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Money May Not be the Best Motivator -Especially if You're Family
© Dr Kathie Nunley


As parents, we've been told that punishments are ineffective as teaching tools. But what about reinforcers? Psychological research also tells us to be very careful in how we use reinforcers. They can damage the intrinsic motivation of our children.

But are all reinforcers bad? Can some be used more safely than others? It sounds like great theory that all children should be intrinsically motivated to do good, obey their elders, and respect parents and teachers. But the reality is that sometimes children need a little help to move in the right direction. Many of us choose to use reinforcers for help. Used sparingly and carefully, reinforcers can be a great aid to parents and teachers alike. However, money should probably never be used as a reinforcer, particularly by parents. Money may not actually even be a reinforcer. And if it is, it is a very complicated one.

Sound funny that money may not be a reinforcer? At first glance most of us would say of course money is a motivator and a reinforcer. Why, just look at the adult world. Most of us work for money. If they quit paying you for what you do, how many of you would continue to work? Certainly at the school where I teach, I dare say few teachers would remain if the salaries were removed. So at first glance, it appears we are motivated by money. But we need to look further.

Are we truly working for the money or does the money allow us to work? Most of us enjoy our work. I very much enjoy teaching. I teach for the love of it. If I was paid more, I wouldn't teach any harder. The fact is I teach as best I can now, regardless of the money. So why is it that I would not continue to teach if the money were removed? Not because the money was gone, but because I would now need to go find something else to do to replace the missing money. Money is required for me to live. I need to eat, feed and clothe my children and put a reasonable roof over our heads. That's the bottom line. So by providing that (in the form of a paycheck) I can continue to do what I enjoy doing and that is to teach. Therefore I teach because I enjoy it. The suggestion that I'd teach better if I was paid more is insulting. I am the very best teacher I can be because I love teaching and care for children and their future. I appreciate the fact that a salary is provided so that I can take care of the needs of my family which allows me to continue to teach.

Most of us would be insulted by being paid for something we do for the sheer joy of it or love for another. If I spent the day preparing a delightful candlelight dinner for two for my husband and myself, I do that out of the love I have for him. He would degrade that act, if at the end of the dinner, he thanked my with a 20 dollar tip.

After a big snow storm, I often shovel the walkway around my house and my neighbor's house. She has a brand new baby and I understand the inconvenience of having to juggle that responsibility and shovel snow. So I feel better about our close and caring neighborhood by shoveling her walk along with my own so that she doesn't have to. I don't expect a thank you from her. As a mother of four, I remember the tough days of having a newborn. That's part of belonging to a human community -doing things out of care and love for others. What would be the effect if my neighbor gave me cash as a thanks. How would I feel. Degraded? Insulted? Misunderstood? All of the above.

Money is important. Most all of us certainly enjoy it. A lot. It buys us necessities and luxuries. We like to feel like there is a relationship between our efforts and labor and the lifestyle we can afford. But money as a reinforcer is usually inappropriate. It can even be dangerous in that it may unintentionally insult the person we are giving it to. When acts are done out of kindness, concern and love, the rewards are intrinsic. We enjoy the feeling we get from doing for others. Money reduces that feeling and often changes it from a positive feeling to a negative one.

So what's a parent to do? If you have established a trend of money for grades or money for following rules, you may want to reexamine the act. You may try acknowledging the hard work and effort with an in-kind act of your own, such as a trip to a favorite restaurant. Or try a mini-vacation, just the two of you to spend some special one-on-one time together. Maybe concert tickets to share or surprise them by hand-washing their car or cleaning their room for a change. Human acts of love can be thanked with other acts of love and maintain their integrity. Even a hug, a kiss and a kind word can enrich the relationship. Money may say you misread the intent.

Suggested for Further Reading:

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward Deci

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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