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5 Things You Can Do to Encourage Kids’ Motivation in Children’s Ministry

8.8 FixedI'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 school kids.

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 decline."

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 to giving.

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 love.

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 faith.

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!

Posted at 11:36

8 Comments:

Vickie Holt said...
Memorizing for the Moment is what I call baiting for the prize. I apply the lesson by asking questions that will make them think about application to their lives. Their answer stays with them, as will the lesson.
August 9, 2012 09:02
Kelley Reynolds said...
We just started our 70th church. We do use prizes and candy to motivate kids to be in church and excel at remembering what they were taught. Most kids start coming because of the prize/candy.They don't even know what church is at first. They stay because of the love, personal attention and Jesus in their life. The prize is the bait and the pay check. After 25years of kids ministry many of our kids are now pastors, evangelist, sunday school teachers, missionaries, music directors and market place bible study leaders. There is a place for the prize and there is a place for teaching them to give of their time, money and talent to bless others. We do both.
August 9, 2012 01:23
David (author) said...
Thanks for your comments Vickie and Kelley! Over on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/ChildrensMinistryMagazine/posts/10151014968703667 , the discussion is continuing. Some are strict no-prize leaders. Others have unique ways of handing out the treats. And congrats on starting up your 70th church, Kelley!
August 9, 2012 02:50
This is a very informative piece. I have previously used rewards to encourage good performance but now have learnt that it would be better to encourage the children to assist their parents with household chores rather than just give prizes.
February 21, 2013 08:20
Maryland said...
I'm happy to see an article steering away from the reward system. There comes a time when the candy and fun pencils and snacks go away and the things you do are because you find the activity itself rewarding. If we help to start that thinking earlier we help our kids ease into adulthood rather than worsen the shock of it. I graduated from high school three years ago and even in my senior year I had teachers bring in "prizes", I shook my head then and now I can't help but to vocalize my fears of our growing reward-based schooling structure.
February 21, 2013 10:01
Maryland said...
I'm happy to see an article steering away from the reward system. There comes a time when the candy and fun pencils and snacks go away and the things you do are because you find the activity itself rewarding. If we help to start that thinking earlier we help our kids ease into adulthood rather than worsen the shock of it. I graduated from high school three years ago and even in my senior year I had teachers bring in "prizes", I shook my head then and now I can't help but to vocalize my fears of our growing reward-based schooling structure.
February 21, 2013 10:02
Lynette Fraser said...
We try to steer away from making fish and bread leaders. This practice is very good.
February 22, 2013 12:23
Lynette Fraser said...
We try to steer away from making fish and bread leaders. This practice is very good.
February 22, 2013 12:26

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