Summer Reading

Will bribery get my child to read?

One day the mother of a third grader asked:
“How do you feel about bribery?”

“What’s the situation?” I replied.

“My daughter is reading already. In fact she loves to read, but she only reads what she likes to read.”

I was speechless for a second with three thoughts fighting to

come out all at once. I finally said, “First, she’s in good company. Most of us only read what we want. Secondly, declare victory; she’s reading. Thirdly, don’t bribe…”

“I wasn’t thinking money or candy or anything like that,” she broke in. “I was thinking of something like, ‘if you read 30 minutes per night every day this week, I will take you to the zoo on Saturday.’ Or something like that.”

“It might work. Bribery works, all right. The problem is the negative side effects—chief among them that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic reward. Research shows that if I pay you to do something you love, you tend not to do it for love anymore.”

“But the school even tells us that children should read half-an-hour each night, that it is important for increasing reading proficiency, vocabulary development, and all those good things.”

“Sure. Reading every day is a good thing, and since you have taken a stand with your daughter already, maybe it is a good idea to follow through. But don’t bribe. You could turn something she enjoys into something she hates. Also, you risk turning something that she owns into something that you own. If you take responsibility for it, she will give up her responsibility for it to you.

“Instead, figure out how to make it fun. Be creative. Like maybe establish a time every night when you read together. You could keep finding new material that you think she will like. ‘Hey, here’s an article on horses I saw in this magazine.’ And then start reading it to her. At a critical point in the reading you might have to stop reading and go prepare dinner or something, leaving her with the magazine and the internal need to keep reading on her own.

“Rather than bribery, build your relationship. Establish a habit of reading together–the same book, or you could each have your own. Once you have a ritual that she loves—a way of being with Mom and only Mom—you will find that this 30 minutes together turns into all sorts of good things. As time goes on, if this mother-daughter time becomes sacred, she will use it for other important things: a time when she confides in you, a time when she asks you about something that has been really bothering her but was afraid to bring it up.”

In this conversation I learned that most mothers know all of this. They just need to be given permission by an educator to do what their instincts are telling them is right. She didn’t like bribery. She didn’t like making her daughter read. But fear that her daughter might somehow “fall behind” on the conveyor belt toward “academic achievement,” and wanting to do the right thing was driving her to go against her instincts.

Hey, everybody, we have to keep reading and other measures of academic progress in perspective. Reading is important, but it is not the most important thing in the world. Our relationship with our children is. If your child is already reading and enjoying it; build on that. Have fun with it. If they are not, have fun with it anyway–read to them and be playful. How soon and how fast and how much they read is not critical. It is more important that they love reading. Don’t make them hate it.

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12 thoughts on “Summer Reading

  1. Hi Rick. I enjoyed reading this blog. Yes, I relate with this mother about the worry that our child maybe left behind. I too have bribed my son with activities or time we both can spend with eachother for him to read or do homework or so on.
    And every now and then, when my son gets into reading, he will be very engrossed with a topic. a book. which i love seeing him do.

    your paragraph about bribery being extrinsic vs intrinsic… I will agree with you. I once became livid with my son’s special ed teacher. because she was overwhelmed with other students and needed my son to prompt him to do his work, she bribed him with a pretzel. she had a WHOLE earful from me.
    The part that I do question at times is are educators and/or specialist trained to “if all else fails, reward or bribe with food?” I just don’t get it. I was once told that specialists use this technique. But I think at a certain age, it has to stop being the motivation.

    i ordered your book!!! Can’t wait to read!

  2. It’s so hard to avoid the bribe! As adults it’s easy to think we are positively directing a child’s motivations with external carrots through the deals we make with them. Running deep through those negotiations is the fact that children inherently want to please their adults and do so by observing and modeling adult behavior. The profound practice to continually inform a child’s behavior is our own. We can be voracious readers who are ready to drop and read with a child.

  3. The more you read, the better you read; the better you read, the more you like it; the more you like it, the more you read. My mantra, my children’s mantra, my students’ mantra, and I think it’s so true. Yes, we want our children to read literature and content, but they HAVE to read that. I want my children and my students to read what they love to read BECAUSE they love to read. Graphic novels, comic books, or sports statistics and articles have all come under fire from parents, but if the kids are interested enough to read it, what’s the harm? Yes, they have to read the content in the studies, but what they read for fun should be, well, FUN!

    Bribing? Well, as a parent I have held out dessert as a “bribe” for eating veggies, but less as an “If you do…., then you get ….” and more as a “well, you didn’t have enough room for dinner, so you must be too full for dessert”. My children had the choice – eat the healthy and get the treat, or forego the healthy and the treat. Choices are better than bribes. What happens when what they want is bigger than what you have to offer? And where does the bribery end?

    Better to teach your child to treat reading as its own reward. Show your child how much you savor your own reading time. Model for your child how much enjoyment you get from reading. Talk about the books or articles you have just finished reading. Find things you know would interest your child. My own children loved when I went to the bookstore, because they knew there was a chance I’d come home with something they’d like. My classroom library is filled with an eclectic mix of genres, because over the years I’ve tried to add something to pique the interest of each of my students.

    When my son was in second grade, Pokemon was all the rage. He saw and wanted Pokemon books, but I, admittedly, dismissed them. However, we went to Barnes and Noble one Saturday and while I perused the education stacks for a book I needed, he went off to the nearby children’s section. Half an hour later I found my rough-and-tumble, “I hate shopping, can we go now?” little boy, sitting, nose deep in a book, reading. I was SO proud! What literature had he found? The first Pokemon chapter book, and he’d gotten through several chapters already! He asked me if we could buy the book. Well, clearly he’s interested, I thought, so I agreed. I had to drag the book out of his hands to pay for it, and he eschewed a bag so he could read as we walked to the car. He read all the way to the shoe store, and barely even looked at shoes – he was engrossed. He got home and vanished. A little later I called him, and he called back that he’d be up in just a few minutes. When he arrived he was flushed with triumph! He had finished his first chapter book and was filled with the thrill of victory. Please, please, please could we go back and get the second chapter book tomorrow? YES, and we got the third as well. If he’d read, I’d buy. Bribery? No. He chose what interested him. Could I have gotten him to read with that much zeal through bribery? Nope – he might have read, but what would he retain? And would he be doing it for love? Oh, and when he outgrew the Pokemon books, they were added to my classroom library, where they were adored by many little boys afterward.

    When our children were growing up, reading time was a special time in our house, and everyone grabbed a book, a newspaper, or a magazine. Television sets and computers were turned off, and we all read. We read the Harry Potter series as a family – okay, I read aloud, and the kids and my husband listened – but we all loved that family time. The third novel came on a road trip with us, and we read either in the hotel at the end of a day in the car, or in the car during long stretches of highway that held little scenic interest. How wonderful to know that those family moments fostered a pair of readers who read not only for content, but for the sheer joy!

  4. Great post, Rick! As someone who spent countless hours reading with my children during the early years, and surrounded them with all kinds of books, I truly believe that reading together is truly the greatest gift anyone could ever give to a child. If a parent is enthusiastic, then it’s so much more likely that a child will be.

    My children prefer to read on their own now, but they still love to lose themselves in great books. Those early memories and connections that were made have stayed with them, and we read alongside each other quite often. This cherished activity has helped us “build our relationship” in so many ways.

    There is no quick or easy way to instill a love of reading in a child. The foundation must be built first, and that foundation starts with sharing wonderful books and reading materials with children. Enthusiasm is truly the secret ingredient that can be passed along over time. No gadget, worksheet, reading drill, or bribe can ever give a child that.

  5. All true. …And making like it is as natural as eating is important. The more it feels like a campaign to make your child succeed in school the more room there is for various negative side effects.

  6. We take a different approach. Our daughter does not enjoy reading. So we require that she reads a certain amount each day. Since she does not like reading she can take 1 – 2 hours to read 30 minutes of material.

    The goal for our daughter is to learn to read well. The goal of enjoying to read is really secondary for us and we simply make it a requirment rather than coming up with a reward or using bribery.

    What is funny is that our daughter rarely initiates reading on her own. However once we require that she starts reading then she ends up liking the book and occasionally continues reading past the required amount.

  7. Good approach, and a good reminder that most of us have a whole category of things we don’t exactly choose, but once we are doing them we like them.
    Also a good reminder that all children are different, and one has to find what works. Thank you, Dave.

  8. Thanks for the great article and insightful posts. Because reading is as natural as eating for so many of us, we best remind each other to have empathy for those that don’t “get that” right off the bat, and do what we can to help.

  9. Yes. Given the variety of brains in any class one thing we can do to help is to broaden the band of “normal” to include a wider variety of those who would otherwise be considered dysfunctional or disabled. For instance, there are fourth graders who can acquire information quite nicely from a page of writing, but who come across as bad readers when they have to read out loud, especially in front of others. Then there are those who are great at sounding out the words and sound good reading out loud to the group, but can’t seem to absorb what they are reading. It takes a while for the whole brain to knit itself together. There are those who can speed-read and those who seem to need to read every word. For some brains it takes a long time to become fluent in all aspects of reading. 75% of brains have a four lane neurological system connect the parts of the brain that make the person come across in class as a reader. 25% “use the back roads,” and most of these are diagnosed as dyslexic. Speaking as an undiagnosed back roads user, I would like to advocate for those with my kind of brain. For me, it was usually a longer trip, but often a lot more thinking went on. Consequently, I remember more of what I read than others who are able to read a book in a weekend–something I have never been able to do.
    I advocate for more latitude before sounding the alarm, less diagnosis, an understanding of a wider variety of acceptable brains, and a wider variety of methods of help this infinitely diverse set of brains to find their own way to success. And I understand that mine is a minority opinion.

  10. This article makes a good case for using reading to establish a relationship between parents and their children. One way to accomplish this would be to use a reading software program called AceReader Pro ( The Deluxe version is suitable for both parents and children, and since it can keep track of up to five readers’ speed and comprehension results at a time, it allows both parents and students to participate jointly in the reading process.

  11. Thanks, for the tip, Miriam. Parents, check your motivation, however. If you are motivated by fear that your child will not read, or will not read fast enough, or will somehow fall behind in school, watch out. Your anxiety is contagious and your work will have unintended negative side effects. ONLY, do it for fun, and when it stops being fun, stop it. Your kids will learn how to read; it is important that they love it. It is the school’s job to teach reading; make sure they are doing it in such a way that they build love into it, not fear of failure.

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