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Rewarding (Bribing) Children To Learn

I’m not a fan of bribing children to learn. Even before I removed my children from school, I hated the message that rewarding them with pizza parties, candy and money (yes, money), was sending to them. These “rewards” were held out in front the students like a dangling carrot, with the promise that it could be theirs if they learned what the school wanted them to learn.

The message? I believe it’s two-fold.

1: If someone had to bribe me to do something, my first thought would be “It must be unpleasant if you have to bribe me to do it”. When my daughter Shawna was in school, they were always trying different bribes/rewards to make her read more. It wasn’t working and the more they tried, the more she hated reading. “We’ll give you candy if you finish that book!”. She read the book, but stopped when they candy ran out. “We’ll give you a prize”. She read for the prize and then stopped when the prizes ran out. They didn’t realize (or didn’t care) they were sending her a message that reading is so horrible that she would only want to do it for candy and prizes.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want my kids to enjoy it also….but only if they wanted to.

Fast forward to right now. The years that she has been out of school, she’s had the freedom to read if she wants to. There are no bribes. Just shelves and shelves of interesting books for her to read, when she’s ready and if she chooses. Nowadays, she reads for 3-4 hours a day, because she enjoys it. Ask her what her favorite activities are and reading is always in the top three. It took about a year of deschooling for her to get to that point. It took me backing off and letting go. It took me trusting her. If I forced her to read, how would she ever have the chance to do it on her own? How would she ever know if she enjoyed it, if she wasn’t given the chance to?

One of her friends came over last summer (a schooled friend) and my daughter was very excited to tell her about a book she had just read. Her friend said “You have to read in the summer??!!” My daughter was confused and caught off guard. Her friend went on to ask “What are you getting for reading that book?” My daughter said that she read the book because she enjoyed it. Her friend looked at her like she had two heads.

2: Food and candy were often used as bribes when my girls were in school. Pizza, chocolate, candy and ice cream were used time and time again to get the students to learn something that the school assumed the students would not want to learn on their own. I believe this sets them up with an unhealthy view of food. If a child has their candy controlled and then used as a reward, how else will they react other than trying to eat as much as possible when they have the chance? You see those kids at birthday parties, standing by the chips or candy, eating as much as possible. I’ve had children come to my house and finish a whole bowl of m&m’s that were meant for everybody. It’s sad. Don’t schools (and parents who do this) see that their giving that candy or pizza too much power?

Not only do I never use food as a bribe, my girls don’t have their food controlled. It didn’t happen overnight though…it took lots of discussions and modeling on my part to get to this point, but I now have two daughters with a healthier outlook of food than most adults I meet.

When we first adopted them, my middle daughter was that child hovering near the chips at a birthday party. She was the one who gorged herself on candy in fear there would be no more. So when a parent says “If I let them, they’ll eat candy all day”, I agree because if a child has their candy controlled and doled out only as rewards, yes, they will try to eat as much as they can get. Can you blame them?

But…if children are given the freedom to learn things as they come up naturally in life, there’s no need to bribe them with the promise of a reward to force them to learn something when they’re not ready. I believe that rewards motivate students to get rewards, not to learn.

PS: We’re almost done unpacking here at the new blog. If you help us tell others that we’ve moved, you could win an gift certificate! Just a way of saying thanks!

*originally written in 2006-updated in 2009*

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8 Responses to “Rewarding (Bribing) Children To Learn”

  1. Home4skool says:

    We are with a charter homeschool and came upon this very topic at a recent meeting. Our “teacher” suggested that one of our children work through one-and-a-half grade levels between Feb. and June. When I told her that the child had no intrinsic motivation to do so, I was met with a blank stare.

    Home4skools last blog post..Don’t sweat the small stuff or time to switch charters?

  2. Paul Hakel says:

    Learning is a reward in itself; if students don’t want to learn a given material, they either don’t understand it or it isn’t something worth learning.

  3. Ruby says:

    I just had to chime in about the rewards given by schools! When our kids were in public school they were constantly “earning” candy, gum, popsicles, pizza, you name it. And if it wasn’t candy or food it was stickers and certificates.

    Imagine, they’d send a kid to the principal’s office to read for her & the kid would come out with a reading certificate & a strip of stickers! And I’m not talking about a kid who had been working particularly hard to overcome a challenge or one that had been showing superior performance. They just sent kids for this sort of thing daily. They went when it was their turn, and I never knew a kid to not get the reward.

    There was one teacher in the school who stands out in my mind. She taught grade 3/4, and she arranged it that her classroom would be near the kindergarten and pre-k classes. When one of the wee ones began to show an interest in reading the kindergarten teacher would give them a really easy reader, and they would practice until they could read it perfectly. Then they would visit the grade 3/4 room and they would stand at the podium to read aloud for the class. Their reward for reading was the chance to show off the skill to the older children, who were a perfectly attentive audience & applauded afterward. Everyone was proud of the younger student. That was their reward, and it made them want to read more!

    Forget the McDonald’s gift certificates and the pizza lunches, that kind of thing is quickly eaten and kids rarely remember what they did to earn it anyway. The atmosphere this special teacher created, that was priceless and will not soon be forgotten.

    Ruby in Montreal

    Ruby’s Star

  4. Courtney says:

    I have always felt the same way about rewards/bribes. It used to bother me when my oldest (who loved reading – it was a true passion) would get asked by librarians about doing their summer reading program. I would often say in response “Reading is the reward.” As homeschoolers, we were in the library year round during school hours with my daughter checking out tons of books. Then I felt like during the summer, she was getting the message “I know you don’t want to read but, if you do, we’ll give you this.” Of course “this” was always something I didn’t want her to have anyway – coupons for McDonalds, cheepo slave labor toys, etc. I felt like avoiding the library in the summer. Nobody ever says “If you watch such and such amount of t.v., I’ll give you this.” Well, maybe marketers do, but parents don’t usually. They use not being able to watch t.v. as a punishment. With reading, it is the opposite. People really don’t consider the backwards message here.

    Chris, I like what you said when including grades in the bribe.

  5. Joanne says:

    Chris…I loved everything you wrote.

    ***Imagine that, children who are not wild hooligans, but have no real punishments and only natural consequences for their behavior, desirable or not.***

    Smile That made me smile.

  6. chris says:

    I remember my school days, I remember the feeling of anger at the insult of the bribes– which included grades. I remember confusion at getting the ‘right’ answer, but being told that I didn’t follow the ‘right’ steps and shouldn’t read ahead or take short cuts… then later, they taught the short cuts that I had been punished for using. I remember not honoring learning because I was only expected to regurgitate facts.

    People are always telling me how great my kids are and that I am so lucky. I am lucky, and my kids are great, but I have never bribed them to be that way. They have never earned points for being polite or respectful, they have never been paid to complete their chores. They have been paid to do extra work around the house, which is always optional. My son recently asked me to help him find some sort of home based business so that he could earn extra cash. He didn’t harangue me to give him money or to buy him this or that. My kids have few real requirements placed on them and yet, they do what they are supposed to do most of the time, usually cheerfully. In this house they are honored for being wonderful human beings and reminded when they are a bit less than wonderful–”Is it necessary to tell your sister that she can be mean?” Imagine that, children who are not wild hooligans, but have no real punishments and only natural consequences for their behavior, desirable or not.

  7. Joanne says:

    Hi manodogs…thanks for stopping by.

    I read your post. A teacher once offered my son $10 to *learn* (it’s not real learning-they just want the students to be able to regurgatate the information back to them) his nine times table. Guess what happened? He memorized it long enough to recite it back, bought Yu-Gi-Oh cards with the money and still doesn’t know his nine times table.

    You wrote this in your post:
    *According to opponents, why should we reward students for studying? My response: Then why should we punish them if they don’t?*

    I’m as opposed to rewards as I am to punishment. Maybe if a child is failing a class, the teacher should get punished instead of the teacher. The teacher failed to teach the student the way the student needed to be taught.

    You wrote about employers rewarding their workers but I don’t agree that a childs “job” is school. I know that parents just love to tell their kids that school is their job but I don’t agree and I never told my kids that when they were in school.

    So while I understand and somewhat agree with what you’re saying…we’re coming from this topic from two totally different angles.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  8. ManoDogs says:

    Interesting take on the subject. I spoke on this the other day, in regards to a new program they are rolling-out in Georgia.

    While I completely understand what you are saying, I have to disagree. I believe there is a lot to be said for positive reinforcement.

    I’d love for you to check out what I had to say and leave a link back to this article! I think it gives a good, and valid, counterpoint.

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