Rewards Create a Faulty Image of God
Perhaps the most damaging critique of bribes is their power to
change how a child relates to God. On a human level, the overuse of
bribes can reduce a parent-child or teacher-student relationship to
that of "briber" and "bribee." Whether there's a healthy emotional
bond between adult and child becomes secondary -- the child's
interest is fixed on the prizes. So when children are learning
about God in a bribe-dependent environment, we can expect them to
pick up the following false thoughts about God:
• God is emotionally distant. Kids are less likely to
learn to build a friendship with God when the focus is on bribes.
In adulthood a child groomed on bribes sees God as impersonal
dispenser and withholder of rewards rather than counselor and
• A relationship with God is transactional rather than
dependent on grace. Bribes unintentionally offer an economic
metaphor through which kids misunderstand God. The message of the
Cross is that friendship with God can't be earned -- it's a free
gift from God. Bribes contradict reality: The "points" we
accumulate are worthless currency in God's economy. God simply
loves us, in spite of our spiritual bankruptcy.
• Bribes promote a simplistic view of God's justice and
suffering. Kids reinterpret bribes into moral statements. We
say, "If you do X behavior, you'll get Y." A child reinterprets
this message as "When I get Y, it means I'm a good person. If I
don't get Y, it means I'm a bad person." Job's friends applied this
misguided logic to their suffering friend. They thought Job had
committed a secret sin to provoke God's wrath. God was reduced to a
cosmic vending machine: Insert good behavior, receive blessings.
Insert poor behavior, receive curses. Bribes don't prepare kids for
the reality that God often doesn't explain why we suffer. Instead,
we condition kids to doubt their standing before God, not to cling
to the loving God who stands with them during their darkest
Jesus said, "If you love me, you'll obey my commands." Interesting
that Jesus didn't say, "If you want a trinket, you will obey my
commands." Love for Jesus, and only that, is the motivation we need
to nurture, feed, encourage, and model for children.
It's possible to motivate kids toward spiritual growth without
bribes. Coloroso believes we can instill an ethic of caring through
discipline, unconditional love, and encouragement. Jesus embodied
these strategies. Perhaps our power to change a life lies not in
stickers and charts, but in our willingness to imitate Jesus as the
Larry Shallenberger is a children's and student ministries
pastor in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the author of Divine
Intention (Victor Books).
Hot Topic Poll Results
Here what people had to say at ChildrensMinistry.com.
• "Every good deed done by any child must be rewarded. It's a
motivation for doing more. The only way they can understand that we
value any good thing is when we reinforce such actions by
incentives such as gifts."
• "Hebrews 11:6: 'He rewards those who earnestly
seek him.' If rewarding's good enough for God, it's certainly good
enough for me."
• "I've found that children aren't self-motivated to learn Bible
verses. If you don't motivate them with prizes, what gets them to
learn the verses?"
• "Another downside of rewarding children for memorizing Bible
verses, bringing their Bibles to church, or bringing the most
friends is that often times you're rewarding the children whose
parents are really more involved in their children's lives."
• "Jesus was concerned about the feelings and hearts of all
people. I've seen how some children's hearts break when they don't
receive a prize like their classmates…is that what the church wants
• "I started out giving rewards to the kids. I'm not against
rewards -- if they're really deserved. But I found out that soon no
reward was good enough for the kids and I had to go more and more
over the top to get them to do anything."
What do you think?
Share your thoughts at the end of this
Q&A with Alfie Kohn
Recently, Children's Ministry Magazine's Jennifer Hooks spoke with
Alfie Kohn, internationally noted author and speaker on human
behavior, education, and parenting, about the hot topic of rewards.
Kohn is the author of 11 books, which include Punished by
Rewards, Beyond Discipline, and Unconditional
Parenting. His criticisms of competition and rewards have been
debated and described in Time, the Washington Post, and the Los
Angeles Times. He has been featured on Today, Oprah, and
hundreds of other TV and radio programs. Here's what Kohn had to
say about rewards in Christian education.
CM: Why are rewards detrimental in
AK: Rewards, like punishments, are ways of doing
things to children; whereas, we can only hope to make
meaningful change and help children grow and learn by working
Punishments can be effective in that they can result in resentful
compliance, but at terrific cost. And exactly the same is true of
rewards. For example, two studies have shown that children who
receive lots of positive reinforcement are somewhat less generous
and caring than their peers. Moreover, the effect is most
pronounced when they've received positive reinforcement
specifically for being caring or generous. That's
surprising to a lot of people, which is really a testament to how
thoroughly indoctrinated we've been in the ideology of behaviorism,
where we assume that we can act on kids, manipulating them
to act the way we want. Part of the problem is that rewards, like
punishments, focus only on behaviors-the actions you can see and
measure. But what we're ultimately interested in are the reasons,
motives, and values that underlie behavior. At best, a bribe or
threat can only temporarily change what a child does to get the
reward or avoid the punishment. It can never have a lasting
positive effect on the child. It can, however, have a lasting
negative effect because now her reason for wanting to learn or to
be a decent person has changed and is now a function of trying to
get a goody. So when the goody is no longer available, she has even
less interest than to begin with in acting the way we would have
CM: What would you say to the many teachers and ministries
that rely on rewards?
AK: I'm sure that many teachers use these systems
with the best of intentions. But in the long run, they're not only
ineffective but profoundly counterproductive. We have to ask what
our goals are. Again, if the goal is mindless obedience in the
short run so that the kids can get whatever the reward is, then you
should keep using these systems. But if your goal is for kids to
enhance their understanding and become interested in learning, then
the last thing you would ever do is reward kids for learning.
More than 70 studies have confirmed that the more you reward kids
for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they
had to do to get the reward. In the case of learning, you're
actually undermining kids' interest in what you're having them do
if you say in effect, "Do this, and you'll get that." Learning
becomes a means to an end in their minds, and they'll focus on how
many goodies they can get. Not because they're greedy or they've
missed the point; they understand the point of the rewards system
all too well. The problem is with the rewards system, not the
One way of coming at this is to realize that there are different
kinds of motivation. Psychologists distinguish between intrinsic
motivation, which is a fancy term that means doing something
because you find it fulfilling, engaging, and worthwhile in its own
right. Extrinsic motivation means you do something to get a reward
or a sticker or a "Good job."
It's not just that these two forms of motivation are different,
it's that they tend to be inversely related. The more you use
gimmicky incentives to "motivate" kids, the more you reduce their
intrinsic motivation to do the thing itself. So I don't care how
motivated children are, I care how children are motivated. If we
want intrinsic motivation, extrinsic inducements like rewards are
bad news indeed.
CM: What happens when a child goes through years of
rewards systems? What's the end result?
AK: You have a child who stops asking, "Yes, but
what does this mean?" or "How do we know that's true?" and instead
tends to ask, "Do we have to know this?" or "What will you give me
if I do that?"
In other words, children who once might have loved reading or
thinking or helping are now much more self-centered because the
point is to get the reward. They're much less engaged with figuring
stuff out. And that's exactly what we find in so many of our
workplaces, our classrooms, and our families.
The greatest obstacle to moving away from a carrot-and-stick
approach to education is not children's lack of curiosity about the
world around them or their concern about others. Rather it's the
adult's fear of giving up control. And in the long run, that's what
every sticker, every reward program, every "Good job" is about.
It's not about something kids need to receive, it's about
teachers' reluctance to engage children respectfully and bring kids
in on making decisions about their learning and their lives: If
I'm rewarding you, then I have all the power. And I may be
reluctant to give up that power and will try to justify my need for
it by pretending that kids aren't motivated, that kids need rewards
to do what I decide they have to do. So moving away from rewards
isn't just a matter of substituting one technique for another. This
gets to core issues about our own needs, about democratic versus
autocratic relationships with children, and about our view of human
CM: What can teachers do to motivate
AK: You can't make someone else motivated. You
can make other people do something by bribing or threatening them,
but you can't make them want to do it. What you can do is tap kids'
natural curiosity about themselves and the world by working with
them to create a culture, a climate, a curriculum that's worth
When kids act in disturbing ways, our interest is helping them
become decent people in the long run, not merely stomping out that
particular behavior while you're with them. Rewards, like
punishments, never help kids grow into decent people. If they
manage to become decent, it's in spite of traditional discipline,
not because of it.
What can help is to engage kids in reflecting deeply together
about the kinds of people we want to be, the kinds of goals we want
to have, and how we can achieve those goals. The most successful
classrooms are those where the teacher has brought the kids in on
making decisions and solving problems, where rewards and
punishments are absent, but the harder work of figuring out
together how to learn and live is a continuous process.
To work with kids takes talent, time, care, and courage. To dangle
the equivalent of a doggy biscuit in front of kids when they do
what we tell them takes no talent, no time, no care, and above all,
no courage. That's why the latter is so popular. But we can do
To learn more about Alfie Kohn, visit his Web site at www.alfiekohn.com.