what’s wrong with rewards? parenting in an age of incentives

In An Age of Incentives Eric Felton says incentives for students are spreading like kudzu. Not only are parents paying off their kids for making good grades, schools in New York, DC, Chicago and Dallas have paid out $6 million in incentives for getting better grades, reading books, and behaving in class.

North Carolina is even paying teenage girls a dollar a day not to get pregnant and communities everywhere are paying people to sort their trash while companies pay out bonuses for quitting smoking or losing weight. Philadelphia has a pilot program paying people for remembering to take their medicine.

This “libertarian paternalism,” as some have called it, encourages good behavior rather than penalizing the bad. “But of course the libertarian part of the equation is just a clever way of making the paternalism more palatable,” Felton writes.

In Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, University of Chicago professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocate such soft paternalism as a way for government to structure our choices so we make better decisions. This idea, rooted in behavioral economics, argues that such an approach helps manage our irrational choices.

There are only two problems with this. It doesn’t work and it’s not right.

It doesn’t work because we can change our behavior without changing our hearts, especially when rewards are involved. And it’s not right because a bribe only makes us greedy, not good.

Any kid can figure that out. In the end they aren’t exactly rats in Skinner’s labs, but people making choices based on potential outcomes, usually self-serving ones. And sooner or later both parents and governments run out of candy.

Speaking as one who still doesn’t like the idea of being required to wear a seat belt, I doubt if my heart would change whether you pay me or give me a ticket. Yes, I’ll wear it. But I still won’t like it. Part of me just doesn’t like being told what to do.

And that’s the problem. Like an age of entitlement, an age of incentives brings out the worst in us, just for different reasons and in different ways. Felton puts it this way:

Even those of us who resort on occasion to bribing our own broods know full well that the real goal is to teach our children virtues for their own sake. Are we teaching effort, enterprise, honesty, kindness, loyalty and perseverance, or are we instilling a grubby insistence on being rewarded at every turn?

No government, no church, and no parent, can change a human heart. Neither the priest Eli or the king David could figure this out. The gospel alone promises a new heart.

And that’s a lot better than a candy bar.

4 thoughts on “what’s wrong with rewards? parenting in an age of incentives”

  1. I could’nt agree more. Having been employed almost 20 years By a behavioral modification based residential facility I have seen first hand the futility of such an approach.
    “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” 2 Cor 5:17

  2. Well put Dr. Metts.

    I have found that many folks don’t understand the difference between “bribes” & “rewards”: a bribe is offered/given in advance in an attempt to induce desired behavior; a reward is given only after expected behavior is spelled out and achieved. When parents reward their kids’ good behavior/achievement, they are reflecting the way that God interacts with His redeemed people. He offers rewards of great value in this world & the next.

    One part of your post in particular shows the folly of governmental bribery: “North Carolina is even paying teenage girls a dollar a day not to get pregnant. . .” In this case, teen girls are being bribed to avoid a CONSEQUENCE of sinful behavior, not necessarily to refrain from the sexual behavior itself. The dollar-a-day program creates incentives for additional sinful choices such as oral sex and abortion, and still leaves these girls vulnerable to STDs, abuse and countless emotional/spiritual consequences. It’s heart-breaking.


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