Tonight, I need to facilitate a session where we get those involved in BLC’s ministry to children on the same page and same direction. While I was driving I couldn’t help but think about Gareth who’s 16months old now. The big question coming from a very personal level is this … “What kind of Children’s Ministry would I send Gareth to?”. From a more leader’s perspective I’m asking “What kind of Church are we as we learn to help children along their spiritual journey?” (of course, I can’t help but also think about families and the church as a whole now as well).
The first thing that surfaced in my mind honestly is what I don’t want to see … and that’s of course some “harmful” ideas I’ve seen practiced today and in the past which until now I not only not comfortable with them, I have an immediate distaste for them. And yet, I wondered again and again, “Am I too critical?”, “Maybe I don’t understand?” , or “Is this just a personal baggage?”.
Surfing & stumbling into gave me some framework, ideas and thoughts to “focus” my engagement with this crucial aspect of Christian life and ministry.
One of the things I found distasteful was the over-emphasis on “rewards” & competition” I saw in the children’s ministries I was exposed to. And the following thoughts and articles affirmed me that I’m not over-reactive! Here are some quotes (bold-italics emphasis mine):
From Rewards That Choke Interest
“Not only are rewards distracting and shortsighted, they may also actually kill interest in the very things we want learners to learn. How could this be? Everyone understands the nature of bribes. They’re designed to lure us into something we wouldn’t normally find that attractive. ”
” Alfie Kohn reports on a number of research projects that support this contention in his book Punished by Rewards. In one such study, schoolchildren were split into two groups. The first group was told that to draw with felt-tip pens they must first draw with crayons. The other group was told the reverse. Two weeks later researchers found that whichever activity had been the prerequisite for the other was now less appealing to the students. Half the class didn’t want to draw with felt-tip markers, and half avoided the crayons. Whatever was required to earn the bribe was devalued.
Extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. If a child’s Sunday school teacher requires learning the Bible in order to get a goody, then the Bible must be distasteful. Just like spinach. Is that what we want?”
From The Problem With Bribes (I decided to put the whole thing up … we need to hear this!)
“Churches have used reward programs for so long that few people question their ultimate effectiveness or their possible weedy effect on learners’ long-term fruit-bearing. These programs have reached sacred cow status. Because of that, some people’s defensiveness unfurls into full battle mode. But we ask you to stick with us and explore this sensitive issue with a fresh perspective.
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.”
This psychology is called behaviorism, popularized by psychologist B. F. Skinner.
He conducted most of his research on rodents and pigeons, and then applied what he learned to the human species. His work centered around the idea of “do this and you’ll get that.” Dogs can be trained to sit up if they’re rewarded with a treat. A bird trapped in a box can be trained to peck at a certain spot if seeds then drop into a dish. A little girl can be trained to memorize King James text if she gets one hundred Bible Bucks.
Skinner’s concept has been widely accepted. “Do-this-and- you’ll-get-that” thinking is practiced by dog trainers, teachers, parents, employers, lawmakers, and crooks. Preachers promise extra blessings if parishioners will drop more money into the offering plate. “Do this and you’ll get that.” Parents offer money for their children’s good grades, extra hours of television for cleaning their rooms, lunch at McDonald’s for enduring Sunday school. “Do this and you’ll get that.”
And Sunday school teachers offer all sorts of bribes: a gold star for showing up, a bookmark for bringing a Bible, a sticker for completing a worksheet, a ribbon for memorizing a verse, a candy bar for being docile. “Do this and you’ll get that.”
So, what’s the problem? Aren’t these examples simply “positive reinforcement”? Here’s what the Parable of the Sower is telling us about “do this and you’ll get that”:
People focus more on the “that” than the “this.”
They’re distracted from the real issue. What the parable calls “desires for other things” may seem innocent enough. But when they distract a learner from the Word itself, they become choking weeds. These rewards become the focal point, not the Word.
Rewards play right into the parable’s warning about “the deceitfulness of wealth.” We know from other biblical teachings that wealth itself is not evil. But the deceitfulness comes in when the wealth becomes our overriding desire. It takes our eyes off what’s really important. The deceitfulness then becomes a thorny weed, choking the Word and making it unfruitful.
Again, we know church people use rewards or bribes with good intentions. We often hear teachers say, “Listen, I just want my kids to know the Word. I’ll do anything that works.” But do bribes really work?
From a behaviorist’s point of view, yes, they work. You can train an animal or a human to do certain things to get a treat. But what’s really being learned? What fruit is being produced? Sadly, even a behaviorist will tell you that a bribed person is only being trained to perform for the bribe.
This isn’t the kind of fruit God has in mind. He wants his children to have a deep relationship with him. Like any parent, he doesn’t want that relationship based on goodies. He wants a relationship based on love, not on bribes. No parent wants to hear, “I’ll tolerate you if you give me money every morning.” Parents, including the Father in heaven, want a relationship built on unconditional love. Parents want to hear a child say, “I love you. I want a forever relationship with you. I love you because I love you, not because I expect goodies in return.” Focusing on those goodies distracts the child from a genuine relationship.
That distracting focus can become addictive. Bribes are like dangerous drugs. The more they’re used, the more they seem to be needed. Church-based reward systems can quickly get out of control—like weeds in a farmer’s field.”
“Once again, the church leaders who organize and administrate such activities have the best of intentions. They’re trying to encourage Bible study by engaging kids in what they hope will be the thrill of competition. And these activities have gone on for so long, nobody questions their validity. But perhaps it’s time to take a closer look.
What’s the hidden curriculum here? What messages are really being communicated? We see a number of disturbing factors:
· An emphasis on trivia. To make the competitive bouts challenging, the organizers must write questions centering around rather obscure Bible facts. They can’t include questions on larger, more significant matters such as Jesus’ two great commandments. Too many students would know the answer. So the quizzing tends to concentrate on things such as wheat and spelt. What message does that send to students? Does the quizmaster’s preoccupation with minutia communicate that the Bible’s real use is as an encyclopedia of trivia? Does this perpetuate the bias that the Bible is not to be understood but merely jostled in short-term memory?
· An emphasis on bribes. The lures are the trophies, the temporary fame, the advancement to finals. Are these kids learning to love the Bible or learning to lust after the prizes?
· A cauldron of worry. The atmosphere at a Bible quizzing competition is often a pressure cooker of fretting and tension. When the competitors take their seats, all smiles disappear. This is serious business. That quizmaster wants to know about wheat and spelt and other fact-intensive subjects. We return to the Parable of the Sower. They “hear the word, but the worries of this life…choke the word.” Competitive conflicts such as these promote worry. Does that contribute to the fruitfulness of the Word?
· An adversarial relationship. The whole concept of Bible quizzing hinges on competition. And competition relies on winners and losers. This setup naturally pits teams against one another. When it comes to Bible knowledge, Team A is hoping and praying that Team B knows fewer facts. Team A’s glee is contingent upon Team B’s failure. Is that what the church is all about—hoping someone else knows less of God’s Word?
Let’s examine these factors a little closer.”