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What's Wrong With Rewards?

Christine Yount Jones

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 rewards, 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 rewards?

*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 reward 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 is rewarded 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.

Copyright© 1992 Group Publishing, Inc. / Children's Ministry Magazine

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