Learning Should Be Its Own Reward

Right away when I answer my cell phone, the sound of Amy’s teacher’s voice tells me this is going to be bad.

“Mrs. Hicks,” she said gravely, “we have a problem.”

“I have given your daughter several chances to complete her missing work and also to have you sign a slip saying she has told you that she has fallen behind in social studies,” the teacher said. “She continues to lie to me about having done the work, and I suspect she is also lying about having told you about the missing assignments.”

This is a veteran teacher: Her suspicions are money in the bank.

According to Amy, she somehow “forgot” to tell me she owes her teacher enough workbook pages to wallpaper an airplane hanger. Go figure.

We’ll leave the issue of integrity for another day. The other more immediate problem is, fifth grade is about to come to a close. The teacher would like to be sure Amy knows enough social studies to matriculate to the sixth grade. Quite honestly, I’d kind of like to know this, too.

I wish I could say I was more successful in impressing upon this child how crucial it is to complete her assignments, but this has been our issue all year. I’ve tried denying privileges, offering privileges, taking back privileges. I’ve been stern, I’ve been matter-of-fact, I’ve been understanding.

I’ve said all the right things, such as “Completing your work shows you’re responsible,” and “It feels good to go to school knowing you’re prepared,” and “For heaven’s sake, kid; you’re killing me. Just do your homework, already.”

Motivating our children remains a challenge for many of us, especially in a culture that tells them life should always be easy and fun, and that rewards should be obvious and immediate. And lavish.

I hear frequently from my children about the payoffs their peers receive for good grades – cash rewards for A’s, electronic gizmos for making the honor roll, and in high school, cars for maintaining specified grade-point averages.

The benefit scale escalates at an alarming rate when you’re paying for something most students can attain by putting forth a moderate amount of effort.

Not long ago, I spoke to a group of parents at an inner-city mentoring center. Most of the audience of moms and dads were Hispanic immigrants from Mexico or Central America. Their attendance at a daylong parenting conference spoke to their desire to help their children be successful and well educated.

I offered the advice that we parents must promote our children’s inherent curiosity as a means of helping them become “brainiacs.” One father asked my opinion of paying for good grades.

“Isn’t this a way to encourage them?” he wanted to know.

I applauded this dad’s desire to teach his children a fundamental principle of a strong work ethic — namely, that the harder you are willing to work, the greater will be your reward. But I implored him to teach this lesson elsewhere — not in the realm of academics.

“Learning should be its own reward,” I said. “Knowledge represents power, opportunity, understanding and enlightenment. You shouldn’t have to get paid to become a knowledgeable person.”

After the conference ended, another father approached me to ask what I thought of his promise to buy a cell phone for his daughter should she make the honor roll.

I listened as he told me in broken English how proud he is of her accomplishments in the short time she has lived in America.

“I told her if she could do this thing, I would get her anything she wanted and she has chosen a cell phone,” he said. His daughter is 8.

“No,” I said. “Don’t buy her a cell phone. Take her out for ice cream and tell her you are proud of her instead.”

It pained me to see these hard-working and dedicated parents assimilating to the worst of American culture, thinking this is what is expected of them.

A cell phone for an 8-year-old? Welcome to the good old U.S. of A. I can only guess what it will cost this man if his daughter one day becomes valedictorian.

Not only are these sorts of rewards inappropriate, they don’t even work. According to education experts such as those at www.eduguide.org, a national nonprofit that promotes school success, it’s accountability and opportunity that motivate students to succeed, not lavish rewards.

Not that my daughter Amy would agree, but too bad for her.

In case you wonder, Amy completed her social studies pages without being cajoled, bribed or in any way rewarded for simply meeting her obligation as a student.

Today is the final social studies test, and I suspect she’ll do well, given how diligently she studied last night. Tomorrow, I’ll see a report card of good grades telling me she has been passed on to middle school.

And lucky me – I didn’t even have to pay her to do it.

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