Should I bribe my kid for good grades or behavior?

Questions about kids and money keeping you up at night? This series answers them so you can get some sleep.

Although they may not admit it, lots of parents bribe their kids to, say, get an A or behave at Grandma’s. Why? They say it works. (And believe me, as a parent myself, I know there are moments when you’ll do almost anything to make your kid do what you want.) One recent survey found that almost half of all American parents bribe their kids to do well in school.

One problem: Research has found that bribery doesn’t work. Prominent Harvard economist Roland Fryer tracked almost 40,000 public school students in several cities who were offered cash for improved math and reading test scores. And the scores didn’t budge.

Good GradesOK, but it’s finals season, so maybe you’re thinking: I don’t care what the research shows, I offered my kid an iTunes gift card, and he got an A in math. Consider, however, what that incentive may be doing to your kid’s sense of worth and ability to do his best on his own. Bribing can send him the message that he can’t motivate himself. Will he know what to do, and have the confidence to do it, when you aren’t peering over his shoulder with an open wallet?

A bribe may also signal that the goal itself isn’t worth much on its own. Numerous studies have shown that if you pay someone to do something, and then take that incentive away, the payee loses all interest in what they were doing. If you don’t pay someone, on the other hand, there’s a chance that he’ll develop an interest in the task simply because he enjoys the challenge. Tricky, eh?

But don’t despair! There are ways to offer your kid healthy incentives. Professor Fryer’s research found that if you offer a reward to your kid for his efforts (what researchers call “inputs”) instead of results (“outputs”), you can nudge him in the right direction. Translation: If you want your kid to do well in math, offer him a reward for completing  homework diligently, rather than an A in the class itself. This makes sense, if you think about it: A kid doesn’t have control over the grade the teacher gives him, and may not even be aware of all the variables that go into getting a certain grade. But he has control over his own actions: putting butt in chair and working those math problems!