Monday, February 20, 2012

Offering children financial rewards for mitzvot

A couple of weeks ago, when the Haftorah included shirat Devorah (the victory ballad composed by the prophetess Deborah, from Judges 5), I asked my elementary school-aged children whether they had been required to memorize it in school. Turns out, this had not been asked of them. I decided to put the challenge to them, offering a financial incentive for memorizing the first 5 sentences. The approach worked; they studied it, and helped each other study it, and they succeeded.

I don't feel bad about offering money for learning; this is over and above their school obligations. I offered it again this week, to memorize the six sentences of Parshas Shekalim.

But this did leave me with a few questions:
1. I value my children's chesed higher than their intellectual achievements; should I offer financial incentives for shoveling someone's driveway, or volunteering with an organization? Or should that be considered 'basic' and not something which warrants special reward?

2. What steps should I take to ensure that the mitzvah retains its inherent value in their eyes, separate from the financial reward?

3. How do I ensure that they prioritize properly, so that mitzvos without financial reward (setting the table, being polite, davening properly) don't get shunted aside in pursuit of cash?

[Side note: From what I understand, recent neurological research shows that pre-teen children memorize better than they reason, and pedagogy which tends to memorization will be better than critical analysis at this age. Of course, they need to learn critical thinking skills, too, but this is my basis for emphasizing memorization.]


  1. “What you are shouts so loud in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    or - pay for performance

    Joel Rich

  2. Joel-
    The Emerson quote went over my head; I thought I understood what he said, but how does it relate?

  3. One can articulate all sorts of priorities but what you reward defines the real ones, and also defines reward as a goal (see R' YBS on today even religious man is adam 1.

    Hope that gets you started else we'll have to talk real time.

    Joel RIch

  4. Not at all sure I like equating reward with money regarding chesed. Put another way, would you reward your children with money for good behavior, or is that something they are supposed to do because it is the right thing? Reward a chesed action with money often enough and the children will see chesed as a money-making opportunity and act accordingly, rather than coming to understand why chesed is important in and of itself, and that the reward is in the doing, not the getting.

    If you feel a reward would help them to get into the habit of doing chesed, then why not give them 10 minutes of private daddy and me time, or mommy and me time, or first choice when dessert comes out, or something along that line?

  5. ProfK-
    My instinct is like yours, but I'm not sure why I limit it to chesed. Why does lifnim mishuras hadin chesed seem like it should be natural, but lifnim mishuras hadin learning does not?

  6. A simplified answer to your question Rabbi. Chesed involves a person with other people who are going through things that are part of all of our lives. We all eat, so hunger in someone else resonates. We all need a place to live, money to provide what we need. We need to wear clothing. Everyone has had personal experience of illness, to varying degrees. In short, as the saying goes "There but for the grace of God go I."

    Learning does not always have that person to person direct and obvious connection. Many times it is about what was rather than what is. Sometimes the subject matter is highly esoteric for a child--teach a child about how to treat his oxen, or how to till a field? How many children today have ever been in such a position? How many could even accurately pick out an ox from among other living creatures? Teach them what the Kohen Gadol wore and when and they may or may not get interested, because there is no Bais HaMikdosh and no Kohen Gadol that they can personally see or interact with today.

    For many people history may be a subject to be studied, and it may or may not be interesting to all. But chesed is about helping people in the here and now with things that matter to all of us, so we can feel the pain in others. Chesed is about doing, not studying.

  7. ProfK-
    Understood - but why does that mean chesed above-and-beyond should not be rewarded?

  8. Rabbi T,
    I've been ruminating about this for a bit and I finally figured out what was bothering me. Why should reward be equated only to money?

    There are words and actions and items that are also suitable rewards. Shouldn't an enthusiastic hug and kiss by a parent accompanying the words "I'm so proud of you!" also be considered a reward? Shouldn't the pride that a child feels when he/she knows that her parents have told their parents/siblings all about how that child did a chesed also be considered a reward? And yes, why is a favorite cookie or first choice of dessert not considered as a reward?

    When my kids were little I kept a package of gold stars to give out when one of them did something really nice, or when they completed something that might have been hard for them. I used it for school work, for work around the house and for chesed acts. When I announced to one of them that they had had a "gold star" moment they were super pleased. They kept sheets with the stars on them to remind them that they really could do a lot of things, and those things were appreciated.

    Sure, takes a bit more time to think up some alternative rewards, but why make money the only one?

  9. ProfK-
    That may work with younger children, but I think once children are old enough to understand that in the "real world" [ie work] people are rewarded financially (say, 8-10 years old?), that becomes more difficult.
    Certainly, people volunteer for various causes without financial remuneration, because of abstract benefit or because of belief in ultimate Reward, but I suspect that may be a bit much to ask of a child in the 8-12 range, depending on the child's maturity.