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Why Bribes Hurt Kids’ Spiritual Growth

Bribes long a staple in Christian classrooms — may be more harmful than helpful. Read on to find out more.

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.

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.

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?

Rewards Distort Character Development

We do the minimum.

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 create dependence.

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.

Kids become me-focused.

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.

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. They reduced God 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 associate vice president of compliance for Sarah A. Reed Children’s Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the author of Divine Intention (Victor Books).

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

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