Is Rewarding Kids for Doing Well in School a Bad Thing?

By Damon Verial
Praise and material rewards help a child internalize the value of school.
Praise and material rewards help a child internalize the value of school.

Some parents might wonder if rewarding their children's strong academic performance will cause their kids to see school merely as a means to an end. But according to a Pearson review of the literature on motivation, without proper rewards, which can be as simple as praise, you’re leaving it up to your kids to make sense of whether their academic performance has any bearing on their lives. Overall, rewarding kids for doing well in school is a helpful action that can drive more good performance.

Rewards Help Set Expectations

Rewarding children for strong academic performance is not only a form of positive reinforcement, a psychological term for an action that makes the appearance of a certain behavior more likely, but it is also a good way of showing expectations. When you reward your child for good school performance, you are telling her that her behavior is deserving of a reward; in other words, you demonstrate to her that success in school is something to be proud of. The giving of an award after impressive academic achievement is also a positive reinforcement that can lead to more academic achievement. A parent who rewards her child for doing well in school is communicating to her child that academic achievement is important.

Lack of Rewards Implies Lack of Consequences

Children, especially young children, are not particularly receptive to logical reasoning. The argument that while school is important, a child doesn't need rewarded for her academic achievements, is an argument not likely to fly with most kids and will, in fact, likely fly right over their heads. On the other hand, the receptiveness to reward is built into the evolution of the mind and exists in all humans. The giving of an award creates a causal connection: "If I do well in school, I get to go out to my favorite restaurant with my mom and dad." This connection doesn’t appear when behavior isn’t connected to a reward. In a way, by avoiding giving your child rewards for strong academic performance, you’re telling her that what she does in school is all but inconsequential.

Rewards Prevent Less Desirable Behavior

Ultimately, children have a choice in their academic life. They can work hard, put in the minimum effort or work hard to avoid school work. Many children will experiment across the board, letting their brain tell them what feels best. A child who isn’t rewarded by her parents for good academic achievement is unlikely to make the choice to do her homework when other, more rewarding activities present themselves. For example, picking up the handheld video game on her bed will give her the immediate reward of entertainment. If she has little drive to work on his school work, she’s likely to give into the rewards of more immediate behaviors. Parents can counter such impulses by motivating children toward focusing on school through cultivating an environment in which academic achievement is rewarded with praise and on other means.

The Guilt of Rewarding Kids

Some parents might feel guilty in rewarding their children for academic achievement. After all, doing well in school is an "ought," a responsibility, and therefore shouldn't be rewarded, a parent may say. This way of thinking is likely to lead parents to another thought: rewards are actually bribes. But rewards are not bribes; rewards are reinforcements, as pointed out by Trinity College Dublin’s Children’s Research Center. Even praise, the simplest form or reward, helps children child regulate their actions and internalize values. Rewarding a child after she’s done well in school isn't the same as telling her "“The only reason you should do well in school is to get a reward." It is more akin to telling her, “What you’ve done is good. Keep doing it. School is important."

About the Author

Having obtained a Master of Science in psychology in East Asia, Damon Verial has been applying his knowledge to related topics since 2010. Having written professionally since 2001, he has been featured in financial publications such as SafeHaven and the McMillian Portfolio. He also runs a financial newsletter at Stock Barometer.