I’ll admit it. I was a reward junkie. When I taught my kids, I loved giving out prizes and other small goodies. It felt it gave me an advantage–I could encourage good behavior with cheap candy and threaten to take away toys when kids misbehaved. This give-and-take reward system was something I was raised on when I was a kid in church, and naturally, I did it with my own Sunday school kids.
What I didn’t realize was that I was basically bribing my kids. Instead of focusing on God and the message he had for them, they were more focused on doing and saying the right things to get their prizes. Teresa Amabile, author of Growing Up Creative (Crown), writes, “Research has abundantly shown that when children become focused on reward as their reason for doing something, their intrinsic motivation and creativity will decline.”
At the peak of my reward addiction, we had a small “store” that kids could come to and trade in points for prizes. I remember during lessons when I would ask questions, some kids asked how many points they would get. They didn’t care that what they’d just heard was relevant to their lives. There was no life change happening. They just wanted stickers and suckers.
Eventually, the “store” room became a storage room full of VBS materials and craft supplies. When the kids realized that the point was learning and living God’s message–not getting points for listening to and repeating God’s message–we started to see real growth. From time to time, I slipped back into my old ways; rewards can be fun, but we started to turn the corner on how we were using rewards. If you, too, are looking to get out of the reward rut, here are five simple things to do instead.
1. Give instead of get. Find a service project or a charity that’s relevant to your kids. Collect stuffed animals to give to a kids’ hospital. Have kids write letters to seniors at an assisted living facility, and then take them on a field trip to deliver them. Turn the focus off of getting, and on to giving.
2. Clean out the reward closet. If you are ready to get rid of the small stockpile of rewards, here’s a tip. You can still give them out, but encourage kids give them to a friend or family member. Kids will have the opportunity for growth when they receive candy or a toy that they chose for the purpose of making someone else happy.
3. Exceptions to the rule. Giving a small toy to kids to keep them behaving is not your goal. But, if you give them a small toy that’s used to help teach and reinforce the lesson, then let them keep it, kids will have a reminder of the lesson to keep all week long. Don’t just give fun erasers out. Use the erasers in a lesson and have kids write on a piece of paper things we do wrong, and then erase those things. Teach them that Jesus “erases” our sins. That eraser is now a reminder of God’s love.
4. Rise to the challenge. I believe that giving kids goals to reach for is a great, reward-free motivation. Give kids challenges such as telling a friend at school what they learned, or helping out around their homes. When you’re helping kids determine goals and challenges, be mindful of what some kids can and can’t do. A kid’s parents might not be able to bring them to church every week. A child might not have a Bible to read at home. They might not have any money to give. Set goals that all your kids can achieve–and that challenge them to grow in their faith.
5. Replace with love. This is the most important one. After you rid your ministry of rewards, spend even more time loving on your kids. Talk to them, listen to them, and let each one of them know that God loves them. Even if they mess up, show love to them and let them know you care.
If you read Children’s Ministry Magazine or keep up with its website, you know where we stand on using shame to correct kids. We try our best to stay away from teaching techniques that belittle or disparage kids. However, we must also be careful that we are not doing the opposite, which is rewarding good behavior with treats. It sends the message that the only reason to act properly and to remember verses is to get surprises…and we don’t want kids learning for stickers instead of for life-change.
For more information on rewards and the negative effect they can have on kids’ ministry, read Rick Chromey’s Can the Candy.