Rewards Can Be Dangerous To Kids

Who knew that a reward could be dangerous? When Christine and I started having kids 17 plus years ago, we were forced to wrestle with new issues and one of those issues was the proper (and improper) way to motivate our kids to do the “right” thing. I’d come across the topic in some of my reading including Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards. It didn’t take long for me to see how, as a kid, rewards had distorted my view of school and the value of learning.
Of course rewards aren’t only used to motivate kids to learn in school but also to obey their parents, follow God, and do the church thing. I remember the specific Sunday not long after the church had started when a well intentioned teacher in Crossing Kids brought candy to class for those kids who had remembered to bring their Bible. It’s then that I knew that I needed to address this issue not just in my family, but also in the church and specifically the Children’s Ministry. Here is a short article that I wrote to address that specific issue. I hope that you see that it has much broader application that the specific issue addressed.

Question: Why does The Crossing discourage the use of extrinsic rewards (candy, toys, money, etc…) to motivate children to do good things like memorize Bible verses or exercise proper behavior in the classroom?

Before I answer that question, let me offer two definitions.

Extrinsic motivation offers a reward that is not naturally connected to the action. For example, if I offer you money for each “A” you receive on your report card, I am enticing you with an extrinsic reward because money is not the natural reward for learning 7th grade algebra.

Intrinsic motivation offers a reward that is naturally connected to the action. In our previous example the natural reward for learning is greater understanding, ability to solve problems, satisfied curiosity, etc…

So here’s the answer to the question—Extrinsic rewards are very effective in motivating external behavior over a short period of time but they can be very damaging to a child’s heart and long term well being.

Three Ways That Extrinsic Rewards Negatively Affect A Child’s Heart For God…

1. Extrinsic rewards teach kids to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. If I offer a child a piece of candy if she brings her Bible to class, I am teaching her to do the right thing (bring her Bible) for the wrong reason (to get a piece of candy). The Bible calls that sin. Speaking of the Pharisees, in Matthew 15:8 Jesus says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for doing the right thing for the wrong reason and in doing so he teaches us that our motivations are just as crucial as our behavior. In other words, God isn’t only concerned with what we do. He is equally concerned with why we do the things we do.

So the first reason that we are against using extrinsic rewards in our Children’s Ministry is that if we teach kids to memorize Scripture (or any other good thing) in order to earn a piece of candy, we might be teaching them to become miniature Pharisees. We want kids to be motivated to memorize Bible verses because they see how those verses relate to their life and how they bring joy to their heart. We want them to know the Scriptures because “…They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:11).

2. Extrinsic rewards also have the unintended consequence of teaching kids to devalue the true treasure. Let me explain. A parent might offer a “reward” to a child for doing something that, in itself, isn’t desirable. For example a mom might say, “Johnny, if you drink your cough syrup, I will let you watch a television show.” Johnny’s incentive to do the bad thing (take the cough syrup) is the opportunity to watch a favorite program. In some cases, that might not be that big of a deal. After all we aren’t trying to get kids to love taking medicine. But if we use that same motivational strategy in another arena it might have unintended harmful effects. Should we say to kids, “If you memorize a Bible verse, then I will give you a piece of candy?” To do so is to send mixed messages. We tell kids that the Bible contains the words of life and at the same time we say to them that we know that they won’t want to learn it unless we offer them something really valuable—a piece of candy.

So the second reason that we are against using extrinsic rewards is because we are against treating spiritual truths as if they are something to be endured instead of something to be enjoyed.

3. Extrinsic rewards rupture relationships. When Christine and I lived in the Chicago area we loved to take our kids to the Brookfield Zoo. After a long, hot afternoon in the sun, we enjoyed sitting down in the coolness of the Dolphin Show. One afternoon watching the dolphins perform their tricks, I realized that it is easy to treat kids like dolphins. The dolphins were trained to perform by giving them a “dolphin treat” when they did what the trainer expected. It is tempting to treat kids like animals and control their behavior through “kid treats”. And in the short run it is effective. All of us have seen kids “perform” in order to get something they want. But as kids grow older they realize what is happening and they resent it. No one wants to be bribed or manipulated—even if it is for a good cause. So when kids realize that that’s what is happening, they resent the people who treat them that way.

Therefore the third reason that we avoid using extrinsic rewards is because we are committed to protecting the long term relationship a child has with his teacher and the church.

Question: If we shouldn’t use extrinsic rewards to motivate kids to learn and do the right thing, how will we motivate them?

Kids don’t need extrinsic rewards to be motivated to learn. They have a natural curiosity that we need to encourage. In fact extrinsic rewards aren’t really for kids at all but for parents and teachers who feel overwhelmed or who aren’t aware of other ways to motivate. Extrinsic rewards are a crutch that parents and teachers tend to rely too heavily on.

One way to motivate kids is through the intrinsic promise of the gospel. The Scripture teaches that true happiness and satisfaction is found in Jesus Christ (John 6:35). Help kids believe that promise.

Another way to motivate kids is through a relationship with an adult who cares about them. Kids naturally love doing things with older people. It makes them feel special. When you are with the kids, take advantage of the relationship that God has given you. Share stories of how the gospel is working itself out in your life. As kids hear how Christ is at work in your life, they will be motivated to follow him.

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