Should kids be given financial incentives to learn?


Soon enough it will be coming to that time again where our youngsters will hopefully be burying their heads into the books and trying to cram as much last minute knowledge into their brain as they can to succeed in passing their school exams.

I remember this time in my life well even though it was over 10 years ago – that’s quite a scary thought isn’t it! I remember walking out of my high school doors for the last time with a shirt full of marker pen signatures and well wishes from my friends knowing that I’d be back in just a few weeks’ time to face my final exams, a culmination of a lifetime of learning up until that point. If I was going to achieve my full potential in these exams then I was going to have to study long and hard during the ‘Study break’ we are given here in the UK before we take those final exams.

Nowadays I tend to be quite disciplined in the things I do, I set myself goals and I pretty much don’t stop until I achieve them. That was not the case in my teenage years however. As a teenager I’d much rather be out playing football and having a laugh with my mates than studying, couple this with the overconfidence of youth and the feeling that I would breeze through my upcoming exams and you can imagine that the discipline to actually sit down and study wasn’t exactly there in abundance.

A financial incentive came along

Before I go into the financial incentive I was offered for the exams, let me just tell you a little bit about how I think it came about.

Since I was a child I’ve always had a natural inclination to want to earn money. From the age of 12 I was raised in a single parent family where my mother had to financially support myself and my two siblings on an extremely tight budget. As money was so tight if I wanted to have extra things then I had to earn the money for them myself. I had a job at our local market all through my school years and I’d always try and pick up little jobs wherever I could. My mum worked as a sales person on my aunt’s farm and when the school holidays came along, more often than not I would go with her to the farm while she worked. While I was there my aunty used to find jobs for me to do too – some of them extremely tedious like ripping the foil tops off those little plastic butter packets you get with your toast in service stations, 1000’s of the things – and she would then pay me according to how many boxes I got through. She probably knew it anyway but things like this likely showed my aunt that I was quite easily motivated when there was a bit of money to be earned. Now back to the exam incentive.

I don’t know if my mum had let it slip to – or deliberately told – my aunt that I was spending more time playing football during my study break than I was studying, but one day I got a phone call from my aunt with a financial offer for me. She basically said that she would like to reward me monetarily depending on how well I did in my exams. I can’t remember the exact amounts but it was something like I’ll give you £20 for every ‘A’ mark you get, £10 for every ‘B’ and £5 for every C. That was quite a lot of money to me back then and needless to say I pretty much dropped my football in the street, ran into the house and grabbed a revision guide. I did pretty well in my exams in the end, a lot better than I would have done without my aunt’s incentive.

So my question to you is this, do you think what my aunt did was a good or a bad thing to do? Is it right to monetarily incentivize young people to achieve in the same way that we do for adults, or does it set a bad precedent where kids will only do things if money is involved?

16 Responses to Should kids be given financial incentives to learn?

  1. Kathy says:

    Hey, Adam, since you are from the UK would you educate me about the “levels” that students achieve there? I’ve heard of O levels and A levels but haven’t a clue what they pertain to. Also, do you have bachelor’s degrees (4 year university) and master’s degrees (2 year graduate school) like in the States? I’ve always been curious since I long ago read that Princess Diana didn’t do well in O levels.

    Regarding incentive, maybe a parental reward is ok. I may have done that with my son. But I don’t think anything formal through the school or government should be done beyond the awarding of valedictorian or salutatorian awards upon graduation.

    • Adam Buller says:

      I think the O levels are even before my time but the way things worked when I was at school was that we stayed there until we were 16 (It’s just changed to 18) and then we took a set of exams called GCSE’s in the three core subjects – Math’s, Science, English – and then some chosen subjects which you choose at around age 14. Then if you have the right grades you can head off to college (usually for 2-3 years) to do your A levels in your subjects of choice and then finally you can head off to university to do your degree which can be anywhere from around 3-5 years I think. Hope that helps Kathy, and hope it’s still valid info =)

      Yeah I certainly wasn’t thinking of anything on a government level. I just thought it would be interesting to hear whether people thought it was a good or bad idea on a family level. Personally I don’t think I’d offer my kids incentives from a young age but if I looked at my lad when he is about to take his exams as a teen and I can see that he’s a bit immature and blase about things like I was, I may be tempted to offer a little incentive just to make sure he gets the grades he needs. Looking back now I know I shouldn’t have needed that incentive but those grades helped me to get on my chosen courses and also to find employment so looking back, I’m kind of glad the bribe was offered 😉

  2. My wife at one point wanted to pay our kids for good grades on each report card. I was against it – my son summed it up perfectly when we congratulated him for getting straight “A”s: “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” yes, son….it is. 🙂

  3. I depends on how wealthy the family is as to whether or not kids are incentivised my money
    I think love and praise are better incentives than cash

    • Adam Buller says:

      I’d agree with you there Mike. I’d like to think my boys get showered with both of those so hopefully no bribe will be needed!

  4. I agree with Brock’s comment above. There are some things that make sense to reward and then there are things that you shouldn’t. If it is something that your kid is supposed to do, then paying for that task is only going to lead to trouble down the road.

  5. In the documentary Freakonomics, they actually test out this notion. I think the conclusion was that, over time, the financial incentive didn’t really make much of a difference.

  6. One of the big problems with paying for grades comes if you have 2 children one of whom is just better at passing exams than the other. If is fair that the academic child should get more money for less effort?

    I never offered money for grades to my two. After a good set of results, I took the whole family out to celebrate, and the child chose the restaurant.

    I did buy my daughter a Macbook after she got brilliant As. But I think that’s rather different. It’s nice to give things to your children and she had worked very hard. But she hadn’t been promised it, so she knew she was working hard for her own future, not for some money for me.

    • Adam Buller says:

      I’d agree that could cause issues if you have kids around the same age and no I don’t think that would be fair. There’s quite a big age gap between myself and my siblings so it wasn’t really a problem in my case. That’s a nice idea to go out for a meal, I’ll remember that.

  7. Dave Lalonde says:

    I feel like it’s important to teach kids that you must work hard for success, but there is a thin line. I was actually just reading a blog post about this ( where some parents felt like they shouldn’t be tying a chore to allowance. It might make kids feel like they’re only going to do things that will reward them with money. But on the side note, I think it’s pretty neat how your aunt offered you an incentive like that. You must’ve studied your butt off!

    • Adam Buller says:

      Yeah the incentive definitely worked in my case Dave and those grades have helped me at all stages in life so I’m glad she did it. As The Wallet Doctor mentioned, I suppose it all depends on the child and the circumstance as to whether it could be a good or a bad idea.

  8. I know a lot of parents who implement these kind of strategies. I think its effectiveness really depends on the kid. Some children can really thrive with the financial rewards in the balance. Others may better thrive with other incentives. I do think its good to get kids learning about the value and management of money from an early age, so combining efforts may be really good in the long run.

    • Adam Buller says:

      I think your right TWD, I think it can work well in certain cases but not all. From a slightly different angle, I suppose if we live in a society that seems quite happy to financially reward failure then it can’t harm to reward young people’s success from time to time.

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