this may not be a sufficient motivator.

When pondering over such questions, one naturally starts to reminisce about personal experiences and recall stories told by friends. Growing up, I had a friend who was forced to read for 45 minutes each day before being allowed to watch any TV. Fortunately, she ended up falling in love with reading and as an adult is now one of the most voracious readers I know. On the other hand, I had a number of friends whose parents made them practice the piano or violin on a daily basis, and they grew up absolutely hating the instruments.

So how do we make sure that our incentives do not achieve the inverse effect from the intended one?  Nothing happens in a single day and it’s probably a perpetual balancing act. How do you incentivize your kids?  What works for you and what have you found to be counter-productive?

About aofradkin

I enjoy thinking about presenting mathematical concepts to young children in exciting and engaging ways.
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10 Responses to Backfiring Incentives

  1. Annabelle says:

    I thought about this when my children were just born and so I incentivized them with things that weren’t typicsl. If you clean your toys, we will do math together. You were bad today, no math, and my kids would cry. They are being raised to see math in the equivalent as how other kids see candy. It’s been a bit more difficult now that they interact with other kids bc they say things from their parents like: eww math, but I try to “brainwash” her friends too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bovetsky says:

      This sounds absolutely fantastic, but, probably, should be a norm. Especially if you find things that are more interesting to your kids than others or you want to develop particular skills – playing music, reading etc. Thanks for the great idea.

      Liked by 1 person

    • aofradkin says:

      That’s definitely a great idea, and I also try to make math seem fun so that my kids will want to do it themselves. It has worked with math (for the most part) but reading has been a bit more difficult. My older one gets tired very quickly when reading and so it hasn’t become fun yet (even though she really likes stories). I try to incentivise it by reading her several pages for every one that she reads. My mom did that with me when I was little, and I think ultimately it worked fairly well.


  2. Kathy says:

    We sometimes offer incentives specifically to help our kids through that tough phase when they’re not skilled enough to enjoy something.

    For example, David avoided reading books when he first started reading because he was super slow, which made the reading unpleasant. So, I offered him some $ per page (e.g., 1 cent for an easy book, 4 cents for a book with more words per page, etc. Bonus = he got pretty good at multiplication!) Now he’s a pretty good reader and doesn’t get that anymore. Instead, he gets the pleasure of reading a book smile emoticon.

    These days he gets a star for each MOEMS problem he solves, and he’s using stars to earn a toy he really wants (which, sshhh, I would have given him anyway.)

    It hasn’t backfired on us yet. I think one reason is that the kids know this is specifically to encourage them through something hard. They call it something like “earn toys for doing hard things.” Another reason is that it’s really a game, ultimately. The incentive is never enough to make them do something they truly don’t want to do. (I even do this to myself, so it’s not like I’m mistreating the kids. Write dissertation for five minutes … eat an M&M.)

    We only do this for specific things that are challenging. Generally, I agree, we do things because they’re good for us, or they’re important, or we enjoy them.


    • aofradkin says:

      Kathy, I can’t get myself to offer my kids money for reading, although I definitely agree with you that they sometimes need a little push at the beginning. Not that I think that there’s anything intrisically wrong with it :-), and if in the end they end up enjoying the activity I think it’s totally worth it. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I usually reward them for reading themselves by reading to them (where them for now equals just Katie :-).

      As for rewarding yourself with M&Ms while writing your dissertation, I can totally relate! I totally used to need similar incentives when writing my thesis (mine usually consisted of computer games rather than M&Ms though :-).


  3. Oksana says:

    Sasha, I often think about it, because I personally don’t like the idea of incentives. And main reason for it is, as you said, it just helps to get the job done. It’s not inner motivation. If my child is not allowed to play video games, for example, she will not get to play them no matter what. But if I am ok with her watching something fun, she can watch it again no matter if she did “chores”. That said, she is always ready to help with whatever I might need, just because she feels her importance, my appreciation, how grown she became. She has her personal goal to learn playing piano (particularly “Fur Elise” ☺️), so sometimes I have to remind that she needs to practice regularly to gain those skills. And that is the only incentive, reaching her own goal. Same with other learning. If I insist on something, I try to explain why it’s important.


    • aofradkin says:

      I know that trying to please me is definitely an incentive for Katie sometimes – I’m not good at hiding what makes me happy :-). I don’t mind it happening once in a while, but I wouldn’t want it to become the main motivator for an activity, especially one that I want her to have positive associations with.


  4. We have tried many of the typical reward/punishment systems (star charts, demerits, bribes, threats, payment, equivalence, etc.) Ultimately, different situations will call for different approaches, but I often return to Joseph Greny’s work on sources of motivation. In brief:
    (1) personal motivation: does the child want to do this thing? There are many ways to work on this, ranging from making the activity more fun (playing a cleaning game together, reading a book on a topic they love) to explaining why it is an important activity (often, doing research together to find out why other people value it has a bigger impact than just having an adult tell).

    (2) Personal skill: does the child know how to do it? At first, the answer is certainly no, so someone helps with training. Ideally, the training is done patiently and with a lot of humor. Ideally . . .!

    (3) Social influences: do the attitudes and actions of the people around encourage the child to do this activity? The easiest is to do the activity yourself to model it and to show that it is/can be fun. Also, kids all want to be like adults and will try to copy. In some cases, you have to intervene to take away or counter a negative influence.

    (4) Structural influences: is the environment and the schedule conducive to encouraging the child to do this activity? If their books are all around, they will read, if construction toys are in their normal living space, they will build, if the piano is right where they enter the house, they will play music, etc. Conversely, if the schedule is already full, don’t be surprised if the kids never practice their instruments (or read, or whatever).

    With that context, there is strong evidence that external rewards ultimately can make people devalue or overlook the intrinsic rewards of an activity, even something they started out enjoying for its own sake. It is really dangerous if that is the primary driver. However, when we have goals that are important to us, it is important to use all the tools at our disposal and not just rely on willpower. If that means consciously and intentionally supplementing with an external reward, that’s fine. In the parent-child context, that ideally means helping the kids identify what is important to them (even if it takes some convincing) and then working together to consciously create a plan that covers the sources of influence to help them succeed.

    Ok, so that’s the theory, what about the practice?

    I find the greatest mileage in three tactics:
    Social influence: if I want them to do something, I do it. For example, I play violin when my kids are taking their evening bath. that massively increases the frequency when they practice without prodding.
    Structural influence: remove impediments and make time available. This takes awareness, but usually doesn’t take much time to fix.
    Direct motivation: if I want them to do something, I really try to make it pleasant and make myself pleasant around them doing it.

    As in every other part of parenting, this is something we don’t do perfectly, but at least we try to get better over time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When we do work outside of the family that brings money into the family, we share the money. The incentive for cooking is that we have food and the incentive for washing dishes is that the kitchen is clean. But sometimes we arrange playful celebrations, for example, buy a blooming orchid to decorate the room after a deep and thorough cleaning.

    I like to “gamify” life, because incentives and celebrations can work great as task management tools. But they should be under the control of whoever is getting them.

    With children, the power imbalance can very easily mess up consent. So I am trying to be extra careful around anything that invokes power.


  6. David says:

    When my wife was a girl, she liked reading so much that her mother could get her to clean her room by telling her she couldn’t read until she did!

    Also, her brother loved playing the piano, and when he got grumpy, their mother would tell him he had to practice. And then he wouldn’t be grumpy any more!


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