The Carrot and the Stick

By the works of the law, no human being will be justified in His sight.

Romans 3:20

The other day,I overheard a mom asked her 2nd grade son to run and get her umbrella from the car, to which he replied, “What do I get for doing it?” In return, she retorted, “you will walk home if you don’t go get it right now.”

We  all know about the donkey who is motivated to pull the cart in order to reach the carrot; and we know of the stick used to prod the donkey when he stops. The “carrot and the stick” theory is ingrained in our culture as a motivational standard for training kids.

This philosophy originated in the 1800’s when Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, theorized  that all human action is driven by an avoidance of pain and the pursuance of pleasure. This  theory is still very much around today, showing up in a variety of ways in both homes and schools.  Both parents and teachers  readily offer up rewards: candy, beans in a jar, charts and stickers, stars, privileges, a trip to the ice cream store, cash for good grades.  They also quickly resort to threats, groundings, loss of cash, loss of privileges, suspension from activities.

But our kids are not donkeys.

They are people with souls and hearts issues that need addressing.   I wonder if we short cut their learning by employing this strategy too quickly and too often. I can quickly get my young grandchildren to do what I want with the offer of candy. Likewise, the threat of punishment brings about quick results.

Offering rewards and declaring threats are both easy to do because they take little effort and produce quick – although temporary- results. I am not inferring that  it is wrong all the time.  However, if we simply raise kids to do good things for a  reward and to avoid mistakes because of the pain, have we mislead them at a heart level? While these methods are useful in training  outward actions,  they rarely change the heart.

Most importantly, our kids need to regularly be reminded (and so do we) that our rewards and punishments have absolutely nothing in common with how Jesus addresses our sin.

Jesus offers us a free gift: a reward of salvation that has nothing to do with good works. Furthermore He bore all the wrath and punishment that we deserve .  Then in light of what He has lovingly done for us, He asks us to obey Him.

It’s easy to become consumed with getting our kids to obey,  but far more important is that their hearts will grow pure by the love of Jesus. In the midst of whatever methods you rely on, take time to regularly remind your kids how Jesus already dealt with our sin and then on occasion, shock your rebellious child and take him out for ice cream just when he least expects it!!!

Unconditional love is motivation in its purest form.

Train your kids to abide by rules and commands: good citizens are fun to be around and allow for order and peace at home and in the classroom.  Good citizens need the gospel, however, just as much as the naughty little citizens.  Be careful that your well behaving child  does not grow blind to her need of Jesus through the receiving of too many temporal rewards for good behavior.

3 Comments

  1. I like this… simplifying life to rewards and punishments makes being human seem very shallow and simple. It feels like it robs us of our intelligence. Love this post!

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  2. I just realized today that I have been resorting to punishment threats way too often, thanks for the great blog!

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  3. It is so refreshing to go back and realize that we arent responsible for our kids/grandkids actions. It all starts with the heart. We need to work on the heart, not the behavior. Love this post! Very insightful.

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