As a society we believe that kids should save some things for later in life.
The easiest example of this is sex. We don’t think it benefits kids to do it early. Even though for centuries older people have forced kids to have sex with impunity, we do not accept that in our society. It’s statutory rape until the youngest of the two people is 16 or so.
Then I started thinking of other examples of things we save for kids to do when they are older.
Religion is one that is much less clear than sex. I don’t think kids can choose their own religion. And I think if you tell a kid they can be any religion, they will probably feel connected to no religion. It was very important to me to have kids with a Jewish man. That was not such important criteria to me the second time I picked a husband. I wanted someone who would be a great dad to my kids. But we both agreed that the kids needed to be clear on their religion, so while my husband is a practicing Christian, he helps me to raise the boys to know they are Jewish. We are saving personal decisions about religion until the kids are teenagers.
Other decisions are not so clear. For example, there is consensus among doctors that kids in Little League baseball should not learn to throw a curveball because it’ll destroy their arm. Save the breaking pitches for when kids are older and have better body control.
Voice lessons, too, are something we save for later. Voice lessons before a child reaches their teens is too high risk for destroying the vocal chords. Good voice teachers will take a very talented youngster who is already singing well and teach that child how to preserve their voice with proper breathing. But voice lessons to expand range are something we protect kids from until they are older.
Child labor is clear cut for Americans. We don’t believe in sending kids to factories to work all day. Even if their parents need the money, kids should not support parents financially. It’s not fair to the kids to squander their childhood performing something paid labor.
So I was surprised to see the argument that kids should be paid to go to get good grades. There are plenty studies showing that kids do better in school if you pay them. And it makes total sense. There is no time in life when we work for free doing something we don’t like doing. Adults get paid to do work they don’t like doing. Adults get paid to do work they find pointless. So why not pay students?
The only incentive students have to do well is the promise that good grades will give them a good life later on. But we know that first of all, there is little correlation between good grades and a good life. But more than that, many kids choose lives that do not require the experience of working hard at school tasks they don’t care about.
The truth is that most kids end up in school because their parents don’t want to have them at home all day. It’s nicer for parents to have their kids in school even though it would be nicer for kids to have a customized education at home. In exchange for kids giving up their days to school, the adults should pay the kids.
Economist Steven Leavitt found that the best way to get good work out of kids is to pay them money right before a test and tell the kids they will lose the money if they don’t improve their grade from the last test.
This tactic works because of what psychologists call loss aversion: we care more about potentially losing something we have than potentially gaining something we don’t have.
And, ironically, I think this is why parents send their kids to school in the first place—parents don’t want to lose the time away from kids that they get from public school.