Pitfalls of over-rewarding children's achievements

Rewarding your children's achievements can lead to failure, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 5:08pm

Most would agree that a carrot generally works better than a stick. Many parents give their children a small treat, or a gift, when they do well in school as encouragement. Some resort to giving cash or a coveted gadget as an incentive to work harder. Critics decry the practice as a kind of bribery that undermines the real value of learning, but is it simply just a matter of paying for good performance?

Accountant Fung Wai-man rejects the notion of material rewards to motivate youngsters in their studies, although her husband Arthur Yuen Kwong-hung, a sales executive, believes that the gifts are the best way to recognise their two daughters' efforts at school.

"I don't give them anything. But my husband is indulgent and satisfies most of their material wants. A 'pass' is good enough for him; they don't even have to score high marks in tests. He thinks children should be encouraged and appreciated by parents all the time."

The couple's daughters, Sugar, 18, and Cherry, 24, have responded differently to these divergent parenting styles. Sugar, a Form Six student, appreciates the treats, and tries her best at school. But Fung feels Cherry has come to associate parental love with material gifts.

"She thinks her dad loves her very much, and I am a stern mum who just sets rules," Fung says. "Cherry doesn't have a clear value system. She asks us to buy her everything, like a mobile phone or a handbag. The cost never crosses her mind. She takes the gifts for granted."

Although her husband gave Cherry whatever she wanted for making the slightest improvements, Fung says, their elder daughter did not do well in public exams, and became a beautician after leaving secondary school.

Sugar, however, is less materialistic and considers the family finances when telling the couple about her wants: "She treasures the rewards, which spur her to do better next time."

Fung feels that the rewards have proved an added incentive for Sugar's learning, but they have backfired for Cherry. Well-dangled carrots must take into account the child's character, experts say, and what works for one youngster may not work for another.

Florrie Ng Fei-yin, an assistant professor at Chinese University's department of educational psychology, says a reward system works best with underachievers.

"Students who perform poorly at school are so put off by books and homework, that they don't even want to touch them. So the rewards entice them to at least make the first attempt. Likewise, for a child who is afraid of sports: a reward can be used as a trigger to make him take the plunge."

A 2008 study by British education watchdog Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills reinforces Ng's view. The study, conducted on 29 secondary schools, concluded: "Rewards, such as opportunities to go on trips or to gain awards, were a powerful incentive for students who struggled with school. Rewards motivated the students to apply themselves more and to achieve better grades."

But for most other students, Ng says, rewards do not necessarily help much to bolster motivation. "Extrinsic rewards, like giving a child five dollars for every storybook he reads, will wipe out any intrinsic motivation," she says.

"If a parent or teacher plies a child with rewards, the child will keeping thinking about them, and even grow addicted to them. Gradually, his original interest in an activity like reading will be eclipsed by his craving for the rewards. Once his innate motivation in reading fades, he will stop doing it once the rewards stop coming."

Once kids become desensitised to the rewards, their performance will deteriorate
Fritz Pang, educational psychologist

Many studies suggest that linking reward to an activity that individuals enjoy can erode their original enthusiasm - the so-called over-justification effect. Among the earliest is a 1973 US study by Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett of 51 preschoolers who liked to draw.

Children were divided into three groups and given time to draw: the first was told they would get a gold certificate for drawing; the second received the same reward but were not told of it beforehand; the third had no reward.

Over a couple of days, researchers tracked how much they drew of their own accord. The group expecting a certificate spent less time on drawing, indicating that children who originally liked the activity became less motivated once they knew that would be rewarded for it.

Former teacher Yau Wing-yi finds the best way to energise her three children to accomplish more is to help them identify the subjects and pursuits they love. Her oldest son Chan Nok-him, for instance, never needs prompting for music practice. The eight-year-old enjoys music so much he happily forgoes television and video games for his hour of cello and piano practice every day.

When Nok-him was younger, she first introduced him to a variety of music and drama, as well as sports like swimming. He fell in love with the cello, started lessons when he was in K3, and passed his Grade 7 exams after only two years.

"I never need to remind him to practice," Yau says. "Practising the cello and piano has become part of his daily routine." Nok-him may love music, but the constant need to practice technique and increase his musical understanding taxes his self-discipline, especially when his friends are having fun.

Yau says all that's needed to spur on her son is a sense of achievement. "He enjoys performing, so I sign him up for musical competitions to fulfil his desire."

Yau insists she's no ambitious stage mum: "I know nothing about music. Even if I wanted to push him, I wouldn't know how to," she says. "It's in the nature of kids to like showing off." Winning is good, too: "He enjoys winning prizes, which are an acknowledgement of his efforts.

"His idea of fun is to meet others with similar interests. He asks me to enrol him in various children's orchestras. Last year, he was ecstatic that he won a place at the Junior Music Programme at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA). There are only a few places every year. Getting in is like winning the Mark Six. So I made an exception [about not giving rewards] and bought him a HK$1,000 Lego set, as it is a big achievement."

Yau, who holds a masters in educational psychology, knows that while rewards are effective in the short term for inducing children to do what's expected of them, they are often counterproductive in the long run. "I used to teach at schools with unruly kids who did not like studying at all. Small presents like pieces of chocolate can prompt them to pay attention for a while. Because they are generally regarded as losers, these students are grateful for the attention and sit up and listen.

"But for students who are good at school, the best incentives are not material things, but the sense that they have overcome challenges and won recognition for their efforts," comments Yau.

That's the psychology Yau has tapped into with her second son Chan Long-kiu, six, who loves reading, calligraphy, and anything to do with words. "He's in K3, but I give him primary level exercises to work on. He gets great satisfaction if he gets all the answers right. He feels he's smart, and wants to challenge himself more."

Yau and her husband try to create a home environment that can nurture Long-kiu's love for reading. The cabinets are filled with books. They've hung a big whiteboard outside his room where he likes to write new Chinese, English and Japanese words that he has learned. And when a teacher singles out his Chinese compositions for praise, Yau makes it a point to post them up at home. "They make him feel proud of his achievement," she says.

Her husband, a chemistry teacher, also knows how to foster their interest in science. When Long-kiu began asking about the meanings of symbols such as H 20, his curiosity piqued by paper cups featuring chemical names, he was quick to seize the opportunity.

"My husband made use of the chance to teach him the periodic table and he has since liked drawing up the table," she says. "In our family, we never need to use rewards to get the children to study."

Nok-him spends all his Saturdays at the APA for cello training and he still wants me to take him to musical performances at night. On weekdays, he knows he can only play cello after finishing all his homework. The cello practice session itself has become a reward."

Fritz Pang Chi-wa, an educational psychologist with New Horizons Development Centre, advises parents to avoid giving cash and expensive items when devising ways to motivate children to work at their studies.

"Using cash will monetise academic achievement and the pursuit of knowledge," he says. As an example, Pang cites a client who gave his son a diesel-powered mini bike worth more than HK$10,000 when he did well in Primary Five. But he soon became impervious to the gifts he received from his dad, says Pang.

"When parents shower kids with gifts, performances improve - but only up until a point. The law of diminishing returns will kick in. Once kids become desensitised to the rewards, their performance will deteriorate. Instead of material rewards that are for children's entertainment, parents should give them books, stationary, models and puzzles that have more educational value," says Pang.

Flora Chan Mei-yuk and her husband, Pang Chi-keung, have long been cautious how they reward their children, Jimmi Pang Ho-yin, 10, and daughter Bowie Pang Po-yi, 13.

"While we give them pocket money, we never give cash for good performance, as this cheapens the act of learning and makes them materialistic," she says. Instead, they prefer gifts that help boost children's thinking skills.

"The promise of a family trip is a way to tempt my son to work harder. He loves travelling to places like Disneyland. Two years ago, when he was in Primary Three, he was ranked among the top four in his class [for the first time]. We joined a trip to Taiwan for Christmas. It was not only a reward for his good performance, but also provided good family bonding time."

They prefer not to quantify the children's achievement, Chan says. "Gifts are just an acknowledgment of their efforts. Working hard should be for its own sake, as it can help them realise their dreams in the future."


Credits where they're due

Schools customarily hand out merit stickers and book coupons to recognise students' progress or successes, and stellar results may well bring scholarships. In recent years, schools in the West have even launched reward programmes under which students can bring home cash, plane tickets and tablet computers.

High-school students in New York City and Dallas, for instance, are paid for performing well in their Advanced Placement tests. In Britain, about 500 secondary schools have subscribed to the Vivo Miles programme, a scheme run by a private company in which students can use credits earned for good behaviour and grades to collect expensive gifts.

The CMA Secondary School in Kowloon launched a similar programme in 2009. Under the Infinity Fund Award Scheme, students earn between five and 30 points for good conduct, grades, improvement, and participation in extracurricular activities and community service.

The points can be kept for up to three years, and can be used to redeem various prizes including laptops, tablet computers, digital cameras and remote-controlled helicopters. Students can also opt for a trip to the outlying islands with principal Mak Yiu-kwong, who conceived the scheme a year after taking office.

"It's like the gift programmes launched by banks," Mak says.

An iPad would require 6,000 points, a ThinkPad 7,800 points. Only three of each are up for grabs each year. But those who can't accumulate so many points can exchange the credits earned for HK$10 McDonald's coupons, which are 120 points.

The scheme has had a remarkable effect on students who didn't have much motivation in the past.

"For senior forms, 40 [out of 100] marks is considered a pass; but we still award 10 points to recognise the student's effort," Mak says.

"It's a miracle. Their behaviour in class has improved. The school organises 17 kinds of after-class tutorials and in the past we had to beg students to join. But now they go to tutorials of their own accord. Test scores have jumped.

"That they can choose the gifts is a great incentive." Sneakers, which require 2,200 points, have proved to be the most popular.

"They can even join me for a ride. For 2,000 points, I will drive them around Hong Kong island or take them on a day trip to Cheung Chau with a free meal thrown in. But no one wants that prize," Mak concedes.

When students notch up outstanding achievements outside school, they can enjoy special offers for a month.

"Last year, six of our students won a territory-wide robotic competition, and got the chance to represent Hong Kong in the US. To celebrate, students were able to exchange gifts at a 30 per cent discount for a month."

Whether schools should use cash and other material incentives to lift student performance has long been a contentious issue.

In 2010, Harvard economist Roland Fryer stirred considerable controversy when he launched a scheme under which 40,000 students in 261 schools received US$6.3 million as reward for good grades and behaviour.

Fryer found that paying students directly for higher test scores did not increase their performance, with some faring worse in tests.

However, payment as inducement for good behaviour such as attendance and classroom order yielded much better results. Students displayed a significant increase in reading comprehension and test scores.

Mak says CMA's reward system works because it covers many areas besides academic achievement.

"Students can also show willingness to improve themselves in lots of areas. They get 10 points for being punctual and not skipping school for a month. Those who serve as prefects, lunchtime volunteers and librarians can also earn points," he says.

"It isn't only good academic performance that rates recognition.