Many parents argue vehemently for the value of the bribe, but then do not understand why it is failing to work. Most of these parents, I find, had success as a child when their parents added an incentive. The missing ingredient however, is that most of these parents were (as a child) already thriving academically. This is not a good measure of such incentive systems.
In recent years, the debate on this topic has been hot and furious. Interestingly, the research continues to point in a very clear direction, and findings with children reflect years of research with adults. While much of this research seems to be ignored in modern business models, we nonetheless have a reasonable clear idea of how to approach the whole incentive based conversation.
Do Incentives Work, or Not?
Yes, that appears to be the question. Whether it is better to coerce your son or daughter into getting better grades with a bribe, or to leave them on their own to figure it out. The same might be said of a doing chores, or going cooperatively into a doctor’s appointment or even simply cleaning up some toys.
We tend to believe that incentives or bribes are helpful, because they often work ‘in the moment.’ And many times, these incentives continue to work…at least for a while.
Then we notice that the same bribe doesn’t work very well any more. So we try something new, perhaps bigger, or maybe more compelling. Rather than a movie, we offer a video game. Rather than a video game, we offer 20 bucks. Rather than 20 bucks, we offer 50!
Seems insane? Yes…it is. Recently, I worked with parents over the phone from Denver that was buying their 12 year old a $150 pair of sneakers for every “A” on his report card. (The child already has over 20 pairs of these sneakers.) On his last report card: four “C’s” and three “D’s”. He did get an A in technology, and still was given one new pair of sneaks. Both parents concede that it was bizarre that they had ended up in this place, but felt helpless without a better plan.
Most of us recognize that something has gone askew here. The plan isn’t working. Is it fair to conclude that bribes are not effective…at least over the long term? No, it’s not.