Pay As You Grow

When Tamara Dungan was growing up, her grandparents would pay her $1 for every A on her report card.

“For me, it was motivating,” says Dungan, co-owner of VegasParent.com, an online parenting resource. “The first thing when I got my report card, I didn’t care what my parents said. I’d call my grandfather and grandmother to get the money.”

Now, Dungan, 39, who has children in preschool, first grade and fourth grade, jokes that it may be time to start bribing her fourth-grader to earn better grades.

“For me, it’s not a moral issue,” Dungan says. “There’s nothing wrong with it. I think (children) should be rewarded for hard work. In our jobs we get rewarded with more clients, more bonuses and things like that, and school is their job and they need to have some kind of incentive. We all work better for incentives.”

Las Vegas attorney Spencer Judd and his wife never have offered their kids money for good grades. Besides being pricey — Judd and his wife, Jill, have nine kids, ages 3 to 21 — Judd says studying hard and earning good grades is “just kind of expected in our home.”

“I have, at times, looked at (a pay-for-grades model), but we’ve determined the best way is just to set high expectations and follow up with them and then reward them in other ways.

“I think kids just have to learn that you don’t get rewarded for things you’re expected to do,” Judd says.

It’s a conversational grenade to liven up any PTA meeting: whether a parent should pay a child for earning good grades.

On one side of the debate: parents who reason that money can be an effective performance incentive for kids, just as it is for those kids’ moms and dads.

On the other: parents who worry that exchanging grades for cash may taint a child’s attitudes toward learning.

In the middle: pretty much every other parent, who might acknowledge the beneficial effects a reward or incentive system can have, but becomes queasy about turning learning into a commercial exchange.

C. Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of labor economics at Cornell University, has studied a Texas program in which high school students receive cash awards for earning passing scores on advanced placement exams.

According to Jackson, cash incentives were linked with increases in AP participation, an increase in higher scores on ACT and SAT exams, and an increase in the number of students in the program who go on to enroll in a college or university.

However, Jackson doesn’t know whether the results of the Texas program translate into the more intimate model of a parent paying a child for good grades.

“My study looked at when you pay both the student and the teacher for good grades,” he says. “I’m not able to say what happens if you pay a student an allowance, per se (for good grades).”

The general notion of rewarding academic performance isn’t new, Jackson notes. Spelling bee winners receive prizes, for example, and nonmonetary incentives and rewards long have been used in the classroom to promote student achievement.

But, Jackson says, “I think it’s the fact that it’s monetary that starts to make people feel a little uncomfortable. That’s my assessment, because the general idea of having some kind of carrot-and-stick motivator is definitely not new.”

Jackson says one concern he hears from parents is that a cash reward system can result in “sapping the student’s intrinsic motivation and replacing it with an extrinsic motivation. So the worry they have is, in the short run you get the positive effects, but in the long run you’re worse off because children don’t understand how to be intrinsically motivated and enjoy work for work’s sake.”

Ideally, says Kevin Dunning, executive director of Faith Lutheran Junior-Senior High School, a student will, during the course of his or her academic career, “develop a love of learning.”

The idea, he continues, is to find “something that will spark a passion in them that they’ll start to explore as they go into adulthood. And ‘passionate’ and ‘pay’ don’t mix.”

Dunning says he respects every parent’s right to reward children for academic performance in whatever way they deem best. But Dunning adds that, when his own children, who are now in their 20s, broached a cash-for-grades proposal with him during their school days, “I just didn’t think that was something we wanted to try.

“We wanted to try to encourage them to do their best because that’s what they should be doing, not because they were working to get money,” he says.

Brad Beal, president and chief executive officer of Nevada Federal Credit Union, recalls giving the practice a try when his children, now 29 and 31, were younger.

“Let’s put it this way: It worked fine for a while,” he says, but, eventually, the children “got kind of bored with it. I think it’s like a lot of things: Even for adults it loses its luster.”

Deborah Danielson also tried it for a while with her children, who now are 29 and 31. But, says Danielson, owner and president of Danielson Financial Group: “I just found it didn’t work. They were never satisfied. Somebody’s parent always paid more and they (argued that they) worked hard and deserved more.

“We did it for one year,” Danielson notes, “and it was just really frustrating.”

However, remove cash from the equation and, in many parents’ minds, an incentive system becomes not only more palatable but even beneficial. Toward that end, Judd says, a family outing, a special dinner, or even just the acknowledgement of a good report card during family dinner can serve as an effective incentive for children.

“Money is not the No. 1 thing,” he says, “and I think if you teach children that money is the No. 1 thing, you’re really doing them a disservice.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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