Should You Reward Kids for Good Grades?'s 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains what you need to ask yourself before rewarding your kids for good grades.

illustration of toys and A+ grade on paper
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Pay for the A

When my kids were little, I would take them to the toy store after they got their report cards to celebrate. Their grades did not matter, and they always got an E for effort. Now that they are older and grades are more important, is it OK to reward them with money or toys for their good grades?

—Pay for the A

Dear Pay for the A,

There has been much debate about using cash as a reward for kids, like paying kids an allowance for doing chores. Most evidence shows that cash rewards might work in the short term, but the benefits don't last. The main concern is that the external reward does not build internal motivation, which is critical to sustaining effort and a lasting good outcome.

Read on to learn whether monetary rewards are appropriate and what you can offer your child instead.

The Trouble With Rewards

More and more research has shown that a focus on effort over outcome relates to greater persistence and confidence across types of tasks, including academic, which often means better learning and performance. And further, rewards don't always motivate kids in the same way.

For example, in 2010, researchers experimented with financial incentives for first-year university students. They found that rewards had a positive impact on high-ability students; however, they had a negative effect on achievement for lower-ability students. Researchers determined that external rewards may be detrimental to intrinsic (internal) motivation.

Another 2021 meta-analysis evaluated student motivation and found that motivation driven by a desire for rewards or avoiding punishment did not increase performance or persistence. Instead, it was associated with decreased well-being.

Are Rewards Bribery?

Your question brings up one of the most common parenting questions I hear: Is using a rewards system for kids bribery?

As a psychologist, I am trained in behaviorism (using rewards and consequences to shape desired behaviors), a huge component of treating children who come to therapy for help with problem behaviors.

Importantly, bribery is not the same as behaviorism. Bribery involves giving the reward before the desired behavior, and behaviorism is using the reward after the behavior, which is considered reinforcement.

So, how does this translate into regular life with kids?

The most common concern is that by using rewards, we send the message that they "get something" for doing what they need to just do as part of life. Unfortunately, that can be true—if we don't use rewards correctly.

One of the keys to using behaviorism effectively is to target a problem, not just hand out toys and prizes throughout the day as they brush their teeth, get dressed, and do homework. Target problems could include completing or turning in homework.

Alternatives to Rewards for Grades

It sounds like you want to acknowledge and encourage positive performance in school, so I suggest thinking more specifically about what you want to accomplish.

Some questions that might help you identify your goals include:

  • Do you want your children to earn specific grades?
  • Do you want to instill values represented by good grades, like a strong work ethic and the importance of education?
  • Is the problem something that can be shaped by behaviorism?

Remember, behaviorism uses rewards to target a problem behavior to shape a new behavior. So, if your children struggle to do well in school, there are strategies (other than monetary rewards for grades) that may be more effective.

Reinforce new behaviors

The first thing to do is to determine why your child is struggling in school. Is a child not doing homework, having trouble understanding the material, or both?

After identifying the problem, think about the frequency of reinforcement. Rewards work best in short-term increments.

For example, a child earns a shopping trip to the dollar store if they submit all their homework for a week. Rewards need to be even more frequent for younger children for the reinforcement to work (that's where stickers come in, although many kids need more persuasion than stickers).

Also, the reward size should match the behavior—the shorter the increments, the smaller the reward. No giant Lego sets for having a good week at school!

Personalize your approach

Think about what your children need to do well in school. Of course, that can look different depending on the child's strengths, and a blanket focus on "good grades" may leave out important ways to celebrate those strengths.

Maybe they struggle with procrastination, so they earn rewards for working ahead on projects. This keeps the focus on the learning process rather than the outcome of a final grade.

Celebrate with experiences rather than "stuff"

Based on your question, it seems you want to celebrate at the end of each semester. Instead of cash or toys for grades, I recommend planning a fun family outing and shifting the reward from material gain to quality family experiences.

My family has a tradition of going out to dinner on the first day of school every year. Although this is not a reward for anything, it's a ritual of ushering in the excitement and hope of their next grade level.

Your family may want to celebrate getting through another grade level at the end of the school year, honoring hard work and personal accomplishments rather than focusing on specific grades. For most kids, that special outing is its own reward and is more memorable and meaningful than a new toy.

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