The results of bribing preteens

Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards tells of a study done by the University of Albany to discern what the effects of bribery are on kids. Although this study used younger children, the principle directly applies to all humans.

In this study, 86 kids from ages 4 to 6 were asked to rate various snack foods as good, bad, okay.  Researchers then used one of the top-rated foods as a “bribe” to get kids to eat another one of their self-selected “favorites.”  In other words, kids were told that before they could eat popcorn, they had to eat the chips.  The popcorn, therefore, became a bribe to get kids to eat the chips.

The shocking result is noteworthy.  Follow-up showed that after one week of bribery, these kids ranked the former “good” chips as “bad!”  In just one week, these young children got the not-so-subtle message:  “If I have to be offered popcorn as a bribe to eat chips, chips must not be all that great!”

We also have found that however motivating the current “reward” seems to be, sooner or later it will stop having any effect.  We have frequently heard the complaint from youth group leaders that the preteens just won’t respond to the reward any more.  These well-intentioned adults look for “something bigger and better” than the previous bribe.  But eventually nothing works…even for short-term motivation.

Ask yourself this question:  “If I’m using a piece of candy or a can of soda or money to get my kids to memorize scripture, what message am I giving kids about God’s Word?  Is it spinach?”


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