Stickers & Candies & Stars—Oh My!

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

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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.

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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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