The proliferation of bribes and gimmicks is a common scene in children’s ministry today. But do the prizes and gimmicks affect children’s hearts — or only their behavior?
“Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.” — Ecclesiastes 7:7
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” — Matthew 6:21
Consider the following examples:
• A Sunday school teacher shaves his beard because his students successfully recite a Scripture passage;
• A children’s church passes out Bible Bucks to kids who bring friends and Bibles;
• An unruly class wins a pizza party if they settle down;
• Kids who answer correctly get candy;
• Newly baptized children win a trip to the Treasure Chest; and Kids “caught being good” get an ice cream treat.
This never-ending bartering process is used as a motivator for good behavior. Proponents working in children’s ministry argue that children are “more motivated to do right things” if enticed and awarded. After all, if the prizes, candy, and honors were stopped, the children would balk, bawl, and break ranks.
What you win them with is what you keep them with. Do the prizes, rewards and gimmicks affect children’s hearts — or only their behavior? That’s the most critical question in this whole discussion of how to effectively motivate children. What moves them from within?
External motivators (prizes, gold stars, and food treats) represent a flawed philosophy in motivating children. Like cotton candy, external motivators are poor nourishment for a body’s real hunger. They trick a person into feeling full but provide little long-term satisfaction.
Jesus revealed this truth in his parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15). He described the thorn-infested dirt as being choked by anxiety, riches, and pleasures. Kids begin to focus on the prize rather than the spiritual growth. The prizes distract children from a genuine desire to follow after the things of God simply because God is worthy.
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Choking pleasures and anxieties? Is the token-store rewards approach really what Jesus was talking about? Those who employ external motivators often hear kids say something like…
• “What do we get if we’re good?”
• “I just can’t say the verse perfectly…I quit!”
• “Susan always wins the contest, so why should I even try?”
• “You don’t have to bring your Bible; just leave it at church. You’ll always win a Bible Buck that way!”
• “Hey! You tricked us! That’s not fair!”
The real problem with the gimmick approach is that it feeds kids’ greed rather than their genuine needs. Gimmicks offer a placebo, not a cure. Kids may jump through a hoop for a prize, but will they do it when a prize isn’t offered? Most likely not. What we desire as Christian educators is long-term Christian growth.
Let me ask you which is better: The child who enjoys reading his Bible daily and memorizes only useful passages but rarely wins a prize, or the kid, decorated with memory pins, who reads Scripture only to memorize for a prize (and then quickly forgets)?
I’ll never forget when I discovered the emptiness of using bribes. It was my next-to-last Sunday as a youth intern, and I was saddened by the paltry offerings all summer long from my teenagers. Every week it was the same deal: a couple bucks of change. And so I challenged them to raise $50 that day with the inducement that I’d shave half my hair off if they did it! I was amazed as checkbooks materialized and wallets were emptied of every last dollar. Smiling to myself, I felt that I had succeeded! Sure, I looked goofy for a day, but the $50.23 offering was worth it.
Then I learned that my ploy was a temporary gimmick. The next week the offering returned to a low ebb as I heard a rising tide of “what will you do this week?” I hadn’t motivated those teenagers to do the right thing at all.
Since then I’ve learned that a deeper path is to motivate children by touching real needs and creating personal satisfaction. Dr. William Glasser suggests that every person is motivated by the following five basic needs, and those who plug into these felt needs electrify internal motivation.