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.

23 replies
  1. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    It’s funny, I’ve never thought about being paid for schoolwork until this post. I thought it was just something some parents did to ‘award’ high grades. I got paid for grades ever since 7th grade, when I argued that there was no reason for me to try if I wasn’t getting awarded for it (what kid over the age of 7 cares about an award certificate?). So, my mom started paying me $50/quarter for straight As, and for every B it went down $5. I rarely got anything less than straight As, because as a 12 year old, that was my income along with small babysitting gigs here and there. It totally makes sense.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I don’t think this post is about parents paying kids for grades, which my parents also did. I think this is about public schools paying kids to go to school and do well on tests, particularly in poorer districts. I’m not really certain I have a POV to offer here, but wanted to point out that this seems like another way that schools are replacing parents.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    I am all for the idea of getting paid for school work but the sad part is that just being really good in school doesn’t really translate to being good at life in the real world. It can give the kid an erroneous sense that they are going to be successful.

    It’s very common, where I come from, to stop going to school at 6 or 9th grade. Kids just need to work. School doesn’t automatically mean better wages. So they need to work to help provide for their families. That’s just your responsibility. And other things come into play.

    By the time kids are in 9th grade they are biologically ready to mate. School is this strange artificial environment that wants to delay everything. Some completely opt out, get a job or work in the family business, and live with their boyfriends/girlfriends. Some even get pregnant and go on building life.

    To some of you this may be outrageous. But that’s just the way it is there.

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this cultural timeline we have in which we allow people to make their own decisions. Some, like alcohol consumption, are said to have biological scientific basis (like how our brains are still shaping by age 18). Others are just flat out weird. The reason why kids are not able to decide for themselves very well in things like religion, sex, career, etc. is because the education and character forging opportunities have been saved out of reach from them.

    They don’t mature by then so of course they make stupid decisions. We view teenage hormones as hazardous. Teen pregnancy is lumped together with words such as “risk.” But maybe if we educated them with respect they would be able to work with their physical and biological nature to make decisions when most things line up for them.

    My hope is to not put all this knowledge out of reach for my children. I hope that they will have sex, choose a religion, and try different jobs at the pace that they are ready for it.

    Centuries ago, children couldn’t afford to just have a sheltered childhood of just play and no gain. My hope is to balance out opportunities for them to play and develop but not to shelter them so much that they will never know what it’s like to make decisions between different options because there’s no need, there’s no risk, there’s no real loss.

    I want them to have real losses and therefore, real gains. I want them to feel the weight of responsibility for themselves and their family but not let that crush them to the point that they can’t make decisions because they are so paralyze by the idea of failure.

  3. Liza
    Liza says:

    Check out “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn.
    Homeschooling is about upping a child’s internal motivation and allowing them to follow their own interest. Paying kids for something they enjoy doing will diminish that. It makes them motivated for the money, not for the sake of doing it. Sure, if you want to send your kids to public school, their behavior is already being manipulated by rewards and punishments in more ways than we can count, so by all means compensate them if you wish. But the idea of homeschool is about getting them away from all of that. I guess this post falls more under the education tab than the homeschooling tab. As homeschoolers, we want to avoid these things as much as possible!

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I am not sure I fully agree with your comment.

      Part of me fully agrees. YES! it’s about doing what you’re good at/you love for the sake of doing it!

      And part of me thinks, “you know what? when the rubber meets the road, we forgo what we love in favor of what provides for our most basic and most urgent needs. It’s good to prepare a child to earn a tangible reward (like money to buy his/her own toys/gadgets/experiences – besides the benefit of learning how to manage their own finances and have some independence) because that’s how the world works. It pays you when you’re really good at something that someone finds useful. The world doesn’t care if you’re really good at something like reading comic books and you do it because you love it. Unless that offers value to someone you won’t make money.”

      I still have to bring my thoughts full circle on this but I am sort of on both camps.

      • Liza
        Liza says:

        I agree with you that not everything in life is fun and that kids need to buck up and buckle down even when they don’t want to, but I don’t think this needs to be taught by paying them. What we are talking about more is ethics and values which can and should be instilled with out the use of behavior modification techniques (payment, praise, or punishment). Kids have a whole life ahead of them filled with unfun things, why subject them to more of it now? Taken to the extreme we might say that we should beat our children just in case they marry someone who beats them; it will make them tougher and better able to withstand the beatings later on, but this logic just doesn’t work. We want to raise healthy happy kids and we don’t need to modify or control their behavior we just need to guide them and model the adults we want them to become.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          That was not the point at all.

          No one said that children should get paid for morals and virtues. But that they should get paid for actual work put in.

          Why?
          Because that’s how the real world works.

          The world doesn’t care how much you love what you’re doing and how good you are at it unless it has some use for what you do.

          It’s true that children will only be children for a while. I don’t agree with sheltering childhood though. And this is not about forcing children to do the dreaded work that you dislike for pay so you can provide for basic needs.

          But it’s about giving a reward for figuring out systems that make you more efficient in your work. The reward in this case can be money so you go out and buy stuff you want above the bare necessities.

          Life will be full of unfun things true. But I would rather have my kids learn how to get good at doing the unfun stuff and get it over with fast so they get to the part that they enjoy.

          Childhood is not free of unfun things either. It’s just a matter of choosing a scenario that will teach something valuable.

          • VegGal
            VegGal says:

            Except the world doesn’t pay you to raise decent children, so right there is something they will need to learn. No one pays you to care for you sick mother, or to be a good neighbor.

          • VegGal
            VegGal says:

            Also, when they enter into to work world they will be paid peanuts compared to the amount of effort they will be required to give. Those who already know that working hard for nothing will get the more later will be ahead of the game. Especially if the want to own their own business. You do not get paid to start a business.

  4. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    Penelope,

    Since you usually agree with the overall idea of unschooling, I’d be curious to hear your reasoning for not allowing a child to choose their religion. Is it just because you might not like what they choose? And if that is the case, how is that any different from not allowing them to choose other (non-threatening) values in their life?

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think it may come from the kid is not outside the parent’s influence. So whatever they choose is really not their choice but a conglomerate of being influenced by their parents, the risk of dissenting with the parents, etc.

    • Lucy Chen
      Lucy Chen says:

      Young kids don’t even know what a religion is, or such a thing exist. My 2 and 4 years toddlers certainly don’t. So I guess you just raise them with your religion. Then when they get older, teens or whatever, they will choose what they like.

  5. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Hard work is one of the best means to building self respect and integrity. Without integrity, all the brains in the world mean nothing.

    I do not mean to say that success is the means to self respect. Success is a very complicated term.

    Even the most dreaded tasks, once completed, provide personal satisfaction. Money minimizes the real value of effort as life clearly shows. There is no correlation between hard work and financial compensation. When it comes to compensation, life truly is not fair. But regardless of how lucrative a career may or may not be, that certainty that we worked hard is a deep and lasting reward. Honest work is fulfilling. How else do you teach the intangible concept of fulfillment which is all people want anyway? If everything is about money, then the public school machine is right on target.

    • Liza
      Liza says:

      This is so true. Even if we compensate kids for “hard work” or “working hard” who’s to say what constitutes this exactly and what the compensation should be? No matter what, things are skewed and paying kids for schooling doesn’t help!

  6. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    Penelope,

    The most interesting takeaway from this post is that you really want your kids to be a specific religion for now. That surprises me. You seem, from afar, like someone who wouldn’t mind if your kids chose to follow a different belief system at any age.

    Paying kids to do well in school makes all the sense in the world. I would prefer taking the child out of school completely, but for parents unable or unwilling to do so, why not follow a proven, empirically successful approach that also happens to be a highly accurate simulation of real life?

    – Jay

  7. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    We do too believe in sending kids out to work all day. We send them out to school where they sit all day and get paid nothing for their labors.

    Check out the classic 1913 article “Why Children Work” by Helen Todd. Children worked because their father had died or been disabled. They preferred work to school because employers treated them better than schools. And they were proud to help support their families.

    There’s got to be something better for children than compulsory government child custodial facilities with no pay and no time off for good behavior.

  8. Claire
    Claire says:

    This might be off-topic, but I would hesitate to pay kids for school (regardless of whether it is productive to do so) simply because I’m worried about what they would do with the money. Maybe I’m too much of a control freak but for kids younger than 18 I would want to be able to approve any proposed spending with any money that is given (as pocket money) or awarded to them.

  9. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    If receiving good grades in school is not an indicator of future success, why would you support parents encouraging them to get good grades? whether that’s by paying them or praising them or what-have-you.

  10. Amy Axelson
    Amy Axelson says:

    Paying kids to go to school would acomplish these things:

    1-show kids that school is so worthless in helping them create lives they want for themselves that we need to bribe them into putting up with years of wasted time

    2-condition them for a lifetime of paid slavery (hey, we know this sucks but here’s some $ in exchange for your soul)

    3-foster the belief that anything not worth doing is suddenly made ‘valuable’ when getting paid for doing it

    4-foster the belief that it’s not worth doing things which don’t make money (which reminds me of my unpaid parenting gig…see VegGal’s comment–ditto that)

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