My three kids are active and athletic and they each play three sports a year. Little League, soccer, and basketball are on repeat. My oldest is almost 9 and my twins are 6, so the level of competition and pressure to win isn’t to the intensity I know it will become if they continue playing sports through middle and high school. Kids want to win, but the goals right now are focus and effort. For some kids those goals are only achieved through negations and bribes. I’ll give you a dollar if you swing the bat. I’ll buy you an ice cream cone if you score a goal. Just get out there with your team and I will buy you a prize.
Nope. No. Stop it. We should not be paying our kids for sports accomplishments. The same goes for grades and basic human decency.
I am not even close to being a perfect parent nor do I want to be, but I have a few desired outcomes I want to see in my kids based on my parenting. One of those traits is the ability to be self-motivated to work hard and to make good choices. In our house, good choices include picking up after yourself, being respectful at school and on the sports fields or courts, and doing your best no matter what your best looks like in the moment.
Being a human is complicated and sometimes a child’s best is a below average test score, a shitty basketball game, or a bedtime meltdown while brushing their teeth. Some days are easier than others; expectations and consequences can exist, but there are never rewards for good behavior, grades, or sports accomplishments.
Besides being a sign of privilege many don’t have, monetary or tangible rewards are not enough to keep kids motivated. Internal motivation, or intrinsic motivation, comes from a place of gratification and pride. External motivation, or extrinsic motivation, comes from a reward. Both forms of motivation can lead to feeling good and to getting results parents want (i.e., good grades, a star athlete, a kid who does the dishes), but extrinsic motivation will not lead to long term quality results.
Paying our kids to get good grades or score more goals may be a quick fix to what is viewed as a deficit, but a kid who finds motivation within themselves is more likely to develop healthy habits and skills to get the results they want and need to achieve their goals.
Along these lines, an Atlantic article argued against sticker charts because they create a “what’s in it for me?” mentality by creating a reward economy within the home. Our interactions and motivators are transactional and materialistic. At a certain point, the rewards need to become bigger in order for a task or outcome to be worth it. This is a great way to set yourself and your child up for failure and disappointment.
As a former high school rugby coach, neither I nor my players ever measured the success of a season on individual or team accomplishments that happened on game day. Team goals never included championships or statistics. The focus was not on points scored or the number of tackles or wins; we didn’t worry about quantity. I preached and they practiced the quality of their play. We also talked about trust and support. No one on the team was meant to save anyone, but they all had to show up and do their job as a teammate. If they wanted to do this on the field, they had to do it in the classroom and at home too. Passing grades and meeting behavior expectations at home were what allowed my athletes to practice and play on game day.
Bottom line: If you wanted to be part of the team, you had to earn it.
Because most of my players did not come from families that had the extra resources to bribe their kids to do well at school or home, motivation had to come from within. The sport itself became the motivator, which could be considered an extrinsic motivation, but in this case it was the best one for many of the girls I coached. It was fun to be on the team. There was tremendous pride from a tough practice. There was a sense of belonging and the desire to be counted on. I don’t remember seasons based on wins, but I will always remember the athletic director telling me how much he valued the rugby program because my players were the ones who were at the highest risk for not graduating. They were at risk for other dicey behaviors too, and the sport kept them out of trouble.
My players developed healthy work habits and were shown the benefits of those habits paying off. There were no trophies or prizes to be won. They had to find a way to do it for themselves. It’s okay to ask for help and to need reasons to succeed—because what’s the point of blood, sweat, and tears if we don’t find enjoyment or see at least some of the results we want—but the reasons should be based on quality and not quantity. The players on my team walked away with dignity and high school diplomas.
It’s totally fine to go out for pizza or ice cream after the game, but our kids should not expect rewards for performance. And studying to get $20 for good grades doesn’t teach lifelong habits of hard work and discipline. Stop paying your kids because it will backfire. You are more likely to raise entitled brats who only do the right thing if it benefits them than create mindful humans who think of others and see the actual accomplishment as the reward.
Our kids are going to be roommates, co-workers, and possible partners or spouses someday. No one wants to deal with an asshole slob who throws in the towel when situations are hard or scary if they aren’t first promised fame and fortune.