Why Bribing Kids to Read Doesn’t Work

Lots of well-intentioned moms and dads fall into the same trap while trying to persuade their kids to read. If only parenting was really that easy….

If kids were computers, you’d definitely send them back to the shop.

Seriously. You’d be right there at the counter, saying: ‘This thing is busted. It keeps breaking down and making weird noises, and doesn’t do what I need it to do at all.’

Luckily for the children of America, most parents knew when they signed up for the having-a-child gig that there would be plenty of challenges along the way.

Final straw

The messiness, tantrums, long days, sleepless nights, broken ornaments, constant worrying – none of it came as a surprise.

But for many moms and dads, getting their children to pick up the reading habit seems to be the straw that finally breaks the back of their patience and resolve.

After all, which parent hasn’t scratched their head at some point, and wondered: Just how do I get my kid to pick up that damn book?

Uphill task

Anyone with kids will recognize the feeling – that sense of frustration and mounting desperation. You’ve all been there. It’s the universal parental affliction.

That’s because, as an adult, you understand how important it is for your child to become a good reader.

Boy reading 640px

It’s a critical skill, the foundation of your child’s educational success and pretty much everything else that comes after.

And yet here’s that nice new book you just bought them, lying ignored on the floor. And what are they doing instead? Watching TV. Playing games on a computer. Yabbering on the phone to their friend.

Basically, anything other than reading.

Easy way

Is it any wonder that many parents, driven to distraction – and motivated only by love and good intentions – finally come out with some variation of this sentence:

‘Look, just read the next chapter and you can have a dollar / stay up late / get an hour’s screen time / go to that movie?’

Bribery. It provides an easy fix. And when you’ve hit an absolute roadblock, it can seem like the only answer.

Even better, the brazenly transactional nature of the deal means you can pretty much dictate what your kids read. It almost seems too good to be true.

But that’s the trouble: It is.

Paid tasks

You probably already know what’s coming next, so let’s call on an expert – psychology professor, Edward Deci – to add some gravitas to our statement of the obvious:

“If you pay kids to read you’ll get them to read. They’ll continue to read until you end the experiment, and then they’ll stop.”

And that’s it, really. Encourage your kids to think of reading as a paid chore, and that’s exactly how they’ll see it.

Mow the lawn. Clean your room. Babysit your sister. Read a book. Paid tasks, all of them. It’s not hard to see how your good intentions could backfire.

Big challenge

Perhaps the one exception is when you’re first trying to entice younger readers into the reading habit.

Such readers can sometimes benefit from a bit of a motivational ‘jump-start’. But even then, you still need to wean them off the read-for-reward model pretty quickly before they make a strong connection.

So what’s the answer? As with many significant challenges in life (such as physical therapy for a big injury or learning a new language), the solution is both reassuringly simple and yet fairly daunting.

Reading guide

And the solution is this – put in a lot of hard work. There is no easy, quick fix. You simply need to set a good example to your children.

So, be a powerful, living embodiment in your household of how great books are. Visibly read a lot yourself. Read your kid’s books with them (or if they’re older, talk with them about what they’re reading).

Teaching reading

Browse bookshops. Take them to the library. Let your little ones read by flashlight under the covers at night. If you have more than one child, make bets over who can read the most.

Children, particularly younger ones, look up to their parents to provide guidance on so many things – you’re like a walking ‘How To…’ guide to them – so it’s your job to lead the charge.

No easy option

Besides, in many respects, all these behaviors are bribing kids to get into books – just in a healthy way.

And here’s a simple truth: The child who grows up in a home where books and reading are just part of the deal is much more likely to naturally fall into the habit.

Ultimately, there is no short cut. Throwing an occasional dollar at a book-resistant child is the easy option.

But that’s the big problem: No child ever learned much from being paid to read.

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