If anyone would be justified in offering a reward to her kid for good grades, it might be me. My son was diagnosed with ADHD in the second grade and has struggled significantly over the six years since. The message he has always received from teachers, if only implied, was that he really just needs to try harder. And I get it. For kids who have ADHD, their unfinished projects and forgotten assignments often do seem the result of a lack of effort. So why not offer him a reward in exchange for extra effort?
Of course, plenty of parents reward their kids’ good grades, with or without an ADHD diagnosis. I have friends who take their kids out for a lavish celebration dinner when they bring home a good report card. Other parents pay $10 for every “A” earned (yes, this means report cards could set them back as much as $70). I have a friend who takes her daughter to get mani-pedis as a reward for straight A’s.
So, when it comes to my kid who has struggled so much, shouldn’t I reward him? Wouldn’t it be cruel for him to have to see his friends’ cash piling up while he receives no tangible reward? Doesn’t he deserve something? Especially when science even backs this up. Studies have shown that kids who have ADHD tend to respond even better to rewards than kids with neurotypical brains. (Negative consequences, on the other hand, are often not as motivating for kids who have ADHD.)
Well, up to now, we’ve never had to wrestle with that question, because my son’s grades always hovered at or below average. But this semester, for the first time, my son earned all A’s on his report card. It was a massive accomplishment. Yet, despite all the reasons I could or should fork over a wad of cash or take him out to dinner, I didn’t offer my son a single tangible reward for his hard work.
That’s because the grades are the reward. Bear with me here, I know how eye-roll worthy that sounds. What I mean is, my son worked really, really hard, and the A’s are the thing he earned — that is, they are the literal payment for his effort. This is not me just stating my opinion or willing this to be so. I’m saying that for my son, the A’s he earned made him feel like he’d conquered a major challenge. The look of pride on his face when he told me about his report card made it abundantly clear that he understood the magnitude of his accomplishment. And the many “I knew you could do its” showered upon him by his father and me further cemented that feeling of pride.
I love that my son earned those grades without expectation of a prize. He didn’t do it as a means to an end, he did it to prove to himself that he could do it. And now that he has experienced that rush of pride that comes with achieving a goal, he wants to do it again and again and again.
By the way, the road to get to this place was far from straightforward. We had to build it, we had to work on it. So even though my son has always struggled in school, his father and I never offered a reward for good grades – even when we were really tempted to do so. Instead, we’ve talked with our son regularly about grit, tenacity, responsibility, and self-motivation. We’ve told him stories of our own failures and triumphs and what those have meant to us, how they have shaped our lives. It wasn’t one single conversation. Far from it. This has been an ongoing, years-long daily conversation. Together our family has researched ADHD interventions and accommodations, worked on tricks to help my son remember assignments, and devised techniques to keep him focused on his work. All of this was in the service of helping to develop my son’s intrinsic motivation.
And that’s the thing. I know there isn’t any singular reward or punishment I can dangle in front of my son to make him do what I know he’s capable of. Fostering intrinsic motivation over the long-term through lots and lots of talking and sharing of stories is what it took. When it came down to this semester’s report card, my son earned straight A’s for no other reason than because he wanted to prove to himself that he could.
And honestly, that makes me so much prouder than if he’d done it just to earn a few bucks.