Incentives Do Work…But Not The Way We Think They Do.
It is a well-researched fact that incentives DO WORK! This is true for adults and for children. However, with years of great studies behind us, we now understand more precisely how and when to use incentives. From Kindergarten to mature adults, the following general principles seem to hold true.
• Keep It Simple (For Incentives To Be Effective)
When studying simple tasks, like showing up to school or reading a book, incentives have proven successful. When motivating children or adults, adding a ‘bribe’ is useful for simple, task that are understood and easily managed.
Avoid trying to use incentives in any fashion with complex, creative tasks, or those requiring a significant amount of brain power. This includes any set of tasks that are challenging for your child’s abilities.
Why? Because performance decreases with complex tasks! When we add an incentive to anything that is demanding, creative or taxing of the intellect, we see performance decreases. This has been tested with toddlers, and with adults. It is critical that the tasks are easily mastered.
• Thus, Make Sure Kids Can Easily Do The Task You Incentivize
The key here is that the more effortlessly your child can perform the task, the more likely an incentive system could work. The issue here (addressed by the incentive) is one of simple, pure motivation.
We see very effective incentive models that actually get children to read books, for example. Assuming reading has been mastered, and the material given is not too challenging, incentives cause children to read more books, at least in the short term.
However, these same systems do poorly at improving reading comprehension or grades. Such complex events do not respond well to incentives. The complexity is the issue, because if too complex, children do not feel as if they can control the outcome.
• Children Must Know That Their Efforts Are Directly Related To Receiving Incentives
This is where clarity begins to emerge in understanding incentives. When the task is simple, and the rules are clear, children are able to increase their performance. “Read a book and earn a buck.” This is straight forward, and children do respond. They read more books in this model, with the one dollar incentive.
Similar results can be found with basic chores: “Clean your room. You earn 5 dollars.” Children do respond to this.
If told they will earn new sneaks for every ‘A’ they may feel there are too many factors that have nothing to do with effort. In fact, they can control their study time, but they can’t control the grade. Thus, this is where problems begin to emerge, and incentives do not work well here.
In the adult world, we see where this understanding could be applied for better results. A number of my clients work on commission. For some, the sales process is simple and incentives are straightforward, thus the incentives work.
For others, they work in a system with a very long sales process that is complex and requires creativity. In such systems, incentives are actually (likely) making performance decline. The pressure of the incentive detracts from creativity and promotes more fear-based thinking. In such systems, we know that more options for creativity and autonomy would serve the business. Yet, these approaches are seldom adapted.
• Incentives Also Eventually Fail Unless Motivation Becomes Intrinsic
This is why I am not a fan of these extrinsic motivators and bribes. They do work temporarily, with simple, easily mastered tasks. But without a clear plan, external incentives are NOT an effective long term model to build responsible children.
First, most of the responsible behaviors we seek are easily handled with a solid parenting game plan. This is not just hype…but it’s reality. Most families are waiting too late to initiate a plan for building responsibility, and then when they do…they choose too much based in soft ‘pop psychology’ that has little proven track record. Programs like my Essential Parenting home study course, is just one example of how to get these tools without resorting to bribing children for a few chores.
There are other more serious considerations as well. If using incentives, the incentive must get larger, and keep changing, especially for the more challenging child or teen. Within a short while, even the biggest incentives fail unless the motivation is shifted to one internal to the child…and not built on external bribes and incentives.
I have an associate, who has two challenging boys. He lives near Disney, and has a season pass. They are at Disney at least 3-4 times a month, and he used this as an incentive model for months. However, after you child has been to Disney a couple dozen times, you find that Disney is not enough to get them to clear their room.
See the problem? I am sure you do.
Have I used incentives in my parent coaching with families, to help with difficult kids? Yes, of course. However, this in built into a system that is designed to teach responsibility and nurture a child’s internal motivation. In addition, it is used with a very clear plan to eliminate the external incentives as soon as the ‘habit’ of responsibility begins to emerge.
Bottom Line: You can use incentives to get cooperation on simple tasks. It is not a substitute for a poor game plan that is failing with a child or teen.
Instead, seek out Parent Coaching if you have serious concerns, so that you can get the long term results. Or perhaps, consider a proven training program, like my Essential Parenting Home Study Program. If on the right track, you should find that most of the behavioral challenges are gone within a few weeks, and then you are on the path to building consistent responsibility without bribes and constant conflict.
Read part one here.