I'll admit it. I was a reward junkie. When I taught
my kids, I loved giving out prizes and other small goodies. It felt
it gave me an advantage--I could encourage good behavior with cheap
candy and threaten to take away toys when kids misbehaved. This
give-and-take reward system was something I was raised on when I
was a kid in church, and naturally, I did it with my own Sunday
What I didn't realize was that I was basically bribing my kids.
Instead of focusing on God and the message he had for them, they
were more focused on doing and saying the right things to get their
prizes. Teresa Amabile, author of Growing Up
Creative (Crown), writes, "Research has abundantly shown that
when children become focused on reward as their reason for doing
something, their intrinsic motivation and creativity will
At the peak of my reward addiction, we had a small "store" that
kids could come to and trade in points for prizes. I remember
during lessons when I would ask questions, some kids asked how many
points they would get. They didn't care that what they'd just heard
was relevant to their lives. There was no life change happening.
They just wanted stickers and suckers.
Eventually, the "store" room became a storage room full of VBS
materials and craft supplies. When the kids realized that the point
was learning and living God's message--not getting points for
listening to and repeating God's message--we started to see real
growth. From time to time, I slipped back into my old ways; rewards
can be fun, but we started to turn the corner on how we were using
rewards. If you, too, are looking to get out of the reward rut,
here are five simple things to do instead.
1. Give instead of get. Find a service project
or a charity that's relevant to your kids. Collect stuffed animals
to give to a kids' hospital. Have kids write letters to
seniors at an assisted living facility, and then take them on a
field trip to deliver them. Turn the focus off of getting, and on
2. Clean out the reward closet. If you are
ready to get rid of the small stockpile of rewards, here's a tip.
You can still give them out, but encourage kids give them to a
friend or family member. Kids will have the opportunity for growth
when they receive candy or a toy that they chose for
the purpose of making someone else happy.
3. Exceptions to the rule. Giving a small toy
to kids to keep them behaving is not your goal. But, if you give
them a small toy that's used to help teach and reinforce the
lesson, then let them keep it, kids will have a reminder of the
lesson to keep all week long. Don't just give fun erasers out. Use
the erasers in a lesson and have kids write on a piece of paper
things we do wrong, and then erase those things. Teach them that
Jesus "erases" our sins. That eraser is now a reminder of God's
4. Rise to the challenge. I believe that giving
kids goals to reach for is a great, reward-free motivation. Give
kids challenges such as telling a friend at school what they
learned, or helping out around their homes. When you're helping
kids determine goals and challenges, be mindful of what some kids
can and can't do. A kid's parents might not be able to bring them
to church every week. A child might not have a Bible to read at
home. They might not have any money to give. Set goals that all
your kids can achieve--and that challenge them to grow in their
5. Replace with love. This is the most
important one. After you rid your ministry of rewards, spend
even more time loving on your kids. Talk to them, listen to them,
and let each one of them know that God loves them. Even if they
mess up, show love to them and let them know you care.
If you read Children's Ministry Magazine or keep up with its
website, you know where we stand on using shame to correct kids. We
try our best to stay away from teaching techniques that belittle or
disparage kids. However, we must also be careful that we are not
doing the opposite, which is rewarding good behavior with treats.
It sends the message that the only reason to act properly and to
remember verses is to get surprises…and we don't want kids learning
for stickers instead of for life-change.
For more information on rewards and the negative effect they can
have on kids' ministry, read Rick Chromey's Can the
Candy. We also want to hear from you. Do you use a reward
system? Are you trying to kick the habit? Let us know what you
think by using the comment section below!