Should You Pay Kids for Good Grades?

Do you open your arms or your wallet for grandkids' A's?

By Tara Welty

The reward for a thing well done, is to have done it — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The idea of hard work being its own reward may have held sway in Emerson's late 19th-century America, but 21st-century U.S. schools have embraced rewards including cash and iPods to "incentivize" kids to stay in school and get good grades. In New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and elsewhere, school districts are paying kids for perfect attendance, improved standardized-test scores, or for reading a certain number of books. Administrators say that they hope the rewards will inspire students to achieve.

Cash incentives may be new for public-school systems, but thousands of grandparents like Ned and Inga Book of State College, Penn., have been rewarding kids for bringing home good report cards for years.  "We try to monitor how school is going and what courses they are taking. We pay for A's and B's at report-card time," says Inga, 75. She and Ned, 77, have five grandchildren, ages 8 to 21, and she believes the kids appreciate the rewards as "recognition of their hard work."

What's the Best Reward?

Not all grandparents, however, believe cash is the best motivator of young students. In the national debate over cash incentives in schools, critics point out that there's little evidence that such rewards lead to stronger student performance, and argue that at some point, all successful pupils must learn to study for the love of learning. Some grandparents agree. Diane and Gary Parmelee of Naples, Fla., "pile on the praise" when one of their four grandchildren brings home a great report card, says Diane, 62. "That's all they really want from me, and I believe it makes them want to keep on doing their best."

Diane Parmelee, who has been a classroom teacher at various grade levels for 36 years, believes that "no amount of praise or rewards can match the reward that you give yourself when you know you’ve done your best or excelled in something."

Ellen Cerniglia, associate professor of education at the graduate school of Touro College in New York City, acknowledges that incentives are "in many ways effective," but cautions that "children often begin to look for bigger or more substantial rewards as time goes on."

Be Consistent

So should you reward your grandchildren for doing well in school? "The answer depends on the individual situation and family relationship," says Virginia Shiller, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, the coauthor of Rewards for Kids!: Ready-To-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting (Magination Press). Before you start doling out cash, she recommends working with your grandchildren’s parents to develop a plan for rewards. "Be sure that the children's parents are enthusiastic about your plan," she says. "You may be well-intentioned, but if your reward plan contradicts the parents' view about how to help the children, there could be trouble."

However you choose to reward kids for their work in school, Shiller urges you to consider the ways incentives could work fairly for all your grandchildren. After all, each grandchild is unique and has different abilities. If some grandchildren breeze through school with straight A's but others struggle to get C's, consider rewarding the struggling students for any improvements on their report card, rather than withholding rewards because they didn't get A's. In consultation with parents, Shiller recommends setting individual goals that are "realistic and attainable for each child," and rewarding not just results but hard work as well.

Both Shiller and Cerniglia stress that your rewards can take different forms — many grandparents give kids money, others stick to praise, but some reward kids for their work in school with special one-on-one activities. Shiller approves: "Grandparents may have the luxury of time that working parents lack, and these activities may create lasting memories and stronger relationships."

As with any element of grandparenting, the key is finding what makes you comfortable and what works best for your family. For the Books, cash prizes work well. The kids "look forward to showing us their report cards," Inga says, and as for the children's parents, "I haven't heard any complaints!"

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