We all understand reward motivation, don’t we? People get bonuses at work, win trophies in sport, get presents when they’re nice. And it seems to work. Doesn’t it? Well, no not always or, indeed, often. Research has shown that extrinsic motivation is apt to: encourage short-term thinking, become addictive (meaning that we come to rely on being rewarded by other people), increase cheating and bad behaviour, lower performance, and diminish creative response [Daniel Pink, Drive].
And yet we keep doing it. More and more, it would seem, with our children as well as in the workplace. It seems almost standard practice these days to pay teenagers to do well in the GCSEs and A levels. But what is the message we are sending in this supposedly generous and motivational act?
Research conducted by Alfie Kohn shows that providing financial reward is likely to de-motivate students. If compensation is necessary for studying, it implies, then learning can have no intrinsic reward of itself. And yet personal, internal drive is fundamental to high performance.
Bribing our children to achieve suggests that we can’t trust them to do it on their own. Also, in this respect it denies their access to two basic human needs: that of interest (doing something for the thing itself), and autonomy (being in charge of one’s own life). Whilst it may work in the short-term (the first round of exams may go well), it will build resentment, lack of interest, and defiance in the longer-term. It will also create a belief that they shouldn’t have to exert themselves unless someone is going to reward them. This is setting our children up to lose interest in their own education and striving for excellence, and to lose their ability to self-direct.
Harder, but more beneficial to our children – and society as a whole – would be to encourage them to develop a sense of meaning and purpose in whatever they choose to do, to look to the long-term for their own personal goal-setting, and to strive for excellence for its own intrinsic rewards.
Taking away the bribes and financial rewards within parenting, means trusting our children to take responsibility for their lives, showing them respect, and believing in their innate resources to excel on their own terms.