I was invited to BBC Radio Norfolk’s Morning Show with Nick Conrad in the summer. It was on the morning the GCSE results came out and the subject of the interview was, ‘Is it OK to bribe children to get good results?’ I had 4 minutes to put my point across, so I thought I’d use this page to elaborate.
Most of us love our children unconditionally – we love them whatever their results. We know this because if our kids were to be admitted to hospital with a serious condition, the last thing on our minds would be their GCSEs.
The problem is that humans connect love with approval
Part of the relationship we have with our children is that we feel happy when they succeed and sad when they don’t. We communicate this through words and body language; and we think we’re helping them by offering them our experience of their success/failure. The problem is that humans connect love with approval, which means that if children hear (or see) us communicating with even a hint of disapproval, they will often experience this as us withholding love.
So whether we mean to or not, we are offering what Jim Taylor, PhD (a psychologist specialising in sport and parenting) calls ‘outcome love’. This is a transaction where parents offer the reward of love (real or perceived) in exchange for success, and withdraw that love as a punishment for failure.
No, it isn’t OK to bribe children to get good results
So when Nick Conrad asked me that question ‘Is it OK to bribe children to get good results’ my answer, in a nutshell, was ‘no; mainly because it doesn’t work’. There are four reasons for this.
1) The emphasis is on the results (outcome) and not on the learning (process)
2) A results-focus is future-based, whereas a learning-focus is now. Your child ultimately has no control over the future, but they can do something about the how they intend to get that result now.
3) If your focus is on the result, your child might perceive this as being something that satisfies you more than something that will benefit them. They will be less inclined to take responsibility for their own learning and this will cause conflict.
4) The long-term consequence of ‘outcome love’ for your child is not good. It can create people who aim for perfectionism, who are terrified of failing and who may resent their parents for something they feel unable to meet. This can cause low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
What can we do instead? Encourage them to be curious about their learning
Instead of bribing children for results, what can we do?
We need to engage with our children through the school year, not just at exams. If they get a good mark in homework, ask them: What did you do to get such a good mark? Where did you get the information from? What helped you get this? If their mark is not good, encourage them to be just as curious about their learning. What didn’t work this time round? Did the teacher give you any useful feedback? Do you agree with it? What are you going to do differently next time?
Help them to move their focus from results to learning
Help them to remain focussed on their learning and encourage them to trust that the results they want will follow. This will be hard to do because the ‘real world’ is so very results-focussed. In those moments of intense pressure and stress you can help them to replace those thoughts with something else – music, a quick burst of exercise, a cup of tea, etc. Get them to set some mini goals (do one question and then have a break), to minimise distractions (put your phone on the other side of the room, on silent), or call a friend to help them/make a note to ask their teacher. Encourage them to be kind to themselves and support them as much as you can.
Andrea Rippon is a PET Certified Parent Educator and a mum of two teenagers. www.parentingclass.co.uk She helps parents build strong, long-term relationships with their children (toddlers to teenagers) by using evidence-based communication skills. Her next Open Programme starts in January 2019. She can also offer Parent Coaching by Skype or in person. This blog was previously published in the Family Section of the EDP on 2 September, 2018.