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What’s Wrong With Using Rewards in Children’s Ministry?

It seems harmless. But in reality, trinkets, stickers, and prizes have a negative effect on the final outcomes we really want in Christian education. Rewards may turn your kids off.

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion delivered the witch’s broomstick to get their rewards from the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard got what he wanted, and the others got what they wanted.

But according to research, the Wizard’s reward strategy could backfire in the future. And if you use prizes, your strategy could backfire, too.

Rewards for good behavior have been part of the Sunday school and vacation Bible school scene for decades. You know the ploy: If Blake brings more guests than anyone else to vacation Bible school, he wins a three-speed bicycle!

It seems harmless. In fact, to many people it seems downright laudable in that more kids are coming to vacation Bible school.

But in reality, trinkets, stickers, and prizes have a negative effect on the final outcomes we really want in Christian education. Rewards may turn your kids off.

What’s wrong with using rewards in children’s ministry?

Rewards send the wrong message.

Many children’s programs have built their motivational system on rewards. One children’s club states, “[Our club] has designed an extensive award system…to motivate boys and girls to study and learn God’s Word.” These awards, the club states, “[make] the hours and days of study all seem worthwhile.”

Rewards are almost an admission that church activities are something to endure rather than celebrate. The message is: These activities aren’t enjoyable or beneficial in and of themselves; you’ll need a prize to motivate you.

Why not make Bible-learning activities and church involvement such a blast that these activities are their own rewards?

Rewards are subject to the law of diminishing returns.

If you reward your kids with a badge once, the next time you may have to give them a hat. And the next time you’ll have to give a better prize. If you don’t improve the reward, kids may not “salivate and ring the bell” on command.

Rewards destroy the lust for learning.

Kids who expect a reward become focused on the “prize” rather than the activity. 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.”

If the goal of Christian education is to develop lifelong, motivated Christian disciples, rewards may make us miss our target.

Rewards recognize outcomes rather than processes.

No matter how hard a child works on a project, he or she may feel like a loser when another child receives credit for a better finished product. The “losing” child’s character development and hard work are neither recognized nor affirmed.

Shower all your kids with the rewards of a smile or nod, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement, a chance to display and present their work, and special time with you. You’ll be surprised at how all kids begin to shine.

Rewards go to children who need them the least.

Raul is on time, brings his Bible to church, and even remembers his offering envelope. He gets three stars! But Haley’s parents dropped her off late, she doesn’t own a Bible, and there’s no way her parents are sending money to your church. Haley doesn’t get any stars, and she shrinks into a corner as the other kids stand proudly around the attendance chart.

Why not get rid of the chart and give every child a sticker to wear on their clothing? Then the “Haleys” in each classroom won’t feel punished for not being “churchy” enough to merit a reward.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Using Rewards in Children’s Ministry?

  1. Betty Barnes

    thank you for sharing this.

  2. I have been a children’s minister for 55 years. I’ve used rewards in the past and so much of what you are discussing in this article I have done and the rewards were the worst part of our group time. At one point I had a captive audience as the Bible club hostess was the children’s baby sitter. I knew these kids would be there every week. That was when I found the prizes were not always a good thing.
    One of my favorite kids was “Mikey”. He was always right in front of the kids sitting on the floor UNTIL when started kindergarten. He no longer received a reward every week. Mikey now had to earn his reward by inviting other kids to come to the club. One week he told me he did invite lots of kids — at least 2 or 3 but the mom’s said no to the kids coming to the club. Mikey had done what he was supposed to but since the kids did not come he did not get to choose a prize. Mikey began to turn off in the club. He no longer sat in the front. He no longer cared about learning the memory verses. I went to his mother and asked her for her help. She said It was my job and she did not believe in the Bible so why should she do anything to make her son believe. I then asked why she did not beleive the Bible and she said she was always the one that never got any prizes. I wnet to the store and found an item that she had said she loved and would like to receive. I gave it to her as a special prize for being the only parent in the club the next time she came to pick up Mikey.
    After that Mikey started to learn the verses again but still was not the Mikey before kindergarten.

    I’ve never used a ‘reward’ system again. When the kids get a prize every kid gets the prize not just one or two. Thanks fr sharing this article.

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What’s Wrong With Using Rewards...

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