A recent WSJ article talks about the benefits of paying our children to eat their vegetables. While we agree in principle, there are a couple of points to clarify in the article:
- The author refers to “bribing” kids to eat their vegetables. Bribes are given with the intent to corrupt. What they are describing in the article is an incentive: something offered in exchange for greater effort or performance.
- In the experiment noted, the author suggests that they’re paying the children cash to eat their vegetables, but describe a process in which they provide the children with tokens (equal to $ .25 each) that can be redeemed in the school’s store, book fair or at the school carnival. This scenario is similar to many corporate incentive programs where points are offered in exchange for performance improvement. Because the points (or in this case, tokens) are redeemed for tangible merchandise, we cannot call this a “cash incentive”. There is one sentence at the end of the article that does acknowledge that non-monetary incentives may also be effective.
One of the things they get right in this article is that these types of short-term incentive programs do help to develop good habits for the long run. The objective is to continue the program long enough for the behavior to become habitual.
The corporate world has discovered that the long-held belief that “cash is King” is not true in the rewards & recognition world. In fact, studies show that employees perform at higher levels for non-monetary rewards. The same study reveals that how the reward is presented is almost as important as the reward itself. So in this example of students eating fruits & vegetables, it’s likely that the tokens were presented publicly (in the cafeteria, for instance) when others could see that they were earning the rewards. Public recognition in front of their peers would contribute to the success of the program.
Another way to approach behavior change is to set SMART goals, track progress and reward achievement. GoalUP.com provides an online platform to do just that. Similar to the fruits & vegetables program example, children would set goals with their parents around improving grades, completing homework on time or even managing chores around the house. As those goals are achieved, the children receive points which are redeemable for rewards of their choice. Eventually, children will be in the habit of not only completing homework or chores on time, but of setting realistic, achievable goals for whatever they wish to accomplish.
Rather than simply paying your children for changes you’d like to see in their behavior, consider setting goals with them, discussing the steps necessary to achieve the goals and then rewarding achievement. You may just be giving them tools to use for a lifetime.