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Stickers & Candies & Stars—Oh My!

Larry Shallenberger

REWARDS -- long a staple in Christian classrooms -- may be more harmful than helpful.

You remember the familiar image of the stubborn donkey being prompted forward when tempted by a carrot dangling from a stick in front of him? While the image seems simplistic and even humorous, it's a perfect illustration of how, to be blunt, you can get someone or something to do what you want.

Is it possible that we -- while attempting to lead children into a friendship with God -- have unwittingly created a stick-and-carrot approach?

Some have ventured down the road of behaviorism, rooted in B.F. Skinner's theory that the best way to motivate a person is through systems of rewards and punishments. And, sadly, we've subtly distorted our goal of leading children into a lasting friendship with God. Well-meaning children's ministers, wanting kids to engage in Christian acts such as attending church or memorizing Bible verses, use bribes (often thought of in terms of rewards) to illicit the desired behaviors. Children's workers convert supply closets into stores where kids exchange earned tokens for prizes.

By outward appearances, bribes work. But things aren't what they seem. On the inside, bribes or rewards create unimaginable distortions in kids' spiritual growth. Behaviorism has been with us long enough for another generation of researchers to test its premises. So let's look at fresh research on the implications of this practice.

Rewards Distort Children's Values

A surprising consequence of using rewards to reinforce desired behavior is that the reward or bribe -- not the positive behavior -- becomes kids' focus. Researchers at Stanford University performed a landmark study in 1976 where they played math games with kids, which the kids appeared to enjoy. After a time, they gave the children prizes for being successful at the game. After the kids grew to expect the prizes, the researchers took them away, and the kids quickly lost interest in the games they once enjoyed. The prize, rather than enjoyment of the game, became the children's focus.

Thus, one danger of behavior modification is that it diminishes the child's interest in the desired behavior. We tell kids, "If you read your Bible, you'll get a prize." Psychologically, kids wonder, What's wrong with my Bible if I have to be bribed?

Consider events where children earn a chance to win a prize such as a bike for bringing guests. What's valued in kids' eyes -- the bike or the eternal destiny of their friends? If your goal is to fill seats, offer the bribe. That's what you'll get, but with dangerous outcomes in the discipleship of Christian kids.

If your goal is to train children to invite friends into a friendship with Jesus, then drop the bribes. The bribe itself threatens children's ability to see the value of inviting a friend to church. We've inadvertently sent the message that inviting friends to Christ must be painful or unnatural. Why else would my children's pastor have offered me the bike?

This phenomenon is particularly troubling when we remember that we're trying to motivate kids to love God. As a child, I heard a particularly cruel insult at the playground: "You're so ugly, your mom tied a pork chop around your neck so the dogs would play with you." God certainly doesn't need a pork chop, stickers, or tokens around his neck to entice children to love him. But by bribing children, we subtly tell them that God must be boring or repulsive. 

Rewards Distort Character Development

Studies show that promises of prizes get children -- and adults -- focused on "working the system." People do just enough to get what they want. So a child who wants to earn a sticker might cram a verse into his short-term memory long enough to earn the sticker, but not long enough to retain the verse for life.

Bribes also promote dependence over independence. I worked for seven years at a mental health residential treatment center that relied heavily on behavior modification. Each day, a child could earn points for positive behavior such as "brushing teeth" or "using manners at dinner" -- all things kids didn't like to do. A child could exchange accumulated points for prizes. The more points accumulated, the better the prizes. The children improved their behavior -- they hit or swore less -- not because they increased respect for each other, but because they wanted better prizes. And the same kids who behaved well in the residential setting had difficulty maintaining pro-social behaviors in a public school setting. They grew dependent on prizes rather than developing internal changes that resulted in new behavior.

Even more concerning, bribes result in kids who are extremely "me-focused." Barbara Coloroso, parenting-training author and speaker, writes in her book, Kids Are Worth It, "Kids who are consistently bribed and rewarded are likely to grow into adults who are overly dependent on others for approval and recognition, lacking their own self-confidence and sense of responsibility. They frame their deeds in response to the answers to these questions: What's in it for me? What's the payoff? Does it count for anything? Will it get me what I want? Do you like it? Did you see me do it? Did I do it the right way (your way)?"

Coloroso writes, "These tools train children in selfishness and greed. Children learn what does and doesn't get them what they want. They ask, 'What's in it for me?' not 'What person do I want to be?' " When held up against Jesus' warning against acting religious for the benefit of the audience (Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18), Coloroso's cautions about long-term dangers of bribery systems are particularly foreboding.

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