One church we know of offers early adolescents gift certificates for the local Christian bookstore for anyone who turns in completed outlines from the pastor’s sermon for 10 weeks of a 13-week quarter. Those of us who have grown up in the church will most likely have childhood memories of star charts and Sunday school “pins” for perfect attendance, candy and toys for Scripture verses memorized, and class parties for good behavior.
These are still commonplace in many of our classes, but do these incentives produce good fruit in our kids? Or do they amount to cheap bribes with only short-term benefits?
“What many call ‘rewards’ are in fact bribes. Yes, we understand this is an uglier term. But it seems to more aptly fit church scenarios such as those described above. A bribe is usually an unrelated goody that is offered to coerce people into doing something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. A bribe is a distraction. The briber says, ‘Keep your eye on this tempting goody while you do for me what you don’t want to do’” (Thom & Joani Schultz, The Dirt on Learning, page127).
Although this use of extrinsic motivators (bribes) has been in use by the church for so long that we take it for granted, it truly amounts to nothing more than what psychologist B.F. Skinner popularized as behaviorism. Pavlov also used this approach with his dog and the bell.
Behaviorism programs people to do things for the purpose of gaining a reward or avoiding a punishment. This falls far short of discipling a child to value godliness and knowledge of God’s Word for its own sake.
Although Pavlov’s dog was successfully trained to salivate every time it heard the bell ring, it eventually stopped responding to the bell when it was no longer conditioned with a food prize accompanying the ring.
We want our preteens to learn out of a joy for learning and a love for God’s Word. Our goal must be to develop lifelong habits of seeking truth and applying it personally.