Here’s How to Get Your Kids to Work Harder, According to Science

by ParentCo. March 02, 2017

Young boy standing and posing for photoshoot

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you took it into the bathroom with you, threw it on the floor, and then closed the door on your way out? Well, that’s what I witnessed my son do last week so that his 2-year old sister couldn’t even think about getting his cheap set of plastic binoculars. As much as we work with him on it, he hates sharing. My son was in for a big surprise, thanks to a new rewards system that my ever clever wife implemented the other night. “Hear ye, hear ye!” she proclaimed from atop our dining room table. “From now on, when we catch you doing something nice for one another, you can select one and only one reward from the magical jar.” She then magic’d the jar up above our kids’ heads and flew it around a bit before returning it safely to the table. My kids, meanwhile, thought they saw an ant walking around on the table, (turns out they didn’t) which was entirely more interesting than whatever mommy was doing. But despite their #kidways, the real magic was about to take hold. The next day, things began as usual. My daughter was sitting on my lap, “playing” the piano when my son approached: “Ella, can I play the piano?” he asked. “Sure, Ben!” my daughter said and gladly got down from my lap. That’s when mommy came in with wide eyes and a bright smile. “Wow, Ella! That was so kind of you to share! You get to pick something from the jar!” Ella’s face lit up as she dipped her hand into the jar and pulled out a coupon which entitled her to an ice cream date with daddy. My son, who had been watching this procession with interest, completely lost it once he realized what had happened. Arms were flailing and tears went flying as the new world order took its toll on my son. According to research, complimenting my daughter in front of my son, and then following up this compliment with a reward should motivate my son to work harder himself at sharing. Sure enough, as soon as my son regained his composure, he ran up to Ella and, making sure mommy and daddy were in obvious earshot, said loudly that she could have the piano as he was all done with it. He even demonstrated to her that it was on and ready to go by plunking a few keys. “See?” My wife’s plan worked. You see, a recent study, published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, showed that complimenting others in front of you motivates you to work harder so that you, too, can receive a compliment. In the study, 300 undergraduates were split into 20 groups of 15. In about half of those groups, the professors praised the top performers on a midterm exam in front of their classmates. In the other half of the groups (the control group), the professors did not publically praise anyone for their performance. When the next exam rolled around, the students who had witnessed the public praise – and especially those who had come in “second place” – improved their scores as compared to their peers in the control group classes. In the context of our own kids, this means that if we compliment others’ good behavior in front of our own children, it will motivate our children to work harder at doing the complimented behavior. As was the case with the magical jar, adding a tangible reward amps up the motivation factor. Duke University professor, Dan Ariely, performed a study, as described in his book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, that proved this assertion out. In the study, Ariely told groups of factory workers that if they increased productivity, they would receive a certain reward. One group was told they would receive a, “Well done!” text message from the boss at the end of the week (wah wah). Another group was promised a bonus of about $30 while the final group was told they would get a voucher for free pizza. Guess which group performed the best? The pizza group. They increased their productivity by 6.6% over the control group who had received no promise of a reward. If you want your kids to work harder at sharing, obeying, and all the other stuff we spend our time coaching them on, take a cue from science. Motivate them by complimenting others’ good behavior in front of them and by following up these compliments with tangible rewards.



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