Monday, March 21, 2011

Parenting and Economic Incentives

We recently watched the movie Freakonomics, which I found quite interesting.
Economist Stephen Levitt and journalist Steven Dubner (there is also a book and a Freakonomics blog) study how economic incentives influence human behavior?

Sin taxes have been around for a long time, such as the cigarette tax to influence people to smoke less. Positive incentives abound too: remember tax credits for installing solar panels after the first energy crisis in Billy Carter days, or more recently, health care plans offering rewards if you join a gym...

One of the experiments done in "Freakonomics" was to see if paying money for good grades (an economic incentive) would work to improve school performance of 9th graders who were failing.
The experiment was set up by the Economics Dept of the University of Chicago: the students were paid $50 if they kept all their grades at C and above, plus a chance to win an even bigger prize ($500) plus a classy limousine ride.
Interestingly enough, the program did not work as well as some might have expected. There were some improvements in grades, but really not as much as they predicted/hoped. The researchers were wondering if perhaps it was already too late for these 9th-graders -- would the experiment have worked better in elementary school? Is it even the right approach?

It made me wonder about the role of incentives in parenting -- how much do parents use incentives in raising their kids? And is it even a good idea?
We all have heard not only of parents that pay for chores and good grades, but even earlier in life, use candy as rewards for everything from potty-training to eating broccoli.
I call that "bribing", and I personally do not think it is such a good idea. Why -- what's wrong with a little bribery? OK, maybe a "wee" little bit, occasionally, is probably ok. But what if it's overused? Do incentives rob kids of the chance for self-motivation?
Kids start expecting something (money, candy) for things that really should be done as a matter of course -- eating your vegetables, clearing the dishes, doing your homework -- isn't that simply part of being a member of family/society?
True, when first introducing a toddler to something new, like potty-training, parents often resort to incentives. The Freakonomics team told the story of potty-training Levitt's 3-year-old daughter: M&M's for going on the potty. Sure, for the first 3 days it worked like a charm, but smart little Amanda had soon learned to game the system: a few dribbles for a handful of M&Ms, then back to the potty for a few more dribbles... you get the idea! The incentive program had back-fired: the parents had become a slave to the M&M payment system.

So what's a desperate parent to do? For potty-training it's probably pretty harmless to try incentives (I remember we used stickers at some point) -- as with so many things in life, when the kid is ready, he/she will start using the toilet (Digression: I remember a Kindergarten teacher once reassuring me that she's never had a child arrive in her class in diapers: "Honey, your kid will get there, eventually, on his own!").

But what about later in life? Especially during the tweens and teens? How can parents motivate them to "do the right thing?", especially when the kids seem to be immune to parental words of wisdom and/or even pleading? If you ask your teen to help clean the house or car before grandma gets picked up at the airport, and they won't do it unless there is compensation negotiated first, then something is wrong in how that family works.
Like the researchers in the Chicago experiment mentioned above, effective parenting needs to have started at a much younger age!

A friend with a toddler asked my husband and I recently about how we raised our kids -- did we use incentives? Not much at all, we realized, other than perhaps the incentive of love & praise. Kids naturally want to please their parents, and if they are rewarded for doing the right thing ("Thank you", "You're such a big help", "I'm so proud of you."), that seems to work well in most cases. Admittedly, raising children is not always smooth sailing -- sometimes there are situations where material incentives might well be appropriate.

Remember when the toddler wanted to help with everything, and you know that it will end up a great deal messier than if you just did it by yourself? Somewhere along the line, their eagerness to help disappears, becoming "work" rather than "fun". Getting the kid to pitch in becomes a battle of wills, bribes, and punishments in some families -- what happened?

In an ideal world, parents can raise their children with the expectation that this is what family members do to help each other out. They've made it about love, trust, cooperation, rather than about "what will I get out of it?". I'm not saying it's always easy, but it's certainly worth trying to start without material incentives!

I'm afraid that using candy and money for incentives leads to selfishness. And in my book, raising a child that think first about "How's that going to benefit me?" is not a good thing -- unless of course they're headed for Wall Street...



Kirsten said...

I remember trying to talk Dad into giving me one of his old cars in exchange for good grades. It went something along these lines.

"If I say no are your grades going to fall?"
"Do you think it's pretty likely you'll get on of these cars anyway?"
"So why are we having this conversation?"
"Because I'm working really hard at school and I really want a car and I thought it would be nice to tie the two together. And Jenn's parents just gave her a NEW car."

I graduated with a 4.0, and a car. Yay!

US Tax Abroad said...

I'm surprised it didn't help the grades. My parents did it with me and it always worked!