Don't short-change kids with bribery

SINGAPORE - Over dimsum on a Saturday morning, my seven-year-old son asked me, between mouthfuls of lor mai gai glutinous rice: "What reward would I get if I do well in my tests?"

Next to him, his dad looked thoughtful while chewing on some chee cheong fun, seriously considering the primary-school kid's question. I swallowed my har gow and declared: "You get nothing."

"Huh, ah!" came the boy's predictable, protesting response.

But I had a lecture ready for him. Learning and doing well in school are rewards enough. Why should he get a reward from us for something that was already rewarding?

If he studied hard, the knowledge would go into his head, not ours. If he aced his exams, his stellar report card would bear his name, not his parents'.

Besides, I went on, we expect him to pass everything with flying colours. I don't believe in bribing children and letting them short-change themselves by thinking that they are incapable of doing their best when there is no carrot dangling in front of them.

If we gave him sweeteners for achieving good results, what would happen if we took those rewards away? Would he then be unable to motivate himself to do well?

Experts have said that rewarding your child for good grades can backfire. In an interview with The Sunday Times last year , motivational-psychology expert Richard Ryan from New York's Rochester University said that the child might then put in effort just to get the reward: "Now the parent is the one who has to monitor the child, instead of a child assimilating and really internalising the value of learning and hard work, which is what we really want to develop."

Instead of promising payment or gifts, these experts recommend that parents opt for spontaneous celebrations, such as going out for a meal.

And instead of rewards for major year-end exams, offer praise for the smaller things, such as a project competently completed or independent research, to focus on effective skills that benefit a person for life.

While praising a child may work better than material rewards in motivating them, some types of praise are better than others. Research by Dr Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, showed that telling children they are smart can hurt them - after being praised for being clever at solving a problem, kids in a study shied away from more challenging problems they could learn a lot more from, in favour of tasks that merely made them look smart.

Similarly, psychologists from Columbia University found that, when pupils aged 10 and 11 were given some mathematics problems to solve, those told they were clever did not do as well on further, more difficult questions.

In contrast, those who had been told they must have tried really hard did better in the second round of questions than the "clever" kids.

As a kid, I never received rewards of any kind from my parents for getting good grades - and it never occurred to me to ask for them.

My "reward" for finishing near the top of my class in primary school was that I did not get caned. Later, in junior college and university, my mother did not even bother asking me about my test scores, simply trusting me to do what it took to get a decent education.

"Did you see me asking grandma what she was going to give me for graduating?" I asked my son, biting into a delicious egg tart. "No, right?"

"But grandma was very happy," he retorted.

"Okay, your reward for doing well in your test is that I will be very happy," I replied. "Your papa and I will both be very happy. We might even not scold you for a month."

The boy's eyes brightened. "Okay!"

We sealed the deal by sharing some pan-fried carrot cake.