Rewards – you get what you pay for

By Julie Fison.

The night before every school athletics carnival my son asks how he can improve his chances of success. The answer is to invent a time machine, go back 12 months and start training. It’s a bit late to start running around the block on the eve of an event.

This year to preempt this conversation, we encouraged our teen to start training over the summer holidays. ‘I will. Tomorrow,’ was his response. And tomorrow and tomorrow and … you know how that ends.

Three weeks later, with still no running happening, we offered him an incentive –a financial one. I am a little embarrassed to admit that we paid our son to go for a run every morning and offered a bonus for consistency (running five days in a row). I can totally justify this by adding that my teen was going to get holiday money anyway. Instead, we made him run for it. But, it worked. And he’s still training, even though he’s not getting paid.

Research into the teenage brain shows that a teen’s reward centre is much more developed than the consequence centre.  So, it makes sense that an immediate reward motivates a teenager much more than a possible consequence 10 months down the track.

So, are financial rewards part of a clever strategy or do they constitute lazy parenting or worse?  

The subject is a divisive one. Some friends are fiercely against them. But many others quietly admit they use financial incentives – to get their teens involved with sport or to do more training. And they are all happy with the results. My Whatever! colleague, Diane is one. She calls it ‘performance-based compensation’, which she feels fits pretty well with the real world. And don’t get her started on parents who excuse their kids from sport because they don’t have any natural talent. Sport is just too important to let slide. And you don’t have to be a star to benefit from sport. Research backs that up. A study by the West Virginia University found that young teens who play sport benefit physically, socially and mentally.

But teens sometimes need more than just an encouraging word to get into something (and that’s when a reward helps). Yet, once they’re involved – the sport, success or whatever, becomes the reward in itself. And hopefully self-motivation will develop with maturity.

One friend reports that she had to incentivize her teen to exercise, but once she had a reasonable level of fitness, her teen had the confidence to join a sports team. She endures exhausting training sessions without rewards because she loves the team spirit.

Another friend who generally doesn’t approve of financial incentives was so frustrated by her son’s commitment at his weekly rugby match, that one week she offered him a substantial bonus if he scored a try. He did! But the following week, with the same reward offered, he didn’t.

Cash incentives seem to work best if used occasionally rather than as a standard practice. They’re also best kept private – between you and your teen. Other parents aren’t going to thank you when their teen comes home demanding money to train because their friends are being incentivized.

The caveat here is that rewards can be the start of a slippery slope. What starts out as a two dollar incentive can easily turn into a ten dollar reward – until a teen starts acting like a super model and refuses to get out of bed for less than ten grand a day. That would be an extreme case. But that’s what many parents fear. The secret here is to set expectations and stick to the plan. TeenHelp, a US site, sets out some guidelines on the more traditional – pocket money for chores model, that are useful. The warning here, and elsewhere, is that financial rewards shouldn’t be used to manage bad behavior. ‘If you stop beating up your brother, I’ll give you fifty bucks,’ is unlikely to have a long-term positive outcome.

There’s also a big red flag to parents of very defiant teenagers. All rewards can backfire because your troublesome teen will just refuse to do anything without an incentive.  The teen has to learn to do what he or she is told without a reward, according to expert advice. (See more here.) 

There is no doubt that cash incentives shouldn’t be the default parenting technique. They aren’t the answer to everything and they aren’t for everyone, but they seem to help nudge a reluctant teen into something you know they will benefit from.


2 thoughts on “Rewards – you get what you pay for”

  1. I truly hadn’t considered this approach, but I may well try it. Out of desperation. I will definitely keep it secret as I will be too ashamed to admit it, even to myself. If this doesn’t work, what’s Plan B?

  2. Thanks Christine. I would love to hear how it goes. In the meantime, Diane is writing a post to expand on the rewards theme. That might offer you a Plan B.

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