As parents, we know how important it is that our kids read, and read often. We understand that reading plays a strong role in the development of numerous positive traits in youth, from academic skills to character development to relaxation strategies. When reading is difficult, so is almost everything else – particularly in school – so it’s critical for kids to read, and daily practice is the best way to go.
For many parents, however, we would just love to see our child pick up a book on his own and read it. If that doesn’t happen, we ask our kids nicely to read and they head for the first iPad they can find to play Minecraft. We finally beg our kids to read and they just tune out, or leave the room. So it seems to make sense that when kids simply won’t read any other way, and choose every different distraction from Tuesday to avoid it, that maybe we consider a little bribery to sweeten the deal.
Rewards for Reading
Outside rewards can be very motivating, particularly money, and for many children it works in terms of getting them to read. One study out of the UK suggests that 60% of parents of 3-8 year olds reward their children for reading, and I suspect that number only increases as kids move into preteen years. Parents do this because it gets results! Offer money, kids read, mission accomplished. I’ve heard of a variety of payment plans, such as a penny a page, a dollar a chapter, or a cool new T-shirt at the end of the book. Of course the beloved screen time is a popular reward as well. So if these rewards work and kids are reading more, what could be the problem with it?
Well, for one, research. There are many studies (if you want me to bore you with the details, send me an email!) that suggest paying children to do what they once enjoyed leads to them stopping the activity once the reward disappears. I would add that in my own conversations with parents, this may also lead to children looking for bigger and better rewards as time goes on, and a loss of internal motivation without it. That is not a culture we want to build.
Plus - and this is a big one - if we pay kids to read, they may internalize the idea that reading is something we do for money, or reward, and not something we do for pleasure. Since our end goal is to develop life-long readers with an interest in reading on their own, the monetary reward-for-reading system is definitely one that can backfire long-term.
Left with a Conundrum?
So, how do we get children to read if they don’t have the internal motivation and we can’t externally motivate them? For children lacking confidence or foundational reading skills (like fluency and comprehension), it’s an even harder battle and rewards seem like the only way to win it. Well, we can offer rewards, I am just suggesting we do it in safer ways that don’t lead to the piggy bank. Instead, we need to find externally motivating activities that kids will enjoy in their own right, that can be attached to reading so they associate reading (the task) with pleasure (the reward). Follow me here…
It turns out that non-material rewards may be seriously effective, and have the same (or better!) results than the material kind. Rewards such as an outing alone with dad (leave those brothers and sisters behind!), an opportunity to try a new activity or a trip to a local petting farm can be majorly motivating while healthy and lead to new interests. By the way, this can also lead to wanting to read more, in order to learn about the new pursuit, and a positive cycle begins.
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As it turns out, I am not alone in making these suggestions. Dr. Ryan and Dr. Deci, professors at the University of Rochester, suggest that we should emphasize the fact that we value the love of reading, not just the act of it. Therefore, the “bribe” should convey that message as well. They write, “By setting aside time for reading with your child, or to discuss a book together, we are showing them we value reading, and we support them in developing this important skill.” When we read with our child, when we laugh, cry or get inspired by a book together and chat about that experience afterwards, we are sending powerful messages about the joy that can be found in books that money or treats just cannot duplicate.
Intrinsic motivation may need to be developed in some children, and that’s ok. When reading is tough for kids, it’s just not something they will want to do naturally. So while offering money is a quick fix that will most likely jump-start the reader to pick up a book, creating a home that values reading, with reader-friendly spaces, read-alouds before bedtime, book discussions around the dinner table, and trips to the library to check out the new releases will go a lot farther in both showing kids the value of reading and establishing habits long-term.
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