One possible solution, Julie


Our early attempts at bribery were simple. Wash the dishes, and you can have a popsicle. Don’t fight with your brother, or there will be no dessert. Simple; and for some children, effective.

There are problems with such a system. The number of chores and mandates — do the dishes, do your homework, practice piano, brush your teeth, don’t fight with your siblings, and so on — vastly exceeds the number of possible bribes. This undercuts the effective power of simple bribery: Tiny bribes are unconvincing, and big bribes can’t always be matched to tasks.

Also, bribery has to fit with punishment. Punishments cannot be so draconian as to remove all further incentives; punishments should deter bad behavior, in a way that also allows for rearding for good behavior; they also have to allow for added punishment for increased misbehavior. Defenestration is not an option.

Time to build a better bribe.

A few months ago, we started an experiment, born out of frustration from yet another day of repeatedly asking the kids to do the same things. On the spur of the moment, I dubbed the system Warbucks. (Yes, like in Annie.) Kids earn Warbucks for doing chores, as set out on a predetermined pay chart. Once they’ve got enough bucks, they can go shopping in the War Chest, which is a big plastic tub with toys, goodies, and so on.

It’s taken a few weeks to calibrate the system, but at present it seems to be working rather well. So we have a pay chart with items like:

Practice Piano (20 minutes): 2 bucks
Take out trash (1 large bag) 2 bucks
Brush teeth (morning) 1 buck
Brush teeth (evening) 1 buck
Complete homework Varies, usually 3-5 bucks
Clean bathroom floor 2 bucks
Wash and dry a load of laundry 2 bucks
Fold and put away load of laundry 2 bucks
Take a bath / shower 2 bucks
Load dishwasher 3 bucks
Unload dishwasher 2 bucks
Make bed 1 buck

And so on.

There are also family bucks — things that give bucks to everyone, like family prayer (1 buck). And in one of my more devious moments, I added Bonus Bucks — bucks that all three kids get when all three have completed some chore. This encourages the kids to remind their siblings to brush teeth, for instance.

And of course there are penalties.

Whining -2 bucks
Grumpiness -2 bucks
Loud yelling or screaming -2 bucks
Chewing clothing -2 bucks
Messy bedroom -5 bucks
Creating messes and not cleaning them up -5 bucks
Arguing or squabbling -5 bucks
Talking back -5 bucks
Meanness -5 bucks
Hitting or Fighting -10 bucks
Lying -10 bucks

After that, we printed up some currency — simple cardstock bills in different denominations, using different colors for different kinds of bills, to make for easier use. The kids earn their bucks daily.

The prizes are the really fun part. A partial list:

Lollipop 5 bucks
Tootsie Roll 5 bucks
Smarties 10 bucks
Balloon 10 bucks
Princess earring stickers (per pair) 10 bucks
Blow-Pop 20 bucks
Page of stickers 20 bucks
Peanut butter cup 20 bucks
Hair band 20 bucks
Bag of gummy bears 25 bucks
Bag of goldfish 25 bucks
Mini-size candy bar 25 bucks
Colored pencil 30 bucks
Pudding cup 30 bucks
Matchbox car 30 bucks
Bag of Oreos 30 bucks
Bag of chips 30 bucks
Bag of Teddy Grahams 30 bucks
Sidewalk chalk 35 bucks
Scoop of ice cream 40 bucks
Fun-size candy bar 40 bucks
Small Play Dough 50 bucks
Popsicle 50 bucks
Can of soda 50 bucks
Small toy airplane 60 bucks
Twisty pencil 60 bucks
Tennis ball 60 bucks
Regular-size candy bar 60 bucks
PEZ dispenser 80 bucks
Finger paint (one container) 80 bucks
Coloring book 80 bucks
Trip to AM/PM to get a candy bar and soda 100 bucks

We try to keep the war chest stocked with things the kids really want. We occasionally have one-day sales on some item, or limited-time increases in pay. Want the living room cleaned, really fast? Announce triple warbucks for cleaning, for the next hour only.

The administration gets a little burdensome, sometimes. (I eventually announced a “one-trip-to-the-bank-per-day” rule after the boys repeatedly asked to trade up the next denomination every time they hit it.) But the kids seem to be enjoying it, and it seems to be working. It’s helped even out some of the rewards and punishments we give, and allowed for more finely calibrated responses. And it’s worked very well for our wild and rambunctious middle child, who seems a lot like yours. Threatening to (future) take away toys or privileges is often too vague and intangible for this child, who lives entirely in the present and never worries about the future. Fining him warbucks _right now_ has proved to be a great way to curb bad behavior.

I don’t know how it will end up, long-term. I suspect we’ll continue to tinker with the regime. But for now, it’s working pretty well.

31 comments for “One possible solution, Julie

  1. Sarah
    April 28, 2007 at 10:42 am

    I like the idea of bribe systems. My dad used one when I was a kid that proved very frustrating, though: I started out with a certain number of points (200) that were worth a penny each. Every week I got a dollar that I could spend no matter what, and I could get up to two dollars more if I did a big list of stuff that he gave me to do — but each thing that I didn’t do, took .10 off the list. Trouble was, there were 14 daily chores and 3 more weekly chores: not doing anything in a week meant being in the hole by about $10. Even if I made my bed every morning, did my homework before dinner every night, and kept my craft table clear of clutter all week, I’d still be at -$8.

    Suffice to say I had a $1 weekly allowance for about two years, and nothing on that list got done with anything approaching regularity. He finally gave up when I became a teenager, and changed it to a “I’ll give you five bucks a week, for which you will comply with various requirements upon penalty of being yelled at, and you can also earn more if you do something big” system. Which worked great, since I was old enough to actually appreciate the money. Though I’ve never learned to keep my room clean, and I make my bed about twice a year. ^_^

    (Question: how do you handle the achievement/penalty moment? I’d go crazy trying to determine if three children are being grumpy or not, and I think a key part of any chore setup ought to be “they manage to get it done without me telling them to do it right now.” Are they motivated enough to come up and ask for their rewards? And do you threaten penalties for “grumpiness” and “meanness” if the behavior continues, or at random when they’re caught, or when someone turns them in…)

  2. paula
    April 28, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Yeah, I think that the big problem with this that at some point, the bribes just can’t be interesting enough to win compliance. And, well, then they also become teenagers, and bribes can be pretty hard to work with then.

    One thing I did on rules, not so much chores, that worked with my oldest son was to ask him what he thought the rule should be. So if he wanted to know how late he could stay out, I’d ask him what would make sense. I overheard him once telling a friend that it was worse than having us set the rules because then he couldn’t be rebelling against us. And interestingly enough, he often set his rules more stringently than we would have. (But I’m sure you think that your kids are far far away from teenagerhood.:) )

  3. April 28, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    I have to say I’m pretty dubious of bribery/punishment systems as a whole, but I do think they can work–even with fairly young children–in situations where the expected duties are very clearly laid out and understood, and the criteria for accomplishing them are obvious and not subject to debate. (As you might expect, in our family, debating is not at all infrequent, even amongst our three-year-old!) We reward our children for practicing the piano, for example. It seems to be working fairly well.

  4. April 28, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    I tried the “point system” for a while, with J getting points for doing his chores, etc, and then he could pick a toy once he got enough points. It lasted about 2 days. I gave up after this conversation:

    Mom: “If you make your bed by yourself, I’ll give you 10 points”

    J: “I’ll give you 11 points if you make it for me.”

  5. April 28, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    A reward system is great, although yours sounds fairly complex, and as a result the kids won’t have to be very old before it feels litigous. And it won’t work beyond about age 12 in most cases. We do a star chart now, and when the stars become passe we’ll add something groovy to an accumulation of stars. I don’t like take-aways myself.

    An often-asked question is, why reward them for what they are expected to do? I thought about the example of Heavenly Father. He has basic expectations of us, and blesses us when we comply with his desires. Hopefully we follow Him out of love, not just to get the prize, but we may need that carrot to get us going. Children need the promise of a reward just as we do when we are spiritually immature.

  6. JKS
    April 29, 2007 at 3:14 am

    My kids get points for chores/homework, etc. I started it because my oldest gets punished A LOT, but her younger brother doesn’t. However, she does twice as many good things than her brother. She ought to get rewarded for her good behavior (and acknowleged for her good character traits) as much as she gets punished for her bad behavior and corrected for her natural weaknesses.
    We’ve been doing it for almost two years and still going strong. Her “prizes” for 50 points cost about a dollar. Which means she brushes her teeth for a mere 2 cents, and unloads the dishwasher for a mere 2 cents and practices the piano for 8 cents. She can amass an amazing amount of points, though, since things like finishing a chapter book can be done as often as she likes and she’s just such a fast working kid.
    My son would lose interest–fast–in point getting. He recently became interested again, but it probably won’t last long. But who knows, he may be old enough to start getting motivated.
    What works for me is having kids be old enough to put down their own points. We are in a split level house, so there isn’t a perfect location for writing down points. My 9 year old is old enough to keep track on her own. I recently gave my son a list so he would know what was worth what and can write down his own points.

  7. ukann
    April 29, 2007 at 3:41 am

    I used a points system for all my kids (now grown) that seemed to work well except for eldest son. He was just so darn lazy. His point of view was that he’d rather do without the treat/cash. He is now self-employed as a web designer, works a couple of days a week – enough the pay the rent and buy food. He concedes that if he worked a full week he could afford to have buy a home, etc, but isn’t interested. He once took me down the logic path of being rich enough to only work a couple of days a week, which is what he does now! I still can’t figure if I should have been tougher on him and got him to work more – but nature will out.

  8. Not Ophelia
    April 29, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Rewards work in the short term. In the long term they can be [are] harmful.

    I’d highly recommend This book it’s a fascinating/disturbing look into the long term consequences of reward systems.

  9. Julie M. Smith
    April 29, 2007 at 11:56 am


    Thanks for your post. We have occasionally used formal reward systems with this child. We now do something informal–TV/computer/gameboy time is at night, and if your chores and schoolwork aren’t done, you don’t get it until they are.

    Not Ophelia: I agree that at a certain point (or done in a certain way) rewards systems can be harmful. But I’ve read that book and the guy is, to put it politely, nutters. Thinking that children shouldn’t be praised and adults shouldn’t get incentive pay strikes me as having a basic misunderstanding of how humans work.

  10. Eve
    April 29, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Before we start in on whether Aflie Cohn is a loon, may I quickly propose that we appoint Kaimi, obviously so experienced in these matters, to administer the following Bloggernacle Bucks:

    Abortion, SSM, patriarchy, Iraq, and the precise line of demaracation on a woman’s kneecap at which modesty becomes pornography -.50 per mention
    Insults -5 bucks per
    Apostasy, unrighteousness, other spiritual incapacity -5 bucks per accusation of
    Posting as Prudence McPrude, Miranda Park Jones, or any three names followed by “III” -1 buck
    Excessive Use of Caps Lock -1 buck
    Emoticon Abuse -2 bucks
    Snarkiness -5 bucks
    Whining about others’ snarkiness -10 bucks
    Mentioning Bannergate -20 bucks
    Taking the DKL Bait–no penalty. It’s its own punishment.
    (You know I love you DKL, and I’m confident you’ll take this as the tribute it is.)

  11. obi-wan
    April 29, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Thinking that children shouldn’t be praised and adults shouldn’t get incentive pay strikes me as having a basic misunderstanding of how humans work.

    Right. Exactly. As long as you think the results in Enron and Qualcomm were good ones.

  12. meems
    April 29, 2007 at 9:10 pm

    Julie, my friend went to a lecture by Alfie Kohn, the author of that book you all are talking about. Afterwards, she went up to him and said, “Great talk! I really enjoyed it!” He said, “Thanks!” She said, “(pause) I’ll bet that felt good, didn’t it.”

    (I believe the author then smirked at her, according to her story). hehe!

  13. meems
    April 29, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Eve… you are too funny!!!

  14. Julie M. Smith
    April 29, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    meems, that is a great story and I agree with you about Eve’s comment!

  15. another sister
    April 29, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Usually I lurk, but I can\’t help myself…
    Alma 42: 22
    22 But there is a law given, and a apunishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the claw, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
    D&C 130: 20
    20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

    My kids are grown, we bribed them to teach them correct principles, and they learned them pretty well. Our system was simpler than Kaimi\’s, but then, we\’re not lawyers.
    IMHO, techniques in parenting don\’t matter nearly as much as love, example and consistency in discipline.

  16. Julie M. Smith
    April 29, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Thank you, another sister. I think you have pinned down the issue very well–please stay out of lurkdom!

  17. Not Ophelia
    April 30, 2007 at 8:35 am

    meems, I think your friend missed the point. Sure, the praise was nice, but he didn’t give the lecture in order to receive her praise. To me the crucial difference is: am I trying to manipulate my kids in to doing x, or is my praise/encouragement just a secondary thing.

    Case in point: my daughter and my niece. Now they’re about the same age, but their attitude about books and learning differs markedly. We read to k, showed her it was something that was part of life, like eating dinner or talking [or making your bed in the morning.] Now k reads widely and amazingly — picks up this or that because she thinks it’s interesting. My niece OTOH, only reads if their is an ‘A’ out their somewhere to earn . [And her parents despair.]

  18. obi-wan
    April 30, 2007 at 8:55 am

    Thank you, another sister. I think you have pinned down the issue very well

    Actually, I’d say she missed the point entirely.

    The fact that there are causal results to both spiritual and physical actions, to either jumping off a cliff or committing murder, is largely beside the point. Moral agents are fashioned to act, not to be acted upon. All of our doctrine of progression is based upon the capacity to act out of a personal conviction to do what is right, rather than acting on the external motivation of gaining rewards and avoiding punishments. The former makes for Celestial glory, the latter for Telestial. At no time can I see Jehovah saying “Oh, if I do my Father’s will, I will get a lollipop!”

    It seems to me that Kohn is spot on, both practically and (LDS) doctrinally: teaching people to do the right things for the wrong reasons always backfires in the long run.

  19. Steve
    April 30, 2007 at 9:34 am

    I have considered, and even tried in small doses, similar reward systems. I haven’t liked them for two reasons; one is practical, the other “theoretical.”

    Practical: It just takes too much energy and time. I would come home and find my children giving me a list of what they earned, or what their siblings lost. And then you get into issues like what to do about a job not well done. What if they practice their musical instruments poorly, without effort or care? What if the bed is poorly made? It turns everything into negoations about cost/value. And kids watch each-other and may feel that in a moment of weakness (I have many) that I was inconsistent in how points were rewarded.

    I am sure that some of you bloggers are familiar with the works of educator Alfie Kohn, who believes that doing good is its own reward. He believes (and cites much research to support it) that giving bribes or rewards for a task demeans the task itself, and makes a child (or adult) dislike it. If I need to be paid to practice an instrument, it suggests that practicing is not naturally worthwhile. (Dr. Kohn was once asked to evaluate a program proposed by Pizza Hut which rewarded children with pizza for reading books during the summer. His opinion was that it would result in a lot of fat kids who hate to read.)

    In other words, the reward for cleaning your room is… a clean room. The reward for reading is enjoying a good book. etc, etc. I have given my children allowance from time to time, but I have never tied it to behavior. I have a fifteen year-old son right now who LOVES to race his bike, but doesn’t like to play the violin. We have agreed for now that I will support his bike habit (its EXPENSIVE and TIME CONSUMING) if he will cheerfully play his violin. I should say that he sort-of likes his violin, and I enjoy watching him race. However, I worry that this “bribe” will ultimately undermine his interest in music. Of course what I really hope is that it will keep him playing until he gets old enough to appreciate his talent.

    The theoretical issue is this: I don’t want my kids to think that they only have to do things if I pay them to do it. No-one pays me to do the laundry, the lawn, the dishes. Why should I pay my kids to do those things? Chores are a part of life and should not be paid-for. I will pay my children for extra-ordinary effort. Occasionally, when they want to buy something, they might ask me if there is anything that needs to get done, and I’ll pay them to do something big. But I don’t like the idea of paying my kids to do basic chores.

  20. Julie M. Smith
    April 30, 2007 at 9:51 am

    I think one thing that the Kohn supporters are missing is this:

    Many children don’t give a _______ whether their room is clean. But their parents do. In other words, from the get-go, without any parental intervention, they are already not intrinsically motivated. In that case, what is the best way for a parent to go about getting that room clean? I don’t think a reward system is inappropriate in this case. (In our house, you don’t get your screen time until your chores are done.)

    At the same time, I do agree (and have read the research suggesting) that activities for which a child is intrinsically motivated, a reward system can diminish or even destroy that motivation. So, yes, some kids will stop reading after they earn their pizza–even if they liked to read before.

    This is why parenting is so dang complicated. But to take Kohn’s route and suggest that rewards are always inappropriate is, again, lunacy. I’d like to invite Kohn over here and watch him convince my five year to clean his room without a light at the end of the tunnel.

    (And those of you trumpeted the LDS theology card should look up that talk by, er, Elder Cantrememberrightnow about trying to win the award on his paper route even though he didn’t actually care about the prize.)

  21. Steve
    April 30, 2007 at 9:51 am

    I made the mistake of posting before reading all the comments. (I am usually more of a lurker than a poster.) I have to make another plug for Alfie Kohn. Julie suggested that he is a “nutter” because he doesn’t like things like incentive pay.

    So let me say a few things about it.

    I work as a physician in an academic setting. One of the hospitals that I work at has instituted a strict incentive program, and it has been widely unpopular and criticized. It seems like it is a program developed by MBAs and thrust onto physicians. It seems like it never occured to the MBAs that other types of people might have other kinds of motivations than they have.) Here are some of the results of the incenstive program:

    1. Physicians are less likely to collaborate or help each-other out with difficult cases. Because only one of us gets “credit” for a procedure, then we have a dis-incentive to collaborate.

    2. Teaching now is even more devalued, because we don’t get paid for it. Now that our salaries are strictly tied to seeing patients, it is becomming much much harder to get people to teach. Recently, a co-worker of mine was told by his boss to stop teaching a course if he planned on “paying for your daughter’s college.)

    3. Increased cynism, as some seem to “game” the system towards getting larger incentives.

    You might say, “well that incentive system is poorly planned, so of course it isn’t working.” My response is that ALL incentive programs are deeply flawed. Dr. Kohn would argue that the best way to get the most out of your employee is to assume that they don’t hate their jobs, and that if you foster an environment that encourages productivity, that most will respond very well.

    You should know that my children attend a school (by our choice) that doesn’t give grades to chidren. (K-6) Our children are constantly evaluated, but they never get grades. I am sure that you wouldn’t be surprised to know that Alfie Kohn has been to our school several times, and of course he loves it.

  22. Steve
    April 30, 2007 at 9:57 am

    So let me say something about the room cleaning thing. Part of the problem Julie is that your child is only 5.

    My oldest daughter (now in college) finally started making her bed when she was about 14. Before that, getting her to clean her room and make her bed was a challenge. There was an expectation to have the bed made before breakfast, but not a rule. When her room became unbearably messy then my wife or I would clean it with them. As we did it, we would point things out like this: “Oh, look, here’s that Lego you were looking for.” And so on. When the room was clean and neat we would read a story to her on her made and clean bed, and say “Isn’t it nice to be in a clean room? You know where everything is, and it just feels good doesn’t it?” It took 10 years to to work, but we never paid her to do it.

    So give it time, give it time. Of course your five year-old doesn’t get it. He won’t get it for $5 either.

  23. Julie M. Smith
    April 30, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Steve, I never claimed that all incentive programs are good, and it sounds like the one you know stinks. But a stinky incentive program doesn’t prove that all incentive programs stink. My husband likes his job more than most people, but explain to me why he would put in an extra 20 hours per week during a crunch time–hours that come out of our family’s life and/or his recreation time–if there were no compensation for it? If you think most people will work for the sheer joy of it, I’ll link you some pictures of Chinese peasants asleep in their fields during Mao’s day. Where there is no incentive, the people perish.

    Barring some really interesting counterarguments, I’m going to bow out of this conversation at this point because I have no incentive to stay in and a lot of other things to do today. But I think many of you are very naive about children and workers if you think they are going to do work for you for the sheer joy of mopping or making widgets.

  24. April 30, 2007 at 10:46 am

    “But I think many of you are very naive about children and workers if you think they are going to do work for you for the sheer joy of mopping or making widgets.”

    Truer words were never read by this former widget maker.

  25. Steve
    April 30, 2007 at 10:53 am

    Julie: we probably agree much more that brief blogs allow us to understand.

    Here is what I sort of think:

    Incentives are more useful in some carrers than others. Sales comes to mind as being somewhat incentive minded. Medicine is probably one of the worst areas for incentives. Do you want your doctor to have a financial incentive in doing, or not doing any particular test or treatment? In fact those incentives are always there to some degree, but they can be “naked” or they can be subdued a bit.

    Some jobs are not very rewarding, and so incentives make more sense. The might include manual labor or dangerous jobs. So I guess that I am not an Alfie Kohn purist.

    Of course those who work longer and harder deserve more money and compensation for doing that. But your husband (and you) might enjoy a more thoughtful approach than: “We will work the @#$% out of our employees and give them lots of money.” Perhaps your husband would be happier if his employers found ways to decrease his work load (such as hiring seasonal workers). Or perhaps he doesn’t mind the extra work, and extra pay. The point is, a good boss will work this out with his employees, again fostering a healthy work environment.

    But many many incentive programs are not thoughtful and become punitive: Many work like this: you will do X amount of work this year. If you do X + Y, then you will get more money. However, next year, you will be expected to do X+Y (it becomes the new baseline), and you then need to do Z to get a bonus… and then you find yourself on a treadmill.

  26. April 30, 2007 at 11:07 am

    We had 6. We tried everything. We had reward systems [they’re not hungry or needy enough] and confiscation of abandoned articles to be redeemed according to a graduated scale of value [they’ve already got all the ones they need]; we had threats [they knew we wouldn’t damage them]; we had promises [they didn’t need most of what we could promise, or they could get it themselves]; we had chore wheels and collections of tokens for redemption [how silly is that, mom]; we had “groundings” [amazing what they can invent in the solitude of their rooms]. We even had reasoning, and owning my own feelings of pique at the state of the place and why I felt that way, and trusting to their care about my feelings [sometimes they did].

    We had one public area of the house each to look after, plus our own bedrooms [on the basis that if they wanted to live that way, they could in private, but the public areas had to be relatively acceptable, but not immaculate and Mom would lend a hand]; we had one night a week each to cook for 8 and wash the dishes on the same night [encourages tidy cooking, and no, we didn’t have a dishwasher – I’ve never had one – why do you think we had all those children…] [and I know there are only 7 days, Dad only cooked when it was “chips bolognaise” – don’t ask].

    Actually, reason worked best. It didn’t get everyting done, but it has fewer hazards than one loss of cool I recall. I had waded into a repeatedly trashed common bedroom, after repeatedly having asked, then assigned, then commanded, then roared that it must be sorted, got down on the floor and started picking things up while assigning specific acts to others, and some were still not complying, so I picked up a table tennis bat and swatted the nearest plump little backside and said “Get on with it!” or some such. Ten years later when my daughter was one of the students in a psychology class I was teaching at the local college, she recalled, in a lesson on behaviourist learning principles, that “well, you used to hit us with a table tennis bat”. Memory is a constructive process, not a digital image. Reason has fewer hazards.

    And they’ve grown up to be the best cooks and cleaners and caretakers in their student houses, and are in the process of teaching partners and their own kids how to do it. The two with kids of their own are terrific parents. You win if you wait long enough.

  27. Space Chick
    April 30, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    Paula, once the teenagers are driving age, bribery is again an option. As in, I keep the car keys until you have finished your chores. And if you’ve messed up, either the car keys OR the computer OR the Playstation are gone. Best handle ever.

  28. Western Dave
    April 30, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    If the incentives were based on patient success/survival rate, wouldn’t that change things? But then teaching still gets the shaft, unless the success rate of your students counts towards your success. Likewise you could promote collaboration by letting up to x people share credit. Or count the hospital’s rate as a whole. But then they won’t take difficult cases, but should every hospital strive to take difficult cases? Shouldn’t difficult cases be referred to ultra-specialists who might work on a different set of criteria? (repeat ad nauseum) Yes, reward systems have the tendency to create busy litttle workers and diminish creativity, but they can also work wonders for helping people acheive what they didn’t know they wanted (like a clean room) or instill habits of a lifetime. The problem with Kohn and his critics is that they misunderstand that different folks are motivated by different things and that most of us (including children) are too complex to fit into any single scheme that will work all the time. Throw two kids into the equation and the chances of such a system acheiving the desired results with all the kids go even further downhill. Your school succeeds largely because it is self-selecting. Many kids would go nuts in that environment becasue they need lots of transparent concrete external evaluation (them: is this B on this paper an 84, an 85, or an 86? me: is knowing that going to help you write a better thesis next time? them: grumble, grumble, grumble.)

  29. MikeInWeHo
    April 30, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    Whether we (and Mr. Kohn) like it or not, we live in a hyper-competitive capitalist society. The idea of winners and losers is woven throughout the fabric. Perhaps parents who set up little currency-based behavioral economies are just preparing their kids for the real world ahead.

    Or maybe they’re setting them up for poor self-esteem and depression down the road. I once knew a man who’s father is a highly successful CEO-type. He used elaborate incentive systems with his two sons, even setting them in competition against each other. He told them “Second place is the first loser.” One of the sons is a competitive, affluent businessman. The other one is a mess. He’s severely depressed and has incredibly poor self-esteem.

    My 16 year old step-daughter struggles to get good grades in school, but otherwise is doing well. She’s clearly under-performing academically and every report card says that. Oh, the dreaded “Not Working Up To Potential” comment!! We’ve struggled to find ways to boost her grades. We tried potent incentives (“One C or less this semester and we’ll get you a MacBook”) but it didn’t really work, and made me feel just yucky. The focus now is on offering her every available support (tutoring, etc), and talking to her a as much as possible about how classes are going, etc. It feels much better, and grades are up a little as well. We still probably give her too much stuff, but we’ve broken the link between the grades and the goods. We also do want her to know that academic performance has real-world consequences in our society.

  30. Steve
    April 30, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    Western Dave: I have to agree that making a good incentive program is difficult. In the case of my hospital, one of the problems is that those who work there have usually opted out of a completely “commercial” enterprise. If they (academic docs) wanted to see lots of patients and make lots of money, they wouldn’t be at an academic center to begin with. So then a model which might work well in private practice is applied to an academic setting, and it gets messy and can be devastating for morale. Academic physicians have three aspects to their careers: they see patients, they teach, and they do research. Then there is administrative work. Most incentive programs work only on rewarding clinical activity because that is most directly and predictably reimbursed. So it gets down to understanding who your employees are, and what interests them, and then creating an environment that promotes those values… or getting rid of those employees and hiring a crop that is happy with your incentive system.

    I am sure that the same thing goes for kids. What motivates one, may not motivate another. Of course I use bribes/incentives with my kids, although I don’t pay them to do chores. Like Julie Smith I make them do their homework and practice their instruments before getting on the computer. I don’t see this as a bribe really but as a lesson in priorities. I don’t think that my kids do their homework first because they must do it before computer time. They do it because by now (ages 11, 15, 18) they seem to agree that this prioritization makes sense.

    I still believe that incentives are over-valued. They are easy to set up, but Kohn reminds us that they can be counter-productive, and result in decreased motivation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and creativity. That doesn’t mean that they are, but that they can be, and maybe often are.

  31. ukann
    May 1, 2007 at 3:27 am

    Am I the only one who bribes themselves? e.g. I’ll just get through this laundry, then I’ll blog for a while, I’ll clean the bedrooms, then I’ll read a chapter or so…….. who says bribes are bad?

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