Care and Feeding

I Regret Bribing My Son to Get Good Grades

He’s ready to give up completely.

A child holds up a graded test with a "B" grade.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comstock Images/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son did poorly in school during remote learning even though he’s a smart kid who wants to succeed in his classes. This year has been SO MUCH better with school being in-person, despite having moved from his little elementary school into the wild world of middle school. At the beginning of the year he stated, “I am going to get all A’s this year,” which he is completely capable of. The issue he has is with incomplete work—there is work to do during class and if it doesn’t get done during class it’s homework. He socializes in class and then drags his feet on homework. When the missing work piles up, he gets too stressed out to deal with it and makes all kinds of excuses, from it being Google Classroom’s fault, to a teacher not handing something out, to…running out of time.

At the beginning of the year he said, “if I get all A’s will you take me to [this local amusement park]?” Maybe I should have allowed for some nuance, but I didn’t, and said, “If you do that, we’ll go there, no problem.” We even agreed on a bigger “prize” if he pulls it off all year. But now the problem is that he has missing work, and some grades have dropped into B or C territory. This is really frustrating for him, and for me—mostly because now that it’s looking like he’s going to fail the challenge, he’s ready to give up completely, even on the bigger end-of-year goal.

Besides going back in time and saying, “I want to reward your hard work, let’s not tie it specifically to getting all A’s,” how can I rework this goal to maintain the desire to succeed rather than being tied to specific grades? I always want him to work hard and try, but I don’t want to punish him if he tries hard and still doesn’t “win.” How do I get him to keep up that perseverance?

—I Just Want My Kids To Try

Dear I Just Want My Kids to Try,

Tying academic achievement to an at-home reward system will always be tricky, for many of the reasons you outline in your letter. This sort of motivation doesn’t work for every child, even if—and perhaps especially if—the child is the one who proposes it. Your son seems like he might benefit from being rewarded, not for a final grade, but for shorter-term progress, like finishing assignments within the time allotted, socializing outside of class instead of during, and accepting accountability instead of placing blame.

Bring him back to the negotiation table. Say something like, “Okay. It looks like the amusement park goal may have been too ambitious for this quarter. But we can still turn this around. I’d like to start by measuring our success this year on a scale that isn’t based only on grades.”

There are so many daily steps a child has to take in order to achieve big long-term goals. Your son is still struggling with those, and if he’s going to be rewarded for anything, it should be learning self-discipline and structure. You’ll have to work up to his loftier goals as a family, but those will only be achieved if he establishes better habits day by day.

—Stacia

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