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 naivete. “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 plough 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 behaviour. 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 realise that reading is the reward.
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 8pm
Intrinsic motivation is key
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 honours 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 fulfilment 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 emphasising 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 8pm.
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.
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.
—New York Times News Service
Pamela Paul is an American writer who currently serves as the editor of The New York Times Book Review.