The proliferation of bribes and gimmicks is a common scene in children’s ministry today. But do the prizes and gimmicks affect children’s hearts—or only their behavior?
“Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.”—Ecclesiastes 7:7
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”—Matthew 6:21
Consider the following examples:
- A Sunday school teacher shaves his beard because his students successfully recite a Scripture passage;
- A children’s church passes out Bible Bucks to kids who bring friends and Bibles;
- An unruly class wins a pizza party if they settle down;
- Kids who answer correctly get candy;
- Newly baptized children win a trip to the Treasure Chest;
- and Kids “caught being good” get an ice cream treat.
This never-ending bartering process is used as a motivator for good behavior. Proponents working in children’s ministry argue that children are “more motivated to do right things” if enticed and awarded. After all, if the prizes, candy, and honors were stopped, the children would balk, bawl, and break ranks.
What you win them with is what you keep them with. Do the prizes, rewards, and gimmicks affect children’s hearts—or only their behavior? That’s the most critical question in this whole discussion of how to effectively motivate children. What moves them from within?
External motivators (prizes, gold stars, and food treats) represent a flawed philosophy in motivating children. Like cotton candy, external motivators are poor nourishment for a body’s real hunger. They trick a person into feeling full but provide little long-term satisfaction.
Jesus revealed this truth in his parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15). He described the thorn-infested dirt as being choked by anxiety, riches, and pleasures. Kids begin to focus on the prize rather than the spiritual growth. The prizes distract children from a genuine desire to follow after the things of God simply because God is worthy.
Choking pleasures and anxieties? Are the token-store rewards approach really what Jesus was talking about? Those who employ external motivators often hear kids say something like…
- “What do we get if we’re good?”
- “I just can’t say the verse perfectly…I quit!”
- “Susan always wins the contest, so why should I even try?”
- “You don’t have to bring your Bible; just leave it at church. You’ll always win a Bible Buck that way!”
- “Hey! You tricked us! That’s not fair!”
The real problem with the gimmick approach is that it feeds kids’ greed rather than their genuine needs. Gimmicks offer a placebo, not a cure. Kids may jump through a hoop for a prize, but will they do it when a prize isn’t offered? Most likely not. What we desire as Christian educators is long-term Christian growth.
Let me ask you which is better: The child who enjoys reading his Bible daily and memorizes only useful passages but rarely wins a prize, or the kid, decorated with memory pins, who reads Scripture only to memorize for a prize (and then quickly forgets)?
I’ll never forget when I discovered the emptiness of using bribes. It was my next-to-last Sunday as a youth intern, and I was saddened by the paltry offerings all summer long from my teenagers. Every week it was the same deal: a couple bucks of change. And so I challenged them to raise $50 that day with the inducement that I’d shave half my hair off if they did it! I was amazed as checkbooks materialized and wallets were emptied of every last dollar. Smiling to myself, I felt that I had succeeded! Sure, I looked goofy for a day, but the $50.23 offering was worth it.
Then I learned that my ploy was a temporary gimmick. The next week the offering returned to a low ebb as I heard a rising tide of “what will you do this week?” I hadn’t motivated those teenagers to do the right thing at all.
Since then I’ve learned that a deeper path is to motivate children by touching real needs and creating personal satisfaction. Dr. William Glasser suggests that every person is motivated by the following five basic needs, and those who plug into these felt needs electrify internal motivation.
The most basic needs of every child relate to personal survival: hunger, thirst, release from physical pain, warmth or cooling, to name a few. In children’s ministry, this means addressing external issues that might dictate why children have behavioral problems in the first place. It requires attention to family situations, weather, and time.
Classroom management is a common reason prizes and bribes are used. Johnny can’t sit still so a treat is promised. Julie is often tardy or absent and, consequently, teachers reason that she needs a prize to arrive on time. Kevin jabs Juan, and so both are told they’ve lost a trip to the treasure chest.
The problem with this approach is that we bandage the wound without asking why. Why can’t Johnny sit still? or Julie get to class on time? or Kevin control his fists? The real reasons may be survival needs! Johnny squirms because he’s hungry, thirsty, or too warm. Julie is tardy because her parents place a low priority on timeliness. Kevin punches because he’s hit at home. Consequently, rewards or punishments are meaningless. In fact, gimmicks only add embarrassment to the situation.
An intuitive children’s minister will understand survival needs and create a learning environment where those needs are met. A healthy midmorning snack (fruit, crackers, juice) fends off hunger. A conversation with the parents helps families arrive on time. Properly heated and cooled rooms ward off misbehavior. Home visits to families help teachers understand various issues children bring to church. A zero-tolerance policy for hitting (offenders are removed or returned to parents) keeps children safe.
A primary reason for discipline challenges is lack of adult supervision. Keep in mind that a proper ratio of adults to children is a number equal to the children’s age. For example, if you’re working with 5-year-olds, you need one adult for every five children. A minimum of two adults should control every children’s ministry situation. Most survival needs can be immediately met with just an extra hand!
A second need, according to Glasser, is belonging: a sense of connection, friendship, and positive relationships. Ironically, the use of bribes often deteriorates this basic desire as it forces children to work against each other to win something. Instead of building bonds, this competition breaks them. I once watched some children confess to giving up on memory work. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it, but they lost interest because the kids they didn’t like made the “honor roll.”
Children are social creatures, especially after age 5. By the time they reach upper-elementary, many of their choices are created and confirmed by their peers. Derrick doesn’t like memorization, so his friend Clay won’t either. Pam prefers to chat with Kylie, and no amount of candy will cancel her conversation. If Drew always wins in Bible trivia, he may actually separate himself from his friends. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
The answer is actually to motivate children through relationships! Friendships should be forged in the blossoming faith of kids. Allow time in class for building bonds. Incorporate social learning opportunities (quads, trios, or pairs). No prize will pacify a child who feels left out, but positive friendships work wonders!
For example, take Scripture memorization. Why should children memorize Scripture? Is it to win a prize? Is it to be the best in the class and beat all others? Or, in reality, is it so they don’t sin against God (Psalm 119:11)? I believe it’s the last reason, so wouldn’t memory groups be a better route than individual recitation? Capitalize on children’s need for belonging by having them work together. Imagine the power of memory work when groups of children quote Scripture at school and home not to grab a treat but to defeat the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). When belonging needs are met, there’s connection and deeper purpose.
Power is yet another personal need. The power to make choices, create opportunities and be viewed with importance. The problem is that children are often last in line in power issues. Who makes the decisions? Offers the ideas? Creates the change? The tragedy in most children’s ministries is that only adults run the show. The children just watch, work, and, if they’re lucky or tenacious, win.
“But if children do it, they’ll fail!”
“It won’t be as good.”
But do you hear what’s really being said by these protests? Listen closely and you’ll detect adult fears, expectations, and motivations. Recently my daughter’s home-school band played for local dignitaries. The band was highly decorated and had won several competitions. One mother fretted prior to their performance, “They’re just not motivated today. They’re not playing for anything, no prize or anything!” If only she could’ve heard the kids! They proudly unpacked their instruments in the bandstand and commented, “We’re playing for state senators!” Their performance was flawless. The applause rich. The mother silenced.
The kids had power, which satisfied a deep desire. The ribbons from the contests were dessert. The real meal was playing perfectly to a select audience.
You can empower children by inviting their involvement. Let them serve on committees. Allow kids to lead congregational singing (junior praise team). Let them videotape a program. Permit their ideas in class and honor their suggestions. Give children responsibility to lead. If an adult is doing it, a child should learn it!
Gimmicks tickle the heart for a time, but power satisfies deeply.
A fourth internal desire is for fun or enjoyment of the moment or task. Remember when CBS television aired the mini-series, Jesus, where the most widespread reaction was that it made Jesus “likable.” Why? Because Christ smiled often. The Messiah laughed deeply. God’s Son cracked jokes. Unlike previous “Jesus” movies, this characterization seemed more real and personal. We understand a Messiah who mourns, but we yearn for a Savior who smiles.
Ironically one reason the candy and prizes work is that they’re fun! There’s laughter and levity, interest and influence. Unfortunately, the fun soon fades into squabbles over cheating, unfairness, or jealousy. The joy of the moment is often robbed just by looking at the losers. The tears of disappointment. The embarrassment of failure. The sense of personal rejection. The anger of losing.
The truth is that a fun-filled situation—whether an activity, program, project, or lesson—is motivating in itself. It’s human nature to continue doing what we enjoy. Pleasure produces desire! I’ve sometimes observed how those who employ prize tactics can have classes that are strangely uptight and terse. I’ve actually discovered that making the work fun—whether memorization, meetings, or ministry—is 90 percent of success. It’s the Tom-Sawyer-whitewash-the-fence mentality.
Your first step as a leader is to relax. Children will memorize lines for a play faster if the pressure is off and it’s fun. Secondly, laugh a lot (especially at your mistakes). Third, inspire excellence but not perfection (there’s a difference). Finally, reward everyone when appropriate. Throw a party. Play a game. Write a note of thanks. No matter the task, to lick it you must like it!
The final need, according to Glasser, is freedom: the personal satisfaction of being true to one’s self. Many times well-intentioned adults thwart creative and individual self-expression in children because it doesn’t fit their standards or norms. Steven wears his pants baggy and loose off the hips. Twanda confesses an interest in hard-core gangsta rap. Ryan likes to watch World Wrestling Federation.
While it’s certainly appropriate to question the various self-expressions of the children we serve, it’s not productive to deny them. Many times extremes are championed by kids because they know it riles adults. As a young teenager, I used to wear my KISS T-shirts to church just to get a reaction! But, oddly enough, those who influenced me the most never said a word in condemnation. Rather, they invited discussion on lyrics, asked about the morality of the group, and offered other music alternatives. Eventually, I learned to make better choices concerning music.
I once heard how an employee at a McDonald’s restaurant was fired for making ketchup happy faces on the burgers he prepared. In a world where self-expression is defined and dictated by societal standards, the church should be a haven for the artists in our culture. In fact, children’s ministers who encourage creative self-expression produce kids who are more personally confident, self-reliant, and emotionally balanced. Most negative self-expression in our culture is the result of oppressive forces, whether the source is a parent, school, church, or employer. Creative self-expression within appropriately defined moral fences is a powerful force!
Ultimately, an environment where children can be themselves, possess the power to choose and forge lifelong friendships in a fun and safe manner will motivate children. Such a place engages learning and keeps misbehavior at bay. It will ripen desires and cultivate wills wired for excellence, quality, and creativity. The environment will feed the need, not the greed. It will serve as the main course and the dessert. But most of all, it will unleash inner motivations, not just fleeting passions.
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