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10/19/14blog post

should I reward effort or outcome?

Question

We reward our kids for each “A” they get on their report card. Our oldest rarely studies, but gets perfect grades. His younger brother spends hours on his homework, but mostly gets Bs and Cs.

I don’t think this is fair, but my husband is firm about keeping this system. He says that employers care only about what you accomplish, not how hard you work. I think this is demoralizing for my younger boy who is working to the best of his ability.

Answer

While your intent is laudable, the system fails both kids. The oldest is rewarded for doing little, while your younger child’s strong work ethic is ignored.

There are three ways you can encourage your kids.

  1. Reward ability. This is the worst kind of praise, and should seldom be used. This type of reward comments on a child’s overall aptitude. This includes remarks such as “you’re so smart,” or “what a bright child,” etc. The problem with praising ability is that whenever a child encounters something difficult and fails, they infer it was due to their intelligence, not their effort or strategy.
  2. Reward accomplishment. Your husband is correct in that the real world values outcomes, not effort. My editors care little if I spend 10 minutes or 10 hours writing this column. They are concerned about the quality of the final product, not how much time I spent in research and revisions. While rewarding outcomes makes sense, it’s wrong to ignore effort when it comes to children’s school performance. This will never encourage your child to take more difficult classes or teach him other important skills such as persistence or resiliency.
  3. Reward effort. Children who are praised for their efforts tend to take on more challenging tasks, persist when confronted with difficulties, and recover after experiencing failure.

The people I admire are not those who are successful in achieving modest goals, but those who have the persistence and resiliency to strive for something more ambitious. You develop those traits by encouraging your child’s efforts and strategies, not just the final grade.

Develop a more balanced reward system for your kids. For your older child, help him identify goals that require more effort on his part. Adjust your reward system such that half of his reward is due to his grades and half is due to his accomplishing more challenging goals.

For your younger child, change the incentives so that it encourages improvement, not some unobtainable goal. For example, if your youngster typically gets a grade of “C” in math, reward his getting a “B” grade. A reward system will never work if the goal cannot be achieved.