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.” —
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;
- 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
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
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.
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.
The most basic needs of every child relate to personal survival:
hunger, thirst, release from physical pain, warmth or cooling, to
name a few. In children’s ministry, this means addressing external
issues that might dictate why children have behavioral problems in
the first place. It requires attention to family situations,
weather, and time.
Classroom management is a common reason prizes and bribes are
used. Johnny can’t sit still so a treat is promised. Julie is often
tardy or absent and, consequently, teachers reason that she needs a
prize to arrive on time. Kevin jabs Juan, and so both are told
they’ve lost a trip to the treasure chest.
The problem with this approach is that we bandage the wound
without asking why. Why can’t Johnny sit still? or Julie get to
class on time? or Kevin control his fists? The real reasons may be
survival needs! Johnny squirms because he’s hungry, thirsty, or too
warm. Julie is tardy because her parents place a low priority on
timeliness. Kevin punches because he’s hit at home. Consequently,
rewards or punishments are meaningless. In fact, gimmicks only add
embarrassment to the situation.
An intuitive children’s minister will understand survival needs
and create a learning environment where those needs are met. A
healthy midmorning snack (fruit, crackers, juice) fends off hunger.
A conversation with the parents helps families arrive on time.
Properly heated and cooled rooms ward off misbehavior. Home visits
to families help teachers understand various issues children bring
to church. A zero-tolerance policy for hitting (offenders are
removed or returned to parents) keeps children safe.
A primary reason for discipline challenges is lack of adult
supervision. Keep in mind that a proper ratio of adults to children
is a number equal to the children’s age. For example, if you’re
working with 5-year-olds, you need one adult for every five
children. A minimum of two adults should control every children’s
ministry situation. Most survival needs can be immediately met with
just an extra hand!
A second need, according to Glasser, is belonging: a sense of
connection, friendship, and positive relationships. Ironically, the
use of bribes often deteriorates this basic desire as it forces
children to work against each other to win something. Instead of
building bonds, this competition breaks them. I once watched
children confess to giving up on memory work. It wasn’t that they
couldn’t do it, but they lost interest because the kids they didn’t
like made the “honor roll.”
Children are social creatures, especially after age 5. By the
time they reach upper-elementary, many of their choices are created
and confirmed by their peers. If Derrick doesn’t like memorization,
his friend Clay won’t either. If Pam prefers to chat with Kylie, no
amount of candy will cancel her conversation. If Drew always wins
in Bible trivia, he may actually separate himself from his friends.
It’s a lose-lose scenario.
The answer is actually to motivate children through
relationships! Friendships should be forged in the blossoming faith
of kids. Allow time in class for building bonds. Incorporate social
learning opportunities (quads, trios, or pairs). No prize will
pacify a child who feels left out, but positive friendships work
For example, take Scripture memorization. Why should children
memorize Scripture? Is it to win a prize? Is it to be the best in
the class and beat all others? Or, in reality, is it so they don’t
sin against God (Psalm 119:11)? I believe it’s the last reason, so
wouldn’t memory groups be a better route than individual
recitation? Capitalize on children’s need for belonging by having
them work together. Imagine the power of memory work when groups of
children quote Scripture at school and home not to grab a goody but
to defeat the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). When belonging needs are met,
there’s connection and deeper purpose.
Power is yet another personal need. The power to make choices,
create opportunities, and be viewed with importance. The problem is
that children are often last in line in power issues. Who makes the
decisions? Who offers the ideas? Who creates the change? The
tragedy in most children’s ministries is that only adults run the
show. The children just watch, work, and, if they’re lucky or
“But if children do it, they’ll fail!”
“It won’t be as good.”
But do you hear what’s really being said by these protests?
Listen closely and you’ll detect adult fears, expectations, and
motivations. Recently my daughter’s home-school band played for
local dignitaries. The band was highly decorated and had won
several competitions. One mother fretted prior to their
performance, “They’re just not motivated today. They’re not playing
for anything, no prize or anything!” If only she could’ve heard the
kids! They proudly unpacked their instruments in the bandstand and
commented, “We’re playing for state senators!” Their performance
was flawless. The applause rich. The mother silenced.
The kids had power, which satisfied a deep desire. The ribbons
from the contests were dessert. The real meal was playing perfectly
to a select audience.
You can empower children by inviting their involvement. Let them
serve on committees. Allow kids to lead congregational singing
(junior praise team). Let them videotape a program. Permit their
ideas in class and honor their suggestions. Give children
responsibility to lead. If an adult is doing it, a child should
Gimmicks tickle the heart for a time, but power satisfies
A fourth internal desire is for fun or enjoyment of the moment
or task. Recently CBS television aired the miniseries, Jesus, where
the most widespread reaction was that it made Jesus “likable.” Why?
Because Christ smiled often. The Messiah laughed deeply. God’s Son
cracked jokes. Unlike previous “Jesus” movies, this
characterization seemed more real and personal. We understand a
Messiah who mourns, but we yearn for a Savior who smiles.
Ironically one reason the candy and prizes work is because
they’re fun! There’s laughter and levity, interest and influence.
Unfortunately the fun soon fades into squabbles over cheating,
unfairness, or jealousy. The joy of the moment is often robbed just
by looking at the losers. The tears of disappointment. The
embarrassment of failure. The sense of personal rejection. The
anger of losing.
The truth is that a fun-filled situation — whether an activity,
program, project, or lesson — is motivating in itself. It’s human
nature to continue doing what we enjoy. Pleasure produces desire!
I’ve sometimes observed how those who employ prize tactics can have
classes that are strangely uptight and terse.
I’ve actually discovered that making the work fun — whether
memorization, meetings, or ministry — is 90 percent of success.
It’s the Tom-Sawyer-whitewash-the-fence mentality.
Your first step as a leader is to relax. Children will memorize
lines for a play faster if the pressure is off and it’s fun.
Secondly, laugh a lot (especially at your mistakes). Third, inspire
excellence but not perfection (there’s a difference). Finally,
reward everyone when appropriate. Throw a party. Play a game. Write
a note of thanks. No matter the task, to lick it you must like
The final need, according to Glasser, is freedom: the personal
satisfaction of being true to one’s self. Many times
well-intentioned adults thwart creative and individual
self-expression in children because it doesn’t fit their standards
or norms. Steven wears his pants baggy and loose off the hips.
Twanda confesses an interest in hard-core gangsta rap. Ryan likes
to watch World Wrestling Federation.
While it’s certainly appropriate to question the various
self-expressions of the children we serve, it’s not productive to
deny them. Many times extremes are championed by kids because they
know it riles adults. As a young teenager, I used to wear my KISS
T-shirts to church just to get a reaction! But, oddly enough, those
who influenced me the most never said a word in condemnation.
Rather, they invited discussion on lyrics, asked about the morality
of the group, and offered other music alternatives. Eventually I
learned to make better choices concerning music.
I once heard how an employee at a McDonald’s restaurant was
fired for making ketchup happy faces on the burgers he prepared. In
a world where self-expression is defined and dictated by societal
standards, the church should be a haven for the artists in our
culture. In fact, children’s ministers who encourage creative
self-expression produce kids who are more personally confident,
self-reliant, and emotionally balanced. Most negative
self-expression in our culture is the result of oppressive forces,
whether the source is a parent, school, church, or employer.
Creative self-expression within appropriately defined moral fences
is a powerful force!
Ultimately, an environment where children can be themselves,
possess the power to choose, and forge lifelong friendships in a
fun and safe manner will motivate children. Such a place engages
learning and keeps misbehavior at bay. It will ripen desires and
cultivate wills wired for excellence, quality, and creativity.
It will feed the need, not the greed.
It will serve as the main course and the dessert.
It will unleash inner motivations, not just fleeting
It will produce crops and fruit.
PUNISHED BY REWARDS
Alfie Kohn, in his definitive work Punished by Rewards, offers
the following facts about motivation and learning:
- Young children do not need to be rewarded to learn. Kohn argues
that the desire to learn is natural in young children, and that
they are predisposed to intellectual growth. “As children progress
through elementary school, though, their approach to learning
becomes increasingly extrinsic,” writes Kohn. Ultimately, and
tragically, the extrinsic motivators (including money for grades
and honor rolls) destroys student motivation.
- At any age, rewards are less effective than intrinsic
motivation for promoting effective learning. The key to fostering
intrinsic motivation, Kohn contends, is not via external motivators
but through making learning interesting. In one study, research
revealed retention of reading material was vastly tied more to
personal interest than readability. Kohn also reveals the fun
factor is a primary motivator for learning, or as others have
termed it: “edutainment!”
- Rewards for learning undermine intrinsic motivation. The
primary problem with high grades, stickers, and other “Skinnerian”
inducements, according to Kohn, is that they not only detract from
the real reasons for learning something, but they also dissipate
the desire to learn altogether. Perhaps the lethargy and apathy in
education — whether secular or sacred — is the rightful fruit of
planting Skinnerian seeds. Consequently we must keep “upping the
prize” to motivate once again.
WHERE DID WE GET THESE IDEAS?
It would surprise most Christian educators to know that the root
of the gift and gimmick tactic is found in behavioral science,
originating with John Watson and popularized by B.F. Skinner.
Working from evolutionistic assumptions, behaviorists believed
human beings could be tricked and trained (just like animals) into
proper actions. Pavlov’s salivating dogs and Skinner’s rats were
used as evidence.
Consequently, behavior modification — primarily through the use
of inducements (rewards and punishments) — was espoused to
redirect human activity. Nearly a century later, behavior
modification is a primary ploy to increase personal motivation,
whether in business, sports, education, penal, or religious
The mantra of “pop behaviorism” is “do this and get that.” The
problem is that human beings are not highly evolved animals but are
created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). Unlike animals, we can
express creativity, make informed choices, and obey moral
guidelines. We have freedom and power to emotionally connect and
enjoy life. We are not programmed to respond mechanically to
Rick Chromey is a contributing author to Children’s Ministry
in the 21st Century (Group) and a financial life coach in Boise,
Idaho. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change.