Friday, August 13, 2010

Bribing children to do their homework does not work

By Philip Copitch, Ph.D.

Mrs. Conrad was very concerned that Paul, age 14, was not getting his homework done. So, she decided to motivate Paul to do his homework with a deal she heard that had worked for her friend’s child. If Paul did his homework every night she would give him $1 per assignment. She and Paul calculated that he could make around $30 dollars a week. Paul was highly motivated to do his homework. Every night for three weeks Paul proudly presented his assignments to his mother. Depending on the night. Mrs. Conrad gave Paul three to five crisp dollar bills she got from the bank for this very purpose. Mrs. Conrad told me:
I thought I had found homework heaven. Paul was doing his work. We had stopped arguing over his homework. I really thought I was brilliant. I told my friends how easy it was to be a great mother.
Then the report card came home. I was dumbfounded. Paul’s grades were worse then ever. He was failing half his classes. I was positive there was a mistake. I was sure that if I showed Paul his failing report card he would feel like a failure. I didn’t tell him it came. I had seen Paul’s work and he understood his assignments. I was sure the school had messed up. I marched right down to that school. I was furious that they couldn’t get their act together.
I found Paul’s math teacher in the hallway. Do you know what? My damn kid hadn’t turned in any of his assignments. Not one! Every teacher told me the same story. “Paul is a great kid, but not very motivated, he never does his homework.” Almost $200 dollars, and for nothing!

This is an example of bribery. Bribery is when we put the proverbial cart before the horse. That is, when we give the reward before the behavior. At first it makes so much sense. If I give you your reward why wouldn’t you do what I asked you to do? The simple answer is that we humans, and every other animal we have ever tested in the lab, need to work for our rewards. By giving the reward we are reinforcing the behavior that comes before the reward. In bribery, the behavior just before the reward is doing nothing and that is what we tend to get. Nothing. In the above story, Paul received the reward when he showed his mother the completed homework assignment. There was no incentive to turn the assignment in. If most adults were paid prior to the work period, what incentive would there be for going to work?

In my office, Mr. and Mrs. Conrad confronted Paul with the homework fiasco. Paul was calm. He simply said, “Mom, you only paid me to do my homework. You didn’t pay me to be a delivery man.”

Using a reward as a promise is useless. It does not teach children to complete a task. The child feels manipulated into doing something they do not wish to do. They are behaving for the reward, not because it is the “correct” way to behave. A child who follows the rules because of the bribe is bound to be a spoiled, manipulative individual. Such a child is going to go through life looking for what he can take. What is in it for him.

I will state it very clearly: BRIBERY DOES NOT WORK!

If family problems are getting out of control, please seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.

Go to Dr Copitch's web site

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