Group Publishing
Subscribe Button

Stickers & Candies & Stars—Oh My!

Larry Shallenberger

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 friend.

• 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 hour.

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 master disciple-maker.

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


• "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 to promote?"

• "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 article.

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 education?

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 with them.

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 hoped.

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 children.

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 nature.

CM: What can teachers do to motivate kids?

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 doing.

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 better.

To learn more about Alfie Kohn, visit his Web site at

Print Article Print Article Blog network
Copyright © 2014 by Group Publishing, Inc.