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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Rewarding your child for studying hard rarely pays off

Nima Abu Wardeh evaluates the concept of giving your child a lump sum to achieve high grades in their exams

Illustration by Gary Clement
Illustration by Gary Clement

“I just gave him a bunch of money for his school report” one father said to another at a children’s sporting event I was at. It reminded me of the line in Big Business, a film starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, in which the father says to Midler - playing the disengaged CEO mother - 'you’re paying our children to learn?’

The sentiment from Midler's fictional husband reflects how I feel.

Exam result season is a challenging time - grades can affect the whole of life - which school, university, degree the student goes on to, with a bearing on what they learn, do and earn.

Knowing this, some parents decide to help their children knuckle down and stud by using hard cash as incentive.

Should you pay your child to work hard and achieve great exam results? Please debate.

And if so, is it an incentive, bribe or cause for anxiety. Bribery can reduce self-esteem and smack of conditional love; it can indicate that parents don't trust their children to work and carries an unpleasant message that it's only worth working if there's money at the end.

Comments from teachers, who observe the effects of financial rewards, indicate it adds significant pressure to an already stressful period.

Plus, think about what it does if they don’t achieve what their parents aspire to. Not all children will do well in exams. What if he/she works really hard and doesn’t pass? ‘You can’t have it because you’ve failed’ is a very negative, and potentially damaging message.

It would never occur to me to pay my child for passing exams or studying, just as it would never occur to me to judge his worth by the number of subjects he passes. And, at the risk of being accused of gender-bias, comments and feedback lead me to believe there is a gender-split in approach: more men opt for the money for results approach, with women wanting to reward work and effort.

The first approach is a simple linear one: the highest grade gets DhX – and it’s a sliding scale down. It’s easy to follow. Effort, however, isn’t. How do you know what to look for? Hours squirreled away in a room does not mean study is happening. Plus, bright but lazy may get better grades than hardworking but average. Is either reward approach effective?

Let’s take a step back. The issue in hand is wanting your child to do their best. Motivation is key, so really the question is: how can I motivate my child to do their best?

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Read more from Nima Abu Wardeh:

Worrying about money will only cost you more

Being generous makes us happy and connects us to one another

Don't let the D in death or divorce lead to financial stress

A cautionary tale about hankering after a fairy-tale home

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Different things motivate different children. But I believe the fundamental issue is the need for internal motivation. External motivation is where you get a reward for effort or grades. Knowing you did your best is the type of internal motivation I am talking about. It is what sustains a person. My years delving into these issues convinces me it doesn't work. Motivation by reward means people want the next ‘reward fix’ if this is what they have become accustomed to.

Plus, the possibility of money at some point in the future isn’t enough to motive a child to keep studying if they’re not engaged.

Of course this pay for grades barter isn’t always initiated by a parent. I know of enterprising – academically clever I assume – children who have tried it on.

Should you find yourself in this situation, here is a suggestion for you:

"My bright and ambitious daughter tried this a few years ago. Instead, I suggested that I would pay her Dh250 for every test she failed on the grounds she would need some consolation and would have to leave school and get a job where new clothes would be required. She went on to do very well and I didn't have to pay a penny. She says she has forgiven me."

It’s great to give your child light at the end of what is a stressful, and seemingly unending, tunnel – say a day out doing something special after the exams, but before results are known.

Having said all this, there is one study – the largest ever of its type - involving 10,600 students that appears to prove that external rewards work. It found up to 10 per cent improvement in exam grades and pass rates for the worst performing pupils who were promised rewards if they stuck it out. Wait for it – all students received a reward. The reward had no effect on the results of those who were already engaged and motivated – but yes, it did improve attendance and grades of others who were struggling.

Some will jump on these findings as proof that a transaction-based world is the way to go. I look at this and think: how can I make sure my child is in the group that yes, can be rewarded, but doesn’t need it to be motivated to do their best.

If I were a betting person, I’d wager the money incentive for the least motivated group wears off if it continues beyond the year.

The research was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, and included work by academics from the University of Chicago, the University of California, San Diego, and the UK’s University of Bristol.

The results are unusual in comparison with previous studies – such as those carried out by the Harvard academic Roland Fryer in US high schools – which found little or no effect on test scores from rewards for good behaviour or attendance.

To have a great life we must all choose to commit ourselves to something we at least partly don't want to do.

Yes, many of us exist in results-driven environments - setting an achievable target and then rewarding that achievement isn't such a bad thing.

But, tell me, who will live a more content and happy life - the person who spends seven hours a day doing nonlinear partial differential equations because they get great satisfaction from it or the person who spends seven hours miserable doing something they dislike because they get paid well?

No reward for effort or grades in this house, but much celebration for sure.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on finding-nima.com