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Every parent has been there. It’s late. You’ve had a long day (like NBA season long) and it looks like an even longer evening, and now your kid refuses to do his homework (no offense men but I’m just assuming it’s a boy in this article, because, well, you know why). So what do you do? You’re tired, as in exhausted, as in you seriously considered trading the rebellious heir to your vast fortune to a passing stranger who promised you six hours of uninterrupted sleep. Plus you are actually sympathetic to your kid’s plight, since knowing what happens to two trains that leave Cleveland at 3 pm, one traveling East at 30 mph and one loaded with ecstatic Chicago Cubs fans, has yet to be useful to you, even that time you were on Jeopardy, so at this point you just want to lock (I mean tuck) him into bed so you can collapse into a coma.

So you make the call: “If you will do your homework I will pay you a huge bribe.” Actually it’s probably more subtle than that: “If you do your homework you can play with the iPad tomorrow,” or something similar. Negotiations commence, an agreement is struck, contracts are notarized, your kid does his homework, and you get a few blessed hours of rest.

And all is right with the world…at least until the next evening when you tell him to do his homework and he says something along this line: “How much will you pay me?” Because once you set a price for this task, he will assume from now on that the task is worth getting paid to do. So I hope you didn’t offer anything too valuable, because you’re going to be paying it from now on, otherwise you’re going to have a “labor stoppage” (the technical term for a strike) on your hands. Children picketing their parents’ homes inevitably wind up on CNN as part of a series on “The Face of Modern Child Abuse.”

But here’s the real problem, and it has lifelong implications for happiness. Researchers studied kids who were given various tasks to perform, including tasks they actually enjoyed (e.g. “playing”), and here’s what they found. The kids who played for fun played longer than the kids who were paid to play; in other words the children who were paid ENJOYED THE SAME TASK LESS THAN THEY DID when they did it just for fun. Lots of folks have tried to explain this reality, but Mark Twain said it well:

Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do….There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

In other words, paying someone to complete a task defines that task as work, and therefore it must be unpleasant, since otherwise why would anyone pay someone to do it? External rewards lead to a lack of internal motivation and a failure to learn how to self-motivate, even for tasks that should be pleasant. Or as the sage philosopher Cyndi Lauper (actual name Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper, actual hair color unknown) put it, “Money changes everything.”

The occasional bribe probably won’t make much difference (unless you get caught offering it to a federal official), and let’s be honest, some household tasks genuinely stink and probably should be paid for, but leave this as an absolute last resort. There are a limited number of activities that bring joy to life, and paying for them can “ruin” them for the person. Helping kids learn to find joy in tasks that must be done is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

You can read more in Alfie Kohn’s 1993 book Punished by Rewards; The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Final note to parents, from a parent: you’re doing an incredibly difficult, frustrating, exhausting task…hang in there because it’s totally worth it.

Coming next time: Why are so many Americans so unhappy?

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