Rewards, Employment, and Responsibility

I was asked, “Why do adults work?”

The inquirer continued, “If not primarily for monetary reasons! We have a need and work is a means to achieve that end. Yes, there may be other drives but financial gain is the primary one. Why isn’t it the same with children? Find something else that motivates the child. I simply don’t believe that appealing to a 6-year-old’s sense of ‘what’s right’ will do the job. This might seem jaded but I’ve tested both ways and I see what works.”

The following was my response: 

If a youngster likes chocolate, for example, and if receiving the reward is contingent on performing the requirement, then of course this incentive works. If the youngster, on the other hand, is allergic to chocolate, then the incentive may not be very effective.

If the reward for the contest is an ocean cruise and the person gets deathly seasick, chances are the person will not enter the contest.

The point is simple: Rewards work if the person is interested in that reward. Grades are incentives. Some students are very interested in receiving a good grade. But many students are not interested in grades—so grades are not much of an incentive for them. Teachers should not assume that good grades are good incentives for all children. This seems rather obvious when so many students receive below average grades.

When was the last time you thanked your employer for the reward of your employment? You didn’t—and neither does anyone else. Employment is a social contract. You give your service and you are compensated—not rewarded—for your service.

There is nothing wrong with this—even if you want to call it a reward. Rewards are great incentives, great acknowledgments, but highly counterproductive. Holding out a carrot in front of a kid does not promote responsible behavior. (Neither does holding a whip from behind.)

Do you want to raise a generation of young people who will ALWAYS ask, “If I do what you want, what will I get for it?”

The most important point should not be lost: Rewards change behavior. When you reward a young person for doing what is right, you will never know if the youngster is doing the action to get the reward or because it is the right thing to do.

This is just another reason for young people to understand the difference between Level C and Level D in the Hierarchy of Social Development.