Bribing/Rewarding kids to learn

Have you ever taught yourself how to do something or set a goal for yourself that no one else knew about?   I’m sure you have.  (I’ll bet almost all of you taught yourself some aspect of using the computer or smart phones, whether it was texting, emailing, surfing the Net, etc.)  And doesn’t it feel good when you get it right, or achieve the goal?

I taught myself how to quilt.  Or I should say, I wanted to learn how to quilt, so I went out and found the resources and information I needed in order to learn it.  I didn’t take a class, but I did a lot of reading.   In addition to ‘how to’ books, I read about the history of quilting and went to a great exhibit of traditional American quilts and the Quilts of Gees Bend.    I then made a full-sized quilt from scratch and without any pattern for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.   It wasn’t fancy but it was made out of my mother’s favorite materials and colors, and it had photos from their wedding worked into it.   Of course it was great to watch them open it and see how happy it made them, but the best reward was just being able to visualize, plan and complete it on my own, helped out occasionally by my kids who got into the spirit of it with me.

A few years ago I decided I would enter the NaNoWriMo ‘competition’.   NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it is held every November.   The goals is to write a minimum of 50,000 words in 30 days.   You sign up on their website, and at the end of the month submit your manuscript and if the word count is enough, your name goes on their ‘winners page’.   It’s all done on the honor system, as there is no one making sure you didn’t start the novel before November 1st, and there really is no reward other than the satisfaction of having done it.   When I entered, I told NO ONE.  Not even my husband.   I didn’t want to have to admit failure if I didn’t complete the task, and I was afraid that if I spoke about it, the pressure would be too great.   The first 10 days or so were hell.   I had worked out how many words I needed to write each day to make the minimum, and I struggled.   Then, at around two weeks, something clicked and I was flying.   I came in at something over 53,000 words, and that first draft has since expanded into 83,000 words and  a real novel, which isn’t yet published, but I’m confident will be one day.

As Emerson said, the reward in completing any task that is of your own devising is simply the having done it.   Most of the time the sense of pride you feel needs no outside corroboration, although that’s nice too. (But it is secondary and not vital to the task)   Which is why I find the type of reward system found in our schools to be particularly insidious.   From gold stars to money (yes, money.  There was an initiative in New York City to PAY kids for good grades – that and buying them cell phones), it seems there is nothing the powers that be won’t do to coerce children into learning something.   Even the Sylvan Learning Center rewards children with material items for performing well.  Honor rolls and Gifted and Talented Programs are another form of material reward – the reward they give is to be able to say you are better than other kids.   Have you ever seen those bumper stickers “My Child is an Honor Student at Such and Such School”?   I hate those things.   Do well in school and your parents will boast about you on a bumper sticker!   I’m always tempted to go out and get a bumper sticker that says, “My Child prefers Playmobil to Math – what’s it to you?”

Bribing kids with prizes for doing well on tests or getting good grades (which I think I may have mentioned before is not the same as learning, anyway)  gives the message that learning isn’t really the goal.  The goal is the prize.   Get a high score, win a prize.   Score low and you go home empty-handed.   Our government hands out the money to the schools that perform well on tests.   They tend to close the schools that don’t.    Is it any wonder teachers spend the majority of their time ‘teaching to the test’?

In my mind there is no greater admission that our schools no longer have anything to do with real learning than this bribery-based system.  No child is interested in the subjects they are ‘taught’.  They want the rewards – are told they need them in order to succeed.   This myth is so deeply ingrained it is almost a form of brainwashing.  I even know homeschoolers who succumb to it, promising the purchase of a desired toy as a reward for completing a project or set of problems.  Don’t we want our kids to learn because they are curious and not because they know there are goodies waiting for them?   Is there anything better than the look of satisfaction on their faces when they figure out, on their own, how to get to the top of that tree?   Or de-code a message?  Or build a wooden boat?  Or solve a problem?   Or ANYTHING, as long as it is something they wanted to do, and not something that was assigned to them with the promise of a prize if they did it?    In case you can’t tell the difference, here’s a clue.   When a kid figures something out on their own and is proud of it, they will want you to come and look, and will spend some time telling you how they did it.  If they are doing something because they know there’s a prize in it for them, they will complete it, walk over and hand it to you while saying,  “When do I get the ____?”  or “So where’s my____?”

The next time you learn something on your own, remember how good it feels.   Make it your goal to instill curiosity about the world in your child, and they will spend their lives eagerly learning all they need to know.    Even without a gold star.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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