Bribing your kids to study: Does it work?

Geri-Ellen Dow trying to bribe her 14-year-old son to do his summer reading.

Kai Ryssdal: I had a conversation a month or so ago with Steven Levitt about the Freakonomics of getting kids to get good grades. And how Levitt says we oughta just pay 'em. Fifty bucks for an A was what he got when he was a kid. Me: not one thin dime. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Anyway, Geri-Ellen Dow heard the segment and tweeted us a picture of two crisp $20 bills -- one labeled "Great Expectations," the other labeled "The Odyssey" -- and a note saying the money was there for the taking by her 14-year-old son if he read the books in question.

So of course we had to call her up to see what happened. Geri, good to talk to you.

Geri-Ellen Dow: Thanks. It's nice talking with you, Kai.

Ryssdal: So you heard me talking to Steven Levitt about the Freakonomics of paying kids to study, and what did you do? Tell me about your experiment.

Dow: I'm always looking for ways to motivate the kids because they don't seem to be really excited about school themselves.

Ryssdal: Shocking, shocking.

Dow: Yeah, it is. So I thought that, well my son had two books to read over the summer -- "Great Expectations" and "The Odyssey."

Ryssdal: So how much were you going to pay them?

Dow: So I figured $20 a book was reasonable.

Ryssdal: Oh man. See, I'm not going to read "The Odyssey" for $20.

Dow: Yeah, you know, as it turns out, he felt probably the same way as well.

Ryssdal: So tell me what happened.

Dow: So what happened was, he finished "Great Expectations" maybe four days ago, five days ago, and then he started "The Odyssey" two days ago. And I just have to point out that school starts tomorrow.

Ryssdal: So you're going to get your $20 back.

Dow: Well...

Ryssdal: No, are you give it to him? Come on.

Dow: He's 250 pages into it. And the hesitation was he seems to be plowing through it, which I don't understand how you can do that.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no. You're going to pro-rate this then, is this what I'm hearing you tell me?

Dow: We had a really heated discussion yesterday about whether I intended to pay him if he got it done before school or before the comprehensive test.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that's actually a very good point, which I should probably raise to Steven Levitt -- you've got to define the terms of the agreement.

Dow: Yes, and I was not clear on that. Although I think as it happened, and I had some different ideas about what I would have done if I was doing it over again.

Ryssdal: Like what?

Dow: Well I would have offered him more than $20.

Ryssdal: Yeah, you got that right.

Dow: For a 500-page book that was written 2,000 years ago.

Ryssdal: Now, Levitt and Dubner, the guys behind Freakonomics, would say, 'Well your sample size is a little small, and you need more information over time.'

Dow: So you think I should maybe have more kids and do it longer, is that what you're suggesting?

Ryssdal: No. Well, that's a personal choice actually. But really, you need to do the experiment over a longer period of time so you can have more data, more information, right?

Dow: And with more rigorous controls in terms of what the expectations are. Yes.

Ryssdal: Are you thinking you might do this again next summer? I guess you're going to wait and see how it goes, right?

Dow: Yes, I'm going to wait. I don't know. I don't know.

Ryssdal: This is so fun, you are clearly conflicted about this.

Dow: I am conflicted about it, yes.

Ryssdal: Huh. Well Geri, thanks a lot for your time.

Dow: All right, thank you Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.


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