Should You Reward Kids For Honesty?

All this week at the school where I work as a librarian, we’ve been holding our annual book fair. The kids were especially excited on Tuesday as it was the national release of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, the eighth book of the wildly popular satirical graphic novel series by Jeff Kinney. We sold lots of copies.

Late in the afternoon, however, one of our sixth-grade students came back into to the fair with the art teacher. It seems this student had left his just-purchased copy of Hard Luck in her classroom. When she noticed the book, she called the student’s teacher and was instructed to place the book outside her classroom where the student would immediately come by to pick it up. Only when he got there, the book was gone! The art teacher felt terrible and had brought the student back to the fair to purchase a replacement copy for him.

After they both left, the moms working the fair and I all gathered around as women do speculating how this could have happened. We voiced our disappointment that someone would steal the book from the front of the classroom. But just as we were shaking our heads in disbelief, another little boy entered the fair with a book in his hands. Yes, it was a copy of Hard Luck.

Apparently he had walked by the classroom moments after it was placed outside and figured someone had dropped it. He was coming by to return it to the fair.

I was elated! (We all were!) He had instantly restored my faith in the youth of America. I thanked him for being so honest for returning what wasn’t his. I patted him on the back and told him how proud he should feel for doing the right thing. And then I sent him on his way back to class.

But right after he left, another mom perked up. “We should give him a reward!” she said.

“Why?” I asked. “For doing the right thing?”

“No, as positive reinforcement.” she answered.

But I did give him positive reinforcement, I countered. I made sure he knew we all noticed his kind and thoughtful action. He left feeling good for what he did. That should be enough, right? But the mom disagreed and I sensed that I had better shut up or risk alienating the rest of the volunteers. So I just smiled, shrugged, and walked away.

I’ve never been a big fan of giving kids rewards for random acts of kindness as I think it sends the wrong message: If you do the right thing, you’ll be compensated. Personally, I believe the reward is in doing good, the personal satisfaction for doing the right thing. Nothing more is needed.

When my kids where young, their elementary school had a reward program called Eagle Eyes. When a teacher or administrator spotted a child doing something kind or helpful, he or she would give the child a small coupon or Eagle Eye. Once a month, the kids could “cash in” their Eagle Eyes for a small prize (junk really). But what often happened is that the kids would compete to see who could accumulate the most coupons. They’d target the teachers who gave them out willingly, preying on their good nature.

The school where I work has a similar program but I’ve never once given a child one. Kids have asked me from time to time, and to me, that shows how flawed the system truly is. But my response has always been the same: “Sorry. I don’t have any.” Those kids who asked and were told “no” are the ones who won’t go out of their way to help me any longer. There’s nothing in it for them. (To be fair, however, the vast majority of children do help without any prompting or incentives. Like most kids, it’s in their nature to be helpful.)

I wasn’t always a hard-ass when it comes to offering a reward to my kids. We’ve experimented it in our home like the time we tried to pay our kids for good grades. My boys have always been good students—not great, but good—but one semester we decided to try a little incentive. We told them that we’d give them $20 for every “A” on their report cards thinking that the money would motivate them to study harder. Well, it didn’t. They got the same number of “As” and “Bs” as they got every semester. Getting straight “As” was simply not a priority; socializing with friends or just hanging out watching TV was stronger.

Yet now as my twins are getting ready to apply for college, I see their motivation to study has increased. Why? Because they want to get into college and the way to do that is by studying harder. The motivation to do well, to do the right thing, is coming from within them. No amount of Eagle Eyes will win that battle. It’s their own personal motivation that’s propelling them to do well. And that’s the way it should be.

What do you think? Do you ever offer your kids rewards?