Kids love reward charts. Parents love reward charts. Charts keep things simple and objective. They are motivating, fun, and effective.
Unfortunately, it might be time to give them up.
The other day I overheard a very typical conversation in the grocery store. A kid was whining and his mom was negotiating. “If you don’t stop whining you won’t get your sticker when we get home. Remember you are trying to earn your new Lego set for being a good boy.” The kid thought about it. If he conformed his actions to what that sticker chart at home dictated, he would get what he wanted. Seemed pretty simple. I don’t know how the rest of their shopping trip went, but at least in that moment it seemed to work.
There is a reason why reward charts are so effective for kids, and it’s not necessarily a good one. It plays into their natural legalistic tendencies. We all naturally seek approval through our works. That’s the heart of legalism. Legalism says, “If I obey, I will maintain God’s love for me.”
But the gospel says something very different: “I could never earn God’s love, so I look to Christ who earned it for me.”
“That’s a stretch,” many parents would say. “After all, we’re talking about stickers and neon poster board. Lighten up and don’t drag theology into this!”
Parents, this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where parenting and the gospel collide. There are a lot of tools and systems out there meant to assist parents in teaching Christian character. Unfortunately, some only confuse the gospel for our children. Reward charts are one of them.
Reward systems encourage a mindset that is counterproductive to understanding the gospel. They play into something deeply imprinted in our kids’ psyche from the time they are born. “If I’m good, I will get a reward. If I’m bad, I will be punished.” This type of thinking is part of being human. It was the first lesson Adam and Eve learned in the garden when their eyes were opened and they knew good and evil (Genesis 3:7). “We are hard-wired for legalism,” says John Piper. “Our kids are legalistic to the core.”
God created us to think this way in order to point us to the gospel. It shows us the impossibility of ever being good enough to earn the only reward that matters: eternal life. He did not mean for us to settle into a legalistic mindset and let our lives revolve around our works, the way every other religion in the world does. Christianity is different. Christianity is the only faith that says, “This system is broken because we are broken. We need someone else to complete this equation in our place.” Titus 3:5 says, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy.”
So how are obedience charts detrimental to teaching our kids the gospel? If we compare the two side by side we find the answer:
What does the gospel do? It points us to Christ.
What does an obedience chart do? It points us to ourselves.
That doesn’t mean we ignore rewards altogether. Rewards are used throughout the Bible, but they are always meant to point us back to God: His goodness, His holiness, and ultimately to the sufficiency of our savior. How can we incorporate rewards into our parenting without confusing the gospel? There are two ways to use rewards and teach the gospel at the same time:
1. Focus the Rewards on Skill, Not Character.
When we were potty-training our son a sticker chart worked like a charm. It clicked with him. It was visual, exciting, and gave him a great sense of achievement. Potty-training is a skill. It’s in the same category as learning how to make a bed, completing a morning routine in a timely manner, and learning how to tie shoes. Rewarding for skills is directly related to real life because one day our kids will actually get paid for performing specialized skills in the work force.
But there is a fine line between skills and character. We don’t reward for obedience because it confuses the point of obedience. We want to teach our kids that obedience grows out of love for God and respect for His holiness. When they obey we say, “I’m glad God is helping you obey. We always want to be more like Him.” When they disobey we say, “You disobeyed because you have sin in your heart. I do, too. I’m so glad Jesus obeyed perfectly for His people!” Rather than focusing on their own behavior they are directed back to the gospel. When my son was having trouble sharing his toys, it was tempting to make another chart. But I knew he would quickly start to comply just to get that sticker. It took a lot longer, but teaching him to share out of love for God and love for others was far more worth it.
2. Associate Rewards with Love, Not Good Behavior.
“Why did you give this to me?” My four-year-old’s big blue eyes looked at me in wonder as he held the new matchbox car I had just placed in his hand.
“Because I love you!” I smiled back.
That was two years ago. Now our kids don’t ask. They just smile and say, “Thank you!” They have gotten used to getting unexpected treats just because we love them. It used to be so tempting for me to connect every treat to their behavior. I used to think I had to. I thought that was part of character training. If I wanted to randomly bake a cake for no reason, I would look for a reason. “Because you guys were so good today, I’m going to bake you a cake!” Then I realized I didn’t have to look for a reason. Did God look for a reason in me to give me eternal life? The only reason God loves me is that…He loves me. There is no other reason! “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) That is the heart of the gospel. That’s what I want to prepare my kids’ hearts to understand. I don’t have to teach them how to be legalistic. That comes naturally. But undeserved love? That is unnatural. That takes work to understand. That’s a seed that needs to be planted over and over again.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “For every look you take at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Christ didn’t get our foot in the door for salvation and then send us off to spend the rest of our lives on self-improvement. We don’t want to send that message to our kids, either. Everything we do in our parenting should tell our kids, “Look to Jesus.” If a reward chart doesn’t do that, you don’t need it. Let’s slow down, be intentional, and plant the seeds that will last.