When You should Pay Your Child For Completing Chores (And When You Shouldn’t), According to Psychological Research
Do you ever wonder if paying your child for getting good grades or doing chores around the house is good for them in the long run? What, if anything, is this really teaching them?
Most of the Modern Parents that read this blog have told me that they are committed to raising responsible, moral, motivated, and interesting kids – so many of my readers wonder if paying their kids for performing expected family duties is actually counterproductive to this parenting goal.
Furthermore, a recent article from Today.com has reignited the debate in the parenting community on whether or not “pay for performance” is a smart parenting tactic.
On one side of the coin are parents who were paid as kids for getting good grades and completing daily or weekly household chores and so they believe that this technique will work for their kids too.
I remember my Dad issuing a challenge to my sister and I when we were in elementary school that he would pay us $20 for straight As on our next report card (this was a lot of money at the time!). Needless to say, I received straight As on my next report card and my Dad was happy to reward me with the promised $20.
The incentive of earning $20 was what I needed at the time to focus on turning in my assignments consistently and paying attention in class in order to get those As. This challenge excited and invigorated me and I was able to rise to the challenge, but this technique doesn’t always work for all kids.
On the flip side of the coin is the argument that paying for family chores or getting good grades leads to the creation of selfish and lazy kids. This makes logical sense. Why pay kids to clean their rooms or mow the lawn when they should be doing these things as a way to contribute to being part of the family anyway?
The argument goes that if we pay kids to perform these duties then they’ll refuse to do any simple family function unless they get paid.
So who is right? What is the best choice for the parent committed to raising responsible, humble, and motivated kids?
According to psychological science, both opinions are right – depending on the situation.
Researchers have found that it depends on if the situation increases intrinsic motivation or decreases it.
I’ve discussed the difference between intrinsic motivation (goal directed behavior that is initiated by the individual) and extrinsic motivation (goal directed behavior that is performed due to external requirements or demands) before so if you want to learn more about this concept read THIS and THIS.
Below, I will explain a simple guideline on how to decide whether or not paying your child for a particular performance makes sense for your family.
The Cons To Pay-For-Performance Techniques
There is an abundance of research on motivation that has found that when a reward is connected to performing a previously-enjoyed task, that task then becomes less enjoyable for both kids and adults – even if the individual previously enjoyed the activity.
Some of the best answers about paying for performance has come from work performed by psychologist Edward Deci. He ran experiments in his research lab to see if rewarding people for performing a specific task actually served to increase the quantity and quality of their output.
In one experiment, he had adult (and later child) participants interact with a fun block puzzle. In one group, Deci told the participants that they would be paid for each creation made using the blocks from the puzzle. In the other group, the participants were not paid for their creations, instead they were encouraged to make as many as possible.
Deci found that there was no difference between the two groups in terms of quantity of creations made with the puzzle blocks; however, he did find that participants who were not paid enjoyed their task more than the participants who were paid (they interacted with the blocks on their “break” and continued to build more creations even when they didn’t have to).
In order to examine if quality of work is affected by paying for performance, Deci ran a similar study with children and asked them to create a painted picture. He found that the creations of the kids who were rewarded for completing their picture according to the instructions were judged by others to be less creative. Thus, Deci concluded that paying kids for creative work forces them to take fewer risks, decreases their enjoyment of the task, and, ultimately, produces less original creations.
Not that much of a big deal, right? I mean, we can’t expect our kids to be happy 24/7. It shouldn’t matter how the work gets done, as long as it’s done, right?
Well, Deci’s many decades of research on motivation also found that rewarding for performance negatively impacts learning as well. In another experiment, Deci asked 2 groups of elementary school kids to read a passage from a textbook. The first group of kids were told that they would be graded on the material after reading it. Deci told the second group that they would just be reading the passage for fun.
Based on what you’ve previously learned from this article about paying for performance, can you predict the outcome?
At the conclusion of this experiment, Deci tested BOTH groups on how much they learned (even though the second group wasn’t expecting a test). He found several notable points:
- The students who read the passage for fun demonstrated a better conceptual knowledge of the material than the students who read the material expecting to be tested.
- The students expecting to be tested demonstrated better rote memorization than the students reading for fun. Deci suggested that kids who learn with the expectation of being tested concentrate more on facts, but spend little cognitive ability on synthesizing the material
- Deci came back to these same groups of kids a week later and asked them to recall the passage that they had read. Not surprisingly, both groups of kids did not recall as much information as they did in the previous week, but the students that read the passage expecting to be tested recalled much less information that the group reading for fun.
In summary, Deci’s work seems to tell us that paying kids for performance leads to a decrease in their intrinsic motivation for a task. When a reward is involved, this can set up a scenario where kids focus more on gaining the reward than doing the best they can at the task – which can have a big impact on their learning and on their creativity.
So, is there a way to reward kids that leads to an increase in their intrinsic motivation? Or, in other words, can we still reward kids in a way that teaches them to value good, hard work?
The Pros To Pay-For-Performance Techniques
So after the doom and gloom of the previous section, it’s probably hard to imagine an argument that supports paying for performance, but there are actually some developmentally beneficial reasons for rewarding kids for a job well done.
First of all, paying for chores or grades models to kids how the real-world works. Moms and dads go to work each day and give their boss or their clients their time and effort, and they are rewarded with a paycheck for doing so.
We want our kids to grow up and to become self-reliant, and unless they are independently wealthy, they will need to get jobs in order to finance their independence. If parents model a good attitude about work, pursuing work that is challenging and interesting, and using their paychecks in a responsible manner, then they are setting their kids up for a successful future in the long run.
Albert Bandura’s Social learning theory in developmental psychology tells us that kids learn so much about life simply through observing the adults around them. Parents model to their kids the ins and outs of the working world (i.e. how to finish tasks, how to please the boss, how to make sure they are getting compensated fairly for their work, etc.) by providing an environment where kids are expected to perform certain tasks and then they are compensated for good work with payment such as an allowance or earned privileges.
Another reason that paying for performance makes sense is that this helps kids feel like a valued and appreciated member of the family.
Psychologist Frederick Herzberg investigated what factors lead to satisfaction in the workplace. His motivation-hygiene theory states that there are certain factors that, when present in the workplace, lead to an increase in job satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. These factors include:
- Recognition for a job well done
- The ability to experience achievement
- The opportunity to pursue personal growth through their tasks/assignments.
The three factors listed above – recognition, achievement, and personal growth – are all factors that parents can provide in the household, and our kids can really thrive in their development when they are present.
On the other hand, Herzberg also found that there can be factors that lead to dissatisfaction if they are not viewed by workers in a positive light. These factors include:
- Company policies that employees don’t agree with
- Supervisory practices that belittle or neglect recognition of employee effort
- Wages/salary that do not seem fair in light of the work given to the organization.
Again, I know this theory was originally created to make sense of workplace motivation, but I also believe that parents can benefit from what was learned from this study by understanding that people (including our kids) value recognition, achievement, and personal growth and will perform above expectations if these factors are present. In addition, family environments that don’t acknowledge good work, criticize work unnecessarily, and don’t assign chores or allowance fairly (or at least perceived to be fair by everyone in the family) can lead to problems.
Finally, the last reason that paying for performance can be a good idea for families is that simply giving attention to an act (in this case the act is completing chores for the good of the family or earning good grades to ensure a good future) tends to highlight its importance, thus encouraging this behavior to continue.
This reason is based upon a key psychological principle called the Hawthorne Effect. In the 1920’s, psychologists Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger wanted to find out if increasing the lightning in the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company would lead to better performance by the factory employees. He found that adding more lights did indeed lead to the employees producing more product; however, further experiments also found that any change they made to the factory environment – from letting the employees choose their team members to optimizing employee work spaces – led to the employees producing more product.
Why was that?
After many different changes to the experiment, Mayo and Roethlisberger concluded that the reason the employees produced more product after each change to their environment was not simply because they could see better or that they liked their working environment better, it was due to the fact that the employees were highly responsive to additional attention from their managers and the feeling that their managers actually cared about, and were interested in, their work.
How does this relate to parenting good kids?
If parents want to teach their kids the value of good work, then they need to consistently give attention to the household system for chores and/or schoolwork and grades.
How can parents do this? I’ll break it down for you in the next section.
How To Reward Kids Effectively For Chores and Grades
So, if you’ve read through the previous couple of sections of this post (so sorry it was so long, but I had much to say on this topic!), then you now have a good understanding of why paying for performance can actually be a good thing for your child.
Remember from the previous section, that kids are more likely to do their best on their tasks when their work is recognized and appreciated by their parents, and when they can experience a feeling of mastery at their tasks.
So how can parents create this kind of environment at home?
In order to reward your child in a way that increases their intrinsic motivation and leads to motivated, appreciative, and lifelong good workers, then you MUST remember 3 important principles: consistency, tone, and fairness.
Consistency is the key to reinforcing any kind of behavior with kids. If parents are not consistent, then kids learn to not take their parents seriously; therefore, it is important that parents:
- Have a plan for household chores and schoolwork expectations – and stick to it!
- Make a point to consistently model what it looks like to be a good worker
- Follow through with rewarding good work
- Follow through on handing out the agreed-upon consequences for unacceptable work
- Have regular discussion with their kids where they provide feedback on what their child is doing right, how they can improve, and if they are ready to tackle greater challenges.
There is a proper tone parents can take regarding paying kids for performance that Deci believes increases intrinsic motivation in kids. The goal is for kids to concentrate on doing their best and learning from their tasks – and not on simply gaining the reward.
To do this, parents need to set a tone in the family environment that::
- Communicates that allowance or payment is not a bribe or special reward, but a fulfillment of an agreement between parent and child (much like a paycheck fulfills the contract between employer and employee)
- Teaches your child that the quality of the work and their attitude towards their work is dependent on getting compensated for their work – allowance or payment is not guaranteed
- Allows for your child the ability to make mistakes and to learn from these mistakes – set a balance between authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting.
Kids are more likely to use intrinsic motivation to complete chores and schoolwork when they understand the reasoning behind why they must do this work – even if they don’t agree with it. Furthermore, as pointed out in the psychological studies discussed in the previous sections, kids who feel that the workload, reward structure, and system for consequences is fair produce better work.
To set up an environment that is perceived as fair in the household, parents can:
- Discuss the reasons why kids are assigned chores and why certain kids were assigned specific chores (this could be due to developmental level, ages, or specific interests/personal strengths)
- Make sure the chore and schoolwork expectations are developmentally appropriate for each child in the household
- Encourage the kids to have a voice in the job assignment and allowance/consequences structure while still acknowledging that parents have the ultimate say in the matter.
Take Home Message
Whether or not you choose to pay your child for their performance is ultimately up to you. No matter what decision you make, it needs to align with your individual family’s passions, values, and beliefs.
My hope in writing this (rather long) article is to help you feel more confident in whatever decision you make. There are good reasons why paying for performance doesn’t work and good reasons for why it does work – you just need to be clear on the lesson or value you want your child to learn from this.
If you are clear on your parenting priority, then you are definitely on the path to raising great kids!
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