NEW YORK Aug 26 (Reuters) - Parents, here is an assignment for you as the kids head back to school: Are you going to pay your children to do homework and get good grades?
Some parents find their kids respond to rewards, and see few disadvantages. Others see too many downsides. "It's a slippery slope," says Susan Beacham, owner of Money Savvy Generation, a Lake Bluff, Illinois, company that creates financial literacy tools and books for children. She has only rarely offered tangible rewards to her daughters, now 19 and 20, for their successes. (Both children are in college, at the University of Illinois and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Beacham says they are getting excellent grades.)
Some devise complex rewards systems. Jill Elaine Hughes of Arlington Heights, Illinois, already has a "good boy points" plan for her 5-year-old, Elliott, who is entering first grade at a competitive private school that promises an avalanche of homework. When Elliott accumulates 20 points - for items like getting his homework done, making his bed and not pushing his little sister around - he gets television and video-game privileges.
Experts suggest parents calibrate their rewards programs carefully so the gifts don't backfire. The last thing you want to do is spend big bucks to turn your kid into a "show me the money" holdout.
Here are suggestions from financial experts and the real experts - those parents who have already devised their school-year incentive systems and seen them work.
CONSIDER THE KID
It's crucial to peg the reward system to the individual child, says Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
"If you have one kid who finds math easy and another who finds math hard, and just one reward system for both of them, it's going to seem unfair, and it is," says Markman.
The student who struggles in school may need more reinforcement for making the effort to do homework.
While it's fine to reward results, such as good grades, Markman says recognizing good effort is more powerful: It reinforces the idea that persistence pays off. "When kids learn that lesson, the whole world opens up to them. Nothing is impossible anymore."
TIME TO DO WHAT THEY WANT
New devices and time online are most kids' favorite rewards. But Lynn Clark, author of "The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age," doesn't let her 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son use tablets or laptops for fun until after they've finished their homework.
"Technology is seen as a leisure activity that's a reward," says Clark, a media professor at the University of Denver. She says it's less about the technology than it is about the personal freedom.
"The big reward is about enabling our kids to spend time as they'd most like to spend it." Clark's kids love the outdoors, so when her son raised his grades to A's in almost every class, she took him on a two-day trip to the Colorado wilderness. Her son jumped at the trip as a welcome chance to do some family bonding.
DON'T OVERDO IT
While students may be motivated by free time or trinkets, parents need to recognize that a sense of mastery may be the biggest reward, says Dr. Jerry Schecter, a child psychologist in Skokie, Illinois, and a past president of the Chicago Association of School Psychologists.
Giving tangible rewards "robs from the intrinsic value of performing the task, doing it well and succeeding," says Schecter, who advises against prizes and material perks in all cases.
Chuck Harling, a studio musician and producer from Evergreen Park, Illinois, says he and his wife reserve material rewards for when their third-grader, Aidan, turns in a great report card. During the marking period, they will give him video-game time as a homework reward, but prefer to focus on helping him learn that good work is its own reward. "I keep trying to explain to him that whatever he does, he should strive to be better at it - and the more he hears it, the more it will sink in. It's just habit, habit, habit."
MAKE REWARDS EDUCATIONAL
One way to encourage a love of learning for its own sake is to make the rewards educational. Hughes lets Elliott work on math puzzles, which he loves, as a reward for completing homework assignments. And Harling got his son a Kindle for his birthday. It was a big treat, but Harling and his wife had an ulterior motive: They can use books as rewards.
REWARD QUALITY, NOT SPEED
There is a downside to offering special treats for "after your homework is done" - it encourages rushing, warns Trae Bodge, senior editor of The Real Deal, a lifestyle and consumer news website. No matter how bad your kids wants screen time, let them know you'll check their homework. "Once your child is done with their assignment, always look it over. If you see errors, try to point them out without judgment."
JUST SAY NO
Several years ago, Beacham's younger daughter proposed a school-year deal: a new iPhone for straight A's. Beacham declined, even though she knew her daughter would push herself extra hard to do it. "I told her, 'If you can do this, I don't understand why you didn't do it last year. And I don't think you do, either.'" Her daughter forged ahead and did well that year anyway.