A novelist recently told me that before having kids, she came up with a brilliant plan. Instead of punishing her child for misdeeds, she would instead order her to read a book. How better to turn a timeout into something productive and positive?
She excitedly informed an experienced parent about her plan who told her point blank: “That is the worst idea ever.”
This novelist now laughs at her naïveté. “Can you imagine if I had done that?” she said. “My child would have hated reading.”
So that much is clear. Do not punish your child by making him read, not even if he shoves his baby cousin unceremoniously off the swing. But there’s a more surprising corollary: Do not reward your child for reading either.
That’s right. You can say no to the back-to-school Read-a-Thon. No three cheers for finishing a book or dollar for every book read. No bonus iPad time if she would please finish one chapter of a single chapter book.
Just as reading shouldn’t be a punishment, it shouldn’t be rewarded. It shouldn’t be work and it shouldn’t be required to earn time for play. Reading isn’t something to plow through determinedly, accounting for each title.
This isn’t because reading isn’t important. It’s because it is. Reading is not only fundamental to academic achievement, it’s also crucial to developing other measurable skills like executive function and social behavior. We are all agreed that reading makes you more knowledgeable and a better learner. What’s becoming more and more clear is that it also makes you a better-adjusted, better human being. Who wouldn’t prefer to see their kid immersed in a novel than scrolling dolefully through photos of a missed party on Instagram?
All of this is why schools push reading so hard. That’s their job. But it’s not parents’ job. Schools may be the place where children learn to read; home can be the place where they get to read. For parents, the goal isn’t to push and or to grade and or to affix a gold star. It’s to help children realize that reading is the reward.
Most parents have absorbed the idea of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. Both get you to do things, but extrinsic motivation — external forces like financial rewards, academic honors and parental praise, or punishment and deprivation — are less powerful than intrinsic motivation, which is when you try hard because you want to. Intrinsic motivation is the real key to long-term personal fulfillment and success. Decades of research support this, whether the subjects under study are sugar-mad preschoolers or ambitious Ivy Leaguers. Moreover, extrinsic rewards can even feel commonplace in a culture that has thoroughly absorbed an “everybody wins” mentality.
By emphasizing how terribly important reading is, well-intentioned parents risk turning it into something obligatory, depleting the activity of its inherent delight and joy. Reading is itself a privilege, an advantage and a pleasure. Let’s treat it that way.
Does your child want to stay up late? Let him know that if he wants to read in bed, he can go to sleep half an hour past bedtime. Otherwise, lights out at 8 p.m. Rather than set up the Wii as a reward for putting in time with a book, separate the two entirely.
And convey the message that reading isn’t a pleasure reserved for kids. Openly revel in the fact that you finally get to settle down with a book at the end of the day. Talk at dinner about what books you’ve been binge reading. Integrate books into your daily routine so that it’s not just something the kids do, but a grown-up pursuit as well, and a cherished part of your family. Regularly stop at your local bookstore or library as part of your Saturday morning trip to the farmer’s market. Ask your parents to give your children books on their birthdays from an early age, inscribed personally to them, so they can build an entire shelf of books from Grandpa.
Let your child see your appreciation of literature. Share copies of your own treasured books from childhood. Allow her to see how special it is to write a book and how cherished those books are by other kids their age — or older. Children’s books authors are rock stars among avid readers; take your child to a reading and let her buy a copy and have it signed. When your children are finished with their books, take them with you to donate their castoffs to a local family shelter, hospital or public library.
Above all, do not give up when your Harry Potter-mad book fan morphs into a fair-weather tween glued to YouTube and then an appallingly resistant adolescent. Remember: The vast majority of kids still manage to get from picture books to adult literature.
There are even ways to get the most oppositional of teenagers to heed the call of the book without resorting to bribery. Sometimes, you need to be a little oppositional yourself. As the most worn out and wizened parents can attest, penalizing those who read can be just as effective as actively encouraging it. If reading really is an indulgence and a privilege, then it’s only reasonable that not everyone gets to enjoy it whenever they want. Just like iPad time.
For good reason, many avid readers recall childhoods spent sneaking a book and flashlight under the covers well after bedtime. Never was I more determined to read than the moment my mother swiped my illicit copy of Bob Woodward’s “Wired: The John Belushi Story” out of my scheming 12-year-old hands.
Reading, after all, can be just as alluring as the latest Snapstreak. Books contain not only what teachers want kids to know, but also entire worlds that teachers and parents and even their peers may not want them to know — or may never have imagined: startling confessions, dangerous ideas, the doors to adulthood. It is within books that the secrets of the grown-up world lie. Leave out the key where a curious child will find it.
Really want your child to hunker down and read one book in particular? Tell her she can’t. She’s not ready yet. That it’s too old for her, too difficult, too dark and entirely inappropriate for children. Put it up on a high shelf and walk away. You may never see it again.
More from Pamela Paul
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Pamela Paul is the editor of The Times Book Review and co-author, with Maria Russo, of the forthcoming “How to Raise a Reader.”
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