The Right Way to Bribe Your Kids to Read
My children need to read this summer. They’re in the middle of a long vacation from school, and I want them to enjoy it — but I also want them to be able to pick up their education where they left off when school starts again in the fall.
Kids who read over the summer lose fewer skills than kids who don’t. This is especially important for children from low-income families and those with language problems, like my younger daughter. When reading is difficult, so is almost everything else. As new readers move from decoding text to fluency, every subject from math to history becomes more accessible, but practice is the only way to get there.
My kids (15, 12, 10 and 10) have an enviable amount of time to read, and plenty of books to choose from. Yet it’s already clear that beyond a late August dash to fulfill their assignments, very few pages are likely to be turned unless I do something. But what?
The answer many parents fall back on is bribery. If I want my children to read, and they’d rather do something else, an incentive seems like a simple solution. In a survey by a British educational publisher, 60 percent of parents of 3- to 8-year-olds admitted offering their children rewards for reading. An even more informal survey of my friends and acquaintances (as in, I asked on Facebook) revealed parents paying per book, minute or page in currencies that ranged from Shopkins toys to screen time to cash.
Research, though, suggests that paying children to do things they once enjoyed can backfire. Study after study shows that kids who are rewarded for activities like coloring or solving puzzles set the books or puzzles aside when the reward dries up, while those who aren’t rewarded carry on with the activities just for fun.
“If you pay kids to read you’ll get them to read,” said Edward Deci, the author of “Why We Do What We Do” and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “They’ll continue to read until you end the experiment, and then they’ll stop.” Rewards encourage children to think of reading as something you have to be paid to do, not something that brings pleasure in itself, he says.
But if offering an incentive for reading is such a terrible idea, why does it still seem so common, even among parents who are aware of the pitfalls?