Using Incentives in Your Homeschool

Yesterday was an agonizing day. I had a certain amount of work I wanted my oldest to achieve. Grueling assignments such as writing 6 sentences and completing a 10 minute spelling lesson. Finishing 5 problems on Khan Academy. You know, things that clearly no reasonable person would ask a 4th grader to do.

There was drama. There were tears. There was eye rolling and yelling. There were threats. And there was googling of schools for kids with ADD.

And I found the school. And if we started eating ramen and selling our blood, we might be able to afford the school.

But I thought, if this school can do it, then it can be done. There are methods they use that I can learn too, right?

I know from my history with this child that he responds exceedingly well to incentives. He used to chew on his shirt. Constantly. I told him if he went three weeks without chewing on his shirt, he could have the Lego Movie video game for the XBox. He never chewed on his shirt again. It was infuriatingly simple. If it was that easy for him to stop, why didn’t he just stop before?

Smart But Scattered, a great book on how to help kids with executive functioning challenges, had taught me that working for incentives is actually an executive functioning strength that my son has. If the price is right, can do just about anything.

Here’s the thing. I HATE incentives. I feel like if you can do something, you should just do it because it’s the right thing to do. It seems to me, that if you can do something for an incentive, then you can do it, and you should do it without a reward.

But apparently, doing the right thing, or just getting it done, is not enough of an incentive for my son to leave behind the incredibly exciting world in his imagination to write 6 sentences about the lost colony of Roanoke. Because sitting in a chair all day really isn’t torture for him. His mind is a fascinating place to be, and it keeps him perfectly well entertained.

This morning he woke up asking what he could do to earn more money. He has finally developed an appreciation for all of the useless crap amazing treasures money can buy him. Like machetes with fake blood and nerf guns and large books from the thrift store that he can turn into secret hiding spots. This is great because when a kid wants money, a parent can generally get him to do things he might not otherwise do willingly.

I told him I’d think about it. I’m a bit of a miser, and I don’t want to just go handing money out like some kind of money fairy or something. I mean, it doesn’t grow on trees now, does it?

It wasn’t long before I’d asked him to do something and he gave me attitude about it. Inspiration. “Every time I have to ask you to do something more than once, you owe me a quarter.”

Ha! See? I’m making money this way, not handing it out.

Later, we were doing school work and he started whining “It’s too hard!” Boom. “Every time you whine about school work, you owe me a quarter.”

I ran down to the basement and grabbed a bag of poker chips and two paper cups. I wrote “Henry” on one of them and “Mom” on the other. I filled the “Henry” cup with 20 poker chips – each worth a quarter. I took two quarters for his earlier infractions.

Because I’ve been trained in such things I know that a strictly punitive system is not likely to be effective for long. So I started offering incentives. “If you write 4 sentences before I come back downstairs, I’ll give you a quarter.” Because I’m a mean mom, I am incapable of a strictly rewards based system. So along with the carrot I proffered a stick. “If you haven’t written at least 2, you owe me a quarter.”

I told him, “Each chip is a quarter. There are five dollars worth of chips in here. You can gain and lose them based on your behavior, and I will pay you on Sunday. Each Monday morning you’ll start out with 20 new chips.” And that, ladies and gentleman, is a glowing example of my stellar making-it-up-as-I-go-along parenting. 

But you know what? He finished everything I wanted him to do by noon. Yesterday, we didn’t finish until five o’clock. That’s right, I bought five hours of extra time with my system. Not bad for 5 bucks.

I will admit, though, that I’m still uncomfortable with the system. I have learned repeatedly that this sort of thing is super effective for my son, but I’ve also read enough Alfie Kohn to feel that this sort of “manipulation” is somehow damaging to my son or to our relationship.

And so I struggle between what I desperately want to believe philosophically, and what I see creates peace and harmony and a happy son in reality.

I’m curious. Have any of you have had success with using incentives in your homeschool? Did it create any unintended consequences that caused problems down the line?

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