Julie, you mentioned staying away from the reward/punishment style of raising children. What do you use instead and do you have a particular way you church applies this to its children's programs? I've noticed recently that our kids ministry uses a lot of candy/sweet rewards, especially to offerings. It's a competition of boys vs. girls. Not that a little candy is horrible thing, but I wonder if there's a more effective way of teaching our children to give just because it's the right thing to do, or out of true compassion for missions, etc.
For those of you who have never heard of the debate about rewards and punishments let me give a bit of a background. This is a discussion that is popular in alternative parenting circles, some education circles, and is making its presence known in Children's Ministry settings. While there are many people writing about the subject, the most well known author is Alfie Kohn. His book Punished by Rewards is the most prominent treatment of the subject (and the source of much emotional debate). Here's the brief summary of the book to help give a framework for this question -
Our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you'll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way that we train the family pet.
In this groundbreaking book, Alfie Kohn shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Our workplaces and classrooms will continue to decline, he argues, until we begin to question our reliance on a theory of motivation derived from laboratory animals.
Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people's behavior are similarly ineffective over the long run. Promising goodies to children for good behavior can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we're bribing them to do. Rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.
Step by step, Kohn marshals research and logic to prove that pay-for-performance plans cannot work; the more an organization relies on incentives, the worse things get. Parents and teachers who care about helping students to learn, meanwhile, should be doing everything possible to help them forget that grades exist. Even praise can become a verbal bribe that gets kids hooked on our approval.
Rewards and punishments are just two sides of the same coin -- and the coin doesn't buy very much. What is needed, Kohn explains, is an alternative to both ways of controlling people.
This approach forces us to rethink discipline, competition, and parenting strategies. I first encountered these ideas when I was studying methods of Children's Ministry. The discussion there revolved around two main issues. One was the tendency to use rewards/bribes to get kids to do things in church (memorize verses being the most prevalent). We saw the impact that such systems had on actually reducing love and respect for the Bible and its utter long term ineffectiveness in retention of those verses (much less basic understanding thereof to begin with). We also explored how the language of behaviorism has infiltrated of presentation of the Gospel (mostly in evangelical settings). Often people are asked to follow Jesus in order to receive the reward of heaven or avoid the punishment of hell. Long term studies that track and compare how people are called to faith (behaviorism influenced decisions or gradual inclusion into the family) have shown that the psychological issues and faith struggles are much greater in those who were given a reward/punishment option. (not that heaven and hell are not real, but that they should not be what manipulates us into choosing to follow God).
Most people don't like to discuss this issue because it forces them to consider different parenting/ministry styles than what they grew up with. The logic is that, it worked for me/I'm okay why waste energy trying to change things. But studies have shown that such a system of behaviorism does more harm than good. I like the idea of rethinking our strategy for motivating people, but I fully admit that I am still trying to discover practical strategies for implementation. I have started to evaluate what the ultimate goal of all of my interactions with my child is. Am I encouraging her to be the kind of person I want her to be (good, kind, loving), or am I using my power over her by giving or witholding my love in the form of rewards and punishments in order to get her behavior to be the way I find most comfortable?
Before I mention a few suggestions Kohn gives as alternatives, I would like to here from you all. What is your reaction to the rewards/punishment issue? What do you see as good alternatives?