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SmartyCard to kids: Do well, get stuff

SmartyCard, which is being launched at Demo, uses parents' money to reward kids for doing well in educational activities. Is that really a good way to get kids to learn?

SmartyCard, which launches at Demo 09 on Tuesday, is both compelling and disturbing. The well-crafted site, which is aimed mainly at third- to sixth-graders, is compelling because it not only engages children in fun and interesting learning activities, but it adds an element of incentive by rewarding success with points that they can use to purchase virtual or real merchandise.

That very incentive is what also makes SmartyCard disturbing.


I'm not saying that the carrot approach--giving kids rewards for doing well--can't be appropriate and effective. But I'm somehow bothered by the idea of an automated system that puts kids through their paces, however enjoyable and educational they may be, and then dishes out rewards with Mom and Dad's money.

When my kids were that age, my wife and I spent lots of time interacting with them at the kitchen table, through reading books and doing homework, and--yes--sometimes in front of a computer. But the rewards our children received for doing well were more emotional than financial.

Sure, there was the occasional trip to the ice cream parlor to celebrate a good test score or a bit of extra effort and, yes, we occasionally bought our kids gifts as a way of congratulating them for a job well done, but there was a decidedly human touch to it, and it wasn't a quid pro quo.

Like most parents, we strived to instill a sense of pride and work ethic in our children without teaching them that every good accomplishment necessarily translates into acquiring more stuff.

That's not to say that there might not be situations in which a service like SmartyCard makes sense. If a parent feels that a bit of extra help from a Web site might be all that a kid needs to put in some extra effort, than I'm glad that SmartyCard is there to serve that family. But I'm not 100 percent comfortable with the idea of a mechanized system for rewarding achievement. At least at younger ages, it would be best if parents played the activities with their children.

Parents buy SmartyCard points that kids unlock by doing well on activities. Ten bucks buys you 5,000 points, but it takes 10,000 points for a kid to buy $10 worth of credit on iTunes. Some deals are better than others. 5,000 points will buy a month's membership on Club Penguin, but the cost of those points is still quite a bit more than the $5.95 fee a parent would pay to buy a month directly from that site.

I wish that SmartyCard could offer parents something closer to a one-to-one value, and make its money from commissions from the vendors that provide the service or sell the merchandise. General Manager Chris Carvalho said the company hopes to negotiate such deals over time. Of course, an argument can be made that the extra money parents are paying is well worth it, if the lure of SmartyCard points gets their kids to study harder

. I like the fact that kids can use SmartyCard for free with access to the educational games, but not the merchandise rewards. That opens up the activities to kids whose parents can't afford to buy points or simply prefer not to. And if the games are compelling enough, that might be all the incentive some kids need.

Besides, if they do well, you can always take them out for ice cream.

Larry talks with SmartyCard General Manager Chris Carvalho.