Bribing Kids: Proceed With Caution

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Many moons ago, when my oldest child was about to turn 3 and still stubbornly in diapers, I did something I’d never imagined doing. After coaxing, reasoning, cheerleading, chiding, and a rash moment of voice-raising, I bought a stash of M&Ms.

“Want one of these?” I asked. He nodded enthusiastically. “Pee in there,” I said pointing to the toilet.

A few days later, he was diaper-free. A few days after that, he forgot about the M&Ms and began to undertake his business without expectation of reward, as he continues to do today at age 32. It was about the easiest exercise in parenting I remember: rational, orderly, and as simple as using an ATM machine.

I was reminded of this story recently, because the subject of paying kids to perform has been in the news. In an experiment designed by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, kids in New York City were paid to go to school and to improve their test scores (it didn’t work) and in Dallas they were paid to read books (it did, and actually raised test scores).

The idea is not new, of course. In 2004 Youth Today reported on a Denver program that paid teen girls a dollar every day to show up for meetings and to avoid pregnancy. (They showed up, but still got pregnant.) Several initiatives in California paid foster kids to attend independent living classes – and as far as attendance goes, it worked.

So, does the prevalence of the practice, along with its occasional success, go to show that it’s all right to pay – OK, bribe – kids to do what’s good for them? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to most either-or questions: It depends.

The most common objection to child bribery is that it undermines what psychologists call “intrinsic motivation.” We don’t just want kids to read and get good grades. We want them to be curious and self-motivated “life-long learners.”

We don’t think it’s a good idea for teens to avoid pregnancy and finish school simply because they’ll have some extra cash; we want them to do these things because they are making mindful decisions and because they understand that children are better off growing up with financially secure married parents.

In other words, we’re not just hoping to change behavior; we want to shape the young into mature human beings. As the ethicists might say, we are trying to mold their character.

Critics of bribery reasonably suspect that bribery can’t do that. Instead of creating self-directed individuals, capable of self-control and deliberation, it trains kids to perform a convenient trick, like teaching a dog to roll over for a liver treat. Worse skeptics suspect – again with reason – that bribery might reinforce the immature pursuit of immediate gratification and crass materialism, the very opposite of the self-discipline and higher-order aspirations most adults would want them to learn.

Reasonable, yes, but shaping kids’ character is a long and winding process. There will be times when the undeveloped child needs to accomplish certain unpleasant tasks – say, finishing his homework or eating her spinach – for long-term goals she is too immature to appreciate. Even if we don’t offer financial rewards, we can’t avoid reward and punishment, which are, after all, bribery’s close cousins.

We give gold stars for getting homework done correctly, pizza parties for a class project well done, an evil eye for foul language, or a high five for an A on a challenging math test. That’s because children need immediate reinforcement to get to the larger payoff in the distant future.

The challenge for policymakers is to distinguish between rewards in the cause of character development and bribery isolated from this broader task. Programs like the ones in New York and Dallas show little interest in character, not surprisingly, given their origins in the field of economics. In the economist’s world view, the subject is “homo economicus,” a rational creature who responds predictably and mindlessly to the right incentives, not a child whose mind needs developing and nurturing. The child is a subject, not an individual.

Programs that ensure that adults have a personal relationship with a child or group of children, on the other hand, make it possible to judge whether a bribe seems to its beneficiary like a con game or whether it is leading to real growth. Are the kids only interested in the goodies, or are they internalizing the bigger lessons at hand?

My advice to youth workers? It’s OK to give kids the occasional M&M, but not so many that they’re in danger of getting cavities.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute.