Back-to-school earn or learn debate: Should parents pay for good grades?

Back-to-school time resurrects the perennial earn or learn debate about pay for good grades. This school principal and father ponders the outrageous fortunes of a childhood with parents who cruelly believed that kids should work merely for the reward of insight and joy and self-improvement ... and not for cash.

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    Back-to-school debate over pay for good grades rears its perennially ugly head.
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Back-to-school time has resurrected a time-honored debate and, for me, an old wound.

Your Money-Back-To-School Math For Parents: What’s An A Worth?” read a recent Reuters column about motivating children to work hard in school (or at least get good grades), incentivizing practice for their violinlessons (or at least fake the time), or making it attractive to spend less time on their digital devices (or at least imitate reading a book instead). It's a seasonal roundup of views on parenting techniques to motivate accomplishment in the young. There are myriad rewards systems out there – to leverage better grades, room cleaning, or better behavior – that are similar to frequent flyer miles for travels.

But there’s one voice missing.

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I was deprived of an appropriately coercive upbringing by my parents’ refusal to imitate these other parents. Why couldn’t Mom and Dad have bribed me with a modicum of filthy lucre, a few new electronic appliances, or that gold 10-speed bike I craved, as my friends’ parents did? Life would have been so much easier – and lucrative – with this simple cause-effect relationship between school achievement or manners and money.

What were my parents thinking? There is a work ethic implicit in giving dollars for As or television privileges for good report cards. What is so wrong about connecting the dots between obeying the rules and having treats? Is it not a form of bonus pay or working on commission?

Oh, the burden of growing up with intrinsic motivation held aloft as virtue – before such a concept found modest traction in the education culture at large. But no – we had to be raised on Socratic values, on the conundrum of a question like, “If something isn’t worth doing, is it worth doing well?” Take algebra, in my case: No! And yet ... my answer cost me a second year in Algebra I. I showed them, all right!

If an "A" in English happens in 10th grade, and no one gets a little moolah for it, is it really worth it?

A wholesome hierarchy of thinking skills, personal honor, reflection and self-knowledge were my parents’ weapons of choice. The lessons embedded in literature, philosophy, and history were apparently priceless. Even Miss Burt’s 9th grade Shakespeare class was building character and a worldly set of values beyond the reach of the parent-child marketplace.

Add to that a culture in our home of reading for pleasure, even inspiration. Quotes galore suggesting that school in general had something to do with the pursuit of wisdom were left lying around indiscriminately in the view of the children. There were even poems suggesting that learning how to think was a reward and an end in itself. Mom and Dad cruelly impressed on us that we kids should work merely for the reward of insight and joy, for the assured pay-off of knowledge for knowledge sake. They actually felt that learning was about self-improvement. They smote us with the love of learning.

How warped. “This is America,” I wanted to say. “Here too in Capitalist Arcadia, an 'A' in English or social studies class, at the local rate of exchange (1960s), should be worth $10.” It did not work on them, and it did not even work on me, so insidious were the parental arguments. I had been brainwashed into thinking that academic work had a worthiness for its own sake. I had internalized their appeals to my sense of honor, disguised as my own thoughts.

“I think, therefore I am.” Mom! Please! Where’s your wallet?

“Song of the Open Road,” by Walt Whitman, for a Christmas present? Dad! You’re killin’ me here!

“To thine own self be true!” Get thee behind me, Mom. Show me the money!

All three of us kids were English majors in college. You’re welcome! Now pay up!

So how did I earn the money to buy that 10-speed bicycle back in 7th grade? I worked for it – mowed lawns. No short cuts or cheating. School was about learning; mowing was about earning. Never did the twain meet, unfortunately.

Yup, Mom and Dad really failed me by not using cash and tawdry gifts as motivational tools. But I suppose it has made me the man I am today. And the parent I have tried to be for my kids. I am afraid I have passed on the suffering to the next generation. What a twisted fate.

“What fools these mortals be.” Doh! There I go again.

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA where children are rewarded with a sense of satisfaction in their multiple intelligences.

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