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Stickers, M & M’s, and the Spiritual Disciplines

Posted by Margaret Ma on


“Mama and Dada will get you a goldfish if you poo poo in the toilet.”

“If you just sit on the toilet, Mommy will give you two M & M’s!”

Ah, bribery. Every parent of a toddler has been there, and I admit that the words above came out of my mouth. Feeling guilty about it, I asked my son’s pediatrician at his three-year-old check-up for tips on potty training. Her response, “Bribery. Gummy bears worked great in my house.”

When I was in my teacher education program, I did my master’s thesis on the effects of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards on long-term learning. I read research by Alfie Kohn, who argued against the use of extrinsic rewards in most areas of life — teaching, parenting, and in business. An extrinsic reward is anything which may be used to drive human behavior — stickers, prizes, grades, monetary bonuses, even praise from others. In contrast, intrinsic motivation is driven internally and is focused purely on the satisfaction of the task, like reading for the love of the story. After writing my master’s thesis on the limits of extrinsic rewards for long-term growth, I resolved to base my teaching practice on encouraging students towards the intrinsic rewards of learning. There would be no stickers, marble jars, or class bucks in my classroom!

Well, fast forward twelve years. If you come into my classroom, you’ll see those timeless scratch-n-sniff stickers, a section of our whiteboard dedicated to managing table points, and kids talking about what we’ll watch when they earn their next movie party. So much for my idealistic thinking. And if you come into my home, you’ll see a potty chart and the two shiny new toy trains my son got for getting at least ten stickers. You’ll even meet a pet fish that my son eventually earned. As a mom and as a teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to motivate little people to develop behaviors that are good for them.

Copyright: Margaret Lim Ma

For right or wrong, I reason that it’s hard for children to be intrinsically motivated on certain behaviors and extrinsic rewards help to develop some habits that make life sane for us all. After all, how many second graders naturally want to transition between subjects quickly or resist the temptation to talk when they’re not supposed to? Or how many toddlers learn to use the potty for the sheer joy of being self-controlled in this bodily function? Isn’t it unrealistic for us to expect children to be motivated exclusively by intrinsic factors when we live in a culture full of adults motivated by extrinsic rewards, like bonuses, bigger cars, bigger homes, prestige, etc.?

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t entirely given in to the other side on this issue! I still think it’s important for kids to love learning for the joy of it, so I’m not dishing out any learning rewards, like Pizza Hut once did (free pizza for reading)! Needless to say, figuring out what motivates and drives human behavior continues to intrigue me.

Our church small groups are launching into a new book study on Nathan Foster’s The Making of an Ordinary Saint. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I’ve been told it’s like Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, but for a new generation. It sounds like a book that can truly impact our lives if we really take the time to practice the disciplines and let them become the means to greater intimacy with Jesus. While I am excited for the book study, I know the last time my small group did a book study, it wasn’t a given that everyone did the reading each time we met. I was just as guilty of skimming a few of those chapters. The busyness of life, and especially of raising young kids, kept most of us from doing what we said we wanted to do.

I think the challenge with the spiritual life is not that we aren’t intrinsically motivated to practice the spiritual disciplines. I mean, we all want to be like Jesus. We don’t need a sticker chart or a “reward” for growing towards Christlikeness, though I will confess that checking off books of the Bible on a year-long Bible reading plan as a new Christian was very satisfying.

I wonder if the problem is more that we are not intrinsically motivated enough to prioritize being like Jesus above all things. Ouch. With this upcoming book study, will I be the one who is going to check off the box of solitude because I managed a few minutes of quiet while my class is at recess or my son is otherwise distracted? I’m not saying God can’t meet me in those times, but I know our meeting is about as meaningful as a quick hello with someone while walking down the hallway if my motivation is just to say that I’ve done it.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33 NIV)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 NIV)

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  (Psalm 90:12 NIV)

The Bible is not short on passages that talk about what ought to motivate our behavior. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we fall short. Sometimes it’s the things of life that come attached with extrinsic rewards that become more urgent, like working longer and harder for more money or putting more effort into a project because it will make us look better. Sometimes we reason that we don’t have time to develop our spiritual disciplines because of our responsibility to others, like our children. Few people will argue the importance of our obligation to our children. But is the image of a parent too busy to develop his or her spiritual life the memory we want our children to have of us?

My hope for myself as we enter into this season of means as a church is to stay rooted in the purity of my motivation — to be like Jesus. In this season of life, I am desiring to be a more faithful person—one who does not let the worry of the day dominate my mood, but one who is ever mindful of God’s faithfulness. I am hopeful that the spiritual disciplines Nathan Foster encourages us to practice in The Making of An Ordinary Saint will provide the training to be a more faith-filled person. I know the progress will be slow, and there will be practices that, at first, I will doubt will help me. But I also know the reward of trying when I don’t want to, of pressing in when it feels hard, and of staying committed to the process. A process growing in me deep roots that will last longer than any extrinsic reward we can humanly orchestrate. That intrinsic reward also has potential to bear fruit that is worth more than my bank account and is ultimately sweeter than two M & M’s.


Margaret Ma is a native of the Chicago suburbs but has been calling The River home since 1999. In many ways she feels she has “grown up” at The River. She went from being an idealistic “dot-comer” in the early 2000s to finding her calling as a teacher. She is also a wife to Jack, mom to Lucas, sister to Angela, daughter to Sophia, aunt to Jeremy, and sister-in-law to Steve (yes, she has numerous family members at The River). She is currently a small group leader and member of the Giving Team. She enjoys watching movies and TV shows that make her cry, playing board games, and traveling.


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