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In Theory:

Are financial incentives right?

April 24, 2010

An article in last week’s Time magazine chronicled an experiment run by Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. In the experiment, students in hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities were bribed with different amounts of money to achieve good test scores and not fight with one another. The experiment was run in schools in Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and New York. What, in your opinion, are the advantages and/or disadvantages of this strategy? Or do you side with the critics who say kids should not be rewarded for things they should be doing anyway?

God’s ways are the best pattern for us in any area of life. So let’s consider what he says about raising children in Ephesians 6:1-3: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother [which is the first commandment with a promise], that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.”


The reason given here for obedience is that it is right, meaning it is right before God. Moral “right” and “wrong” are valid concepts, and they stand alone as reason enough for us to modify our behavior. Much of the problem with modern education is that “right” and “wrong” are no longer taught or recognized. Many, wishing to justify immoral behavior in obeisance to political correctness, actually teach that “wrong” is “right,” or that there are no standards at all. It is morally right to put forth our best effort, to obey parent and teacher authority and to be kind to fellow students. Education without morality will always lack effective authority.

While morality before God is the stand-alone basis for changed behavior, he still offers reward to the obedient: “that you may live long on the earth.” When we do what’s right, life is better for us. Instead of giving money as a reward, educators should emphasize the non-monetary (and more profound long-term) benefits of education and obedience: personal growth in knowledge and ability, increased opportunities to fulfill our dreams and better interpersonal relationships that lead to a more peaceful life.

God’s goal for us is not that we would just do good things. He wants us to become good people. Bribery may promote good behavior in limited ways, but it doesn’t make good citizens for the long term.


Valley Baptist Church in Burbank


There are few things that we humans know from birth: one is to cry and reach out when hungry. The other is — well, you know!

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