Baby bribes: NYC pays its kids for getting good grades. What about you?

While I wouldn't exactly describe myself as a problem child, I have to admit that elementary school wasn't an easy thing for me. It wasn't that it was particularly hard, but rather that I had a difficult time understanding why I had to take math, science, art, and all the other classes that weren't directly related to history and literature.

My parents more or less let my questionable grades slide until the day that I brought home an F in Religion. After briefly contemplating hiring an exorcist, they ended up deciding that bribery was a preferable route. Since my personal Achilles heel was things that went fast and seemed dangerous, my father and I agreed that, if I improved my grades sufficiently, I would get a cool two-booster air-propelled model rocket.

For the next couple of years, I worked hard in school and stocked up on rockets with every report card.
Years later, when I was raising my sister, I didn't hesitate to indulge in bribery. Since both my sister and I have a tendency toward legalism, we developed a highly-detailed system: she got $5 for every A, nothing for every B, owed me $5 for every C, owed me $10 for every D, and so on. I gave her bonuses for straight As, honor rolls, and other academic achievement awards. I hoped that the system of benefits and losses would more or less even out, but by the time she graduated from high school, she was taking me for something like $60 per report card. On the other hand, her grades were impeccable, which really came in handy when she applied to college.

The battle over bribery (or, if you prefer, positive reinforcement) has raged for years, with child care professionals taking both the pro and con approaches. Recently, New York City conducted a pilot program in which it paid students for high grades. In 34 out of 35 schools that enrolled in the program, there was a considerable increase in the number of students reaching proficiency in English; in math, there was improvement in 32 of the 35 schools. While the school administrators cited smaller class size, improved teacher quality, and other factors, they also had to admit that paying the kids was probably a major factor.

The biggest argument against paying children for academic achievement is that we should, ideally, encourage them to seek excellence as its own reward. While I acknowledge that excellence is a worthwhile goal, I also have to wonder how many children are likely to start taking "Excelsior!" as a rallying cry. I have no doubt that, by the time my sister graduated from high school, she would probably have worked hard regardless of the economic rewards that I provided. For that matter, I think that she would probably have worked hard in school even if I hadn't been paying her. On the other hand, my willingness to give her money for good grades showed my sister that I took her education very seriously. While I recognize that the idea of bribing one's kids might seem somewhat cynical, let's not forget that, in addition to the cool medallion, Nobel Prize winners also get $1 million!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He really misses those rockets. They took them off the market after some kid in the midwest shot one up his nose.
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