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Reward-Based Motivation: Just Say No

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by Rick Chromey

I know reward-based motivation is popular, and I can’t deny such
strategies work–even with high results. But what succeeds with
children loses traction with teenagers and fails with adults. After
all, what “treats” would entice you to memorize Scripture, bring
friends to church, or carry a Bible? Adults won’t play those games
and neither should children.

Reward-based motivation techniques are a faulty idea because they
fail to create long-term behavioral change. Numerous educational
studies, most recently outlined in Daniel Pink’s new book
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,
reveal reward-based motivation is only a temporary solution.

As a recovering “gimmick king” myself, I also propose that rewards
fail for these reasons:

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Rewards produce “works” righteousness. Do this,
get that…and the “that” isn’t spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace,
and so on) but material prizes. The consequence is that children
quickly salivate for pleasures and lose interest in the original
task or desired behavior. Ephesians 2:8-9 says we’re saved by grace, not
by works, so no one can boast. Reward-based motivation is actually
anti-grace. Yes, it produces results–but it also provokes winners
and whiners, not to mention selfishness, arguments, pride, and

Rewards erode relationships. “Trick and treat”
motivational techniques also backfire when building community. They
pit child against child and children against leaders (who must
adopt roles as judges, cops, and lawyers).

Rewards devalue self-worth. Kids who win a prize
may feel pretty good at first, but reward-based motivation
eventually ensnares kids to keep “performing” to earn approval.
Perfectionism emerges, as does self-doubt, feelings of inferiority,
and insecurity…and that’s the winners. Kids who don’t win feel even

Rewards aren’t fun. The only ones laughing are
the winners. Everyone else is either frustrated, disappointed,
conflicted, confused, bored, or apathetic. Trust me; just look

Ultimately, rewards feed the inner greed and are rooted in a
Darwinian survival of the fittest strategy that treats humans like
animals (e.g., behaviorism). Plus, when we must bait the Bible and
massage the Message to attract interest, what does that say about
our view and value of Scripture?

Personally, I prefer to feed the need and shower children with
unconditional grace and surprises (including candy!). I’d rather
build authentic relationships and real community. I want to empower
kids to serve life-changing missions. I relish opportunities to
affirm gifts and encourage uniqueness. I hunger to create smiles in
a safe and secure environment.

It’s the only way to leave them truly thirsty!

Rick Chromey,D. Min., (
) is a children’s ministry and leadership consultant,
trainer, and professor.


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