Andy Peck looks at parenting behaviour that is perhaps more prevalent than we might think?
I don’t recall my exact age, probably eight or nine, but I remember a time when the Sunday School Superintendent was offering a box of Milk Tray as a prize for learning the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel. Back in those days chocolate was as a treat in our household and there was plenty at Christmas, but a whole box of Milk Tray was an exciting prospect.
Of course in those days, verse memorisation was a normal part of Sunday School life. We all knew the popular ones: John 3:16, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 8:28, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 5:7: Revelation 3:20, Isaiah 1:18, Psalms 23. (How many of those can you recite?!) But 18 verses all together seemed a steep challenge and as I recall, I got around half way before giving up. As far as I know, the box of Milk Tray was unclaimed. (Boxes of Milk Tray were also given when a child brought a friend for four weeks in a way. No doubt some came to an agreement to share the box!)
This came to mind when Eric Johnson, (then pastor of Bethel Church, Redding California) shared that his Dad (Bill Johnson, conference speaker and prolific author) and mum (Benni) had offered him and his brother Brian a weekly trip for ice cream if they attended church! Eric confessed that the prospect of ice cream was really his sole motivation for Sunday worship.
Is it ever right to bribe your kids to read the Bible, pray, attend church?
The Bible is uniformly negative about bribes. The law in Deuteronomy is clear: “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Deut.16:19); ”The greedy bring ruin to their households, but the one who hates bribes will live.” (Prov. 15:27)
This seems pretty clear.
But part of our answer regarding helping our children make progress comes when we consider the biblical framework for rewards and punishment.
What kind of system does God operate?
We know the Old Testament law functioned very simply. Good behaviour is rewarded and bad is punished. Read Deuteronomy 28 and you see a list of the blessings God brings when people follow the law and the curses when they don’t. God was helping his people understand that his world has a moral framework. The history of the Old Testament gives us the outworking of this principle. This eventually leads God’s people to be exiled from the land of promise (Israel) because of their immorality, idolatry and injustice.
You will know that in the New Testament we have a new approach whereby God in Christ does what we cannot do. He keeps the law fully and imparts to us a righteousness that is not our own (2 Corinthians 5:21: ”God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”) We do not have to ‘earn our salvation’ indeed to attempt do so would be to cast aside God’s free offer of forgiveness and life in Jesus.
But we still seek to do the right thing as ’new covenant people’, co-operating with God who frees us and is freeing us from all that prevents us living for Him. The principle of reaping what we sow still operates. Although we don’t seek to ‘earn’ our salvation we do put ’effort ’into living God’s way (2 Peter 1:5f says we need to ”make every effort” to add to our faith some key virtues to our life.)
How does all this relate to our children?
Ultimately the wonders of the Gospel are freely given and received. They are not received because we have been good, but ”while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5;8). We stand with our children at the foot of the cross and marvel at the wonder of God’s love.
But we know that before we have a personal relationship with God, there may need to be other things that attract us into connecting with him and his people.
I have heard several testimonies of people who admit that it was an attractive guy or girl in the youth group that led them to church. Once there, they found that God was also interested in them.
Or how many joined a youth group with a decent pool table, only to find the Bible talks at the end of the evening became enticing too?
In the Gospels didn’t Jesus meet people where they are? He offers unconditional help (answering queries, healing of body and mind) when the person hadn’t realised that it was their own heart that needed work?
How many parents have sought the services of the church (for infant baptism, weddings, funerals) only to find that the church were offering something far more valuable?
How many have attended church to tick the box so their children can attend the local Parish school and been surprised and delighted to find a faith along the way?
Are these rewards for good behaviour? Not exactly, just a recognition that God uses all kinds of means to help us connect with Him.
So bribery is not OK, but you need to be wise to the many ways that you might assist your children when they may not want to the right thing, alongside the many other ways that your are teaching and training them. You will be the best judge on whether your rewards and prizes are manipulation. You will know when they are old enough to make their own choices. You will know when they are making a mockery of the ways you may entice them to attend church, youth group or read the Bible, or engage in activities you know are good for them.
You do so, ultimately so that they may meet with Jesus.
And if it’s ice cream or a box of Milk Tray? Well isn’t it like God to use all things for good?!