A study released last month indicates that U.S. children receive from parents an average of $1,360 each year in the form of allowances, rewards and incentives. The study, which was conducted by coupon brand Vouchercloud, found that 71 percent of the parents of 5- to 10-year-olds give their children money regularly.
More strikingly, 55 percent of the group who give money to their children said that they have paid their children “bribes” to get them to be good.
What’s wrong with giving children a financial incentive to behave well? Ingrid Higgins, a marriage and family therapist at Campbell Teen and Family Therapy in Campbell, California, says that paying children this way can send the wrong message about good behavior.
“I do not believe that children should have money as an incentive for good behavior,” writes Higgins in an email to MoneyRates.com. “Good behavior is expected in a household and not something you get paid for.”
Higgins’ response echoes the views of numerous child psychologists who have said that bribes are a flawed means of influencing children’s behavior. Perhaps the most often cited problem with this approach is that it can lead children to believe that money is the only worthwhile reason to behave.
A too-simple fix for behavior problems
It’s easy to see how parents could be tempted into offering their children money for behaving: It’s simple to do and it may be effective in the short term. But the lessons people take from childhood can affect how they see money – and the value of good behavior – throughout their lives. Thus parents may wish to explore options for changing behavior that won’t lead their offspring to expect money simply for being good.
Dr. Marilee Ruebsamen, a psychologist in San Jose, California, says that there are numerous ways to help children develop better behavioral habits, but the best ones depend on parents knowing their children and the rewards that matter most to them.
“It's not about paying off kids for good behavior,” writes Ruebsamen in an email to MoneyRates.com. “It's about assisting them in areas they find difficult. Sometimes it's about working with them to co-create some incentives they'd find helpful to work for in order to increase better habits.”
When it comes to alternatives to bribes, Higgins says she favors a philosophy that emerged decades ago.
“I like the techniques from Love and Logic,” Higgins says, referring to the approach developed in 1977 by Jim Fay, a former school principal, and Foster Cline, a child psychiatrist. “A short summary: Have logical consequences for misbehavior.”
According to the Love and Logic website, “Children learn the best lessons when they're given a task and allowed to make their own choices (and fail) when the cost of failure is still small.”
Thus it’s simple to see how bribery – in effect, incentivizing children to stop their bad behavior before consequences can materialize – runs counter to this approach.
Higgins says this philosophy can extend to allowances and payments for chores as well. The Vouchercloud survey found that 77 percent of parents who give money provide their children a monthly allowance, and that 44 percent pay their children in exchange for chores. A 2013 study by MoneyRates.com also found that 87 percent of parents who pay their children an allowance expect them to earn it through chores.
“My view on money for children is that an allowance is to teach children how to manage money,” Higgins says. “I don't think it should be tied to chores. Chores are the children's contribution to a household, not something paid. However, I am OK with kids earning extra money by doing extra things.”
Higgins adds that it’s also OK to provide rewards when kids behave well – so long as the kids don’t come to expect them.
“Sometimes a parent is so happy when their kids are behaving well that they do special things,” Higgins says. “However, this is the parent’s choice and not to be expected by the child.”
While finding alternatives to bribery may prove challenging for some parents – particularly those who have used it in the past – the long-term consequences of bribery may ultimately cause them more heartache.
“Paying children for good behavior seems to create a sense of entitlement and an expectation they will always get money for good behavior,” says Higgins.
And, as most adults can attest, good behavior alone is no way to earn a dollar.