‘A terrible idea’ and other thoughts on bribing kids to read

Bribing my kids to read books over the summer is either solid parenting or a certain march toward moral bankruptcy. Depends whom you ask.

I asked all of you, after admitting in a recent column that I started a reading incentive program for my kids, wherein I give them points for reading books and allow them to trade in those points for cash.

A sampling of your thoughts, edited for length and clarity.

It is the parents with weak parenting skills that motivate with treats and tricks and money. And these weak parenting skills play into our children’s adult life. When our children mature, they will become takers. They will expect and demand that they get something before they ever give something. Secondly, there is a disconnect between a parent and their children if the parent cannot get their children to read. Parenting is a partnership — a mutual respect between child and parent needs to exist. A parent should read to their child, then ask the child to read to them. Give your child 30, 60 minutes of your time with this mutual exchange of respect, but please don’t give your child $30 to $60.

Go ahead: Give your kids money to read, then let me know how soon you hear them whisper, “How much will you give me if I go to school today?”

— Steve Dibble

As a former music teacher, I used to suggest to parents that they have some kind of incentive program to get their kids to practice. I remember one mother bribed her son to practice his cello by earning enough points to get a gerbil. To those who say they should read or practice an instrument for the love of it, I say that will come later when they’re actually good at it. I hope your children discover a love for reading. You’re giving them a great gift that they’ll enjoy the rest of their lives.

— Joy Isbell

Our daughter’s school ran a fundraising campaign where kids could earn money for the school by having sponsors pledge donations for hours they read over the summer. Our daughter really got into it, raised a lot of money for the school and earned some cool prizes. When the campaign ended, we decided to continue it at home. We agreed to pay her $2 for every hour she reads all year long (at home, not school reading). Every year on Dec. 1, we total her number of hours, and she gets to decide which charities are going to get that money. She loves poring through World Vision, Heifer International and Holt International Children’s Services gift catalogs to see if she will donate a water buffalo, a flock of chickens, education for a child for a year or diapers to an orphanage. She really studies the options and is so proud when she finally makes her decisions and watches us donate the money. If she slacks off on her reading, all we have to say is, “What do you think you’ll donate this year?” She picks right up again.

— Ginny Moffat

Hurray for you for paying your kids to read. You are associating reading and writing with positive rewards, which are extrinsic now but will become intrinsic. As your kids gain fluency, they will gain more appreciation of books and, eventually, a passionate love of books that will continue to grow over their lifetimes. Don’t be conflicted. You are doing exactly the right thing.

— Jerre Levy

I’m sorry, but are you kidding me? And not only are you paying them, but you are charting and logging and counting points? I mean, what are we doing, Weight Watchers?

Your two kids are about the same age as mine, and it seems you aren’t aware, so I’ll tell you: They never grow tired of the screens. If left to their own devices (no pun intended), they would play until their eyeballs fell from their sockets and their fingers ceased to have prints. This is why, in our house, screen time is a luxury. Not a necessity. Not a guarantee every day either. And never in the car.

Reading is there waiting. Always. Have you had a bad day at school? Here’s a book. Grounded from the television or the iPad? You can always read. Raining outside? Soccer canceled? Go get your book. Birthday coming up? What books can I tell people to get you? Home sick from school with an earache? Start reading, and soon you won’t even feel your ear.

Do you pay them to eat? To breathe? To wash themselves and put on clean clothes? Because I find being able to string coherent thoughts together and comprehend the English language just as essential to a child’s health.

Finally, I know you aren’t the only parent who pays kids to read or has any other number of idiotic arrangements when it comes to the basics of what is expected of them. But I want you to understand that parents like you are a constant headache for parents like me. Because we have to hear about how “Susie’s mom pays her to read!” and explain why we can’t be as super awesome as Susie’s mom. So I’m going to let you know what I tell my kids: “Let’s check in with Susie in about 10 years and see how she’s doing, because I’ll bet you $100 you’re going to be way better off than her.”

— Melanie Gurel

As a retired reading specialist, my philosophy was, “Anything to get them reading.” The electronic temptations are overwhelming. It’s so much harder nowadays to build a reading habit. But people who read know stuff, develop more background knowledge and further their reading skills — just by reading. Encourage them to talk about their reading. And if you can, tie their books to field trips to related places. (My grown-up book club read “The Women” by T.C. Boyle, and then we took a trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and home in Oak Park.) When my kids were little, my husband and I would stage read-a-thons, where we would all read while snacking on junk food. Kids do need grown-ups to model this behavior. And don’t stop reading aloud to them, choosing books that are beyond their reading levels but that would be interesting to them. You are on the right track.

— Teddie Torney

I’m a high school English teacher, I have a master’s in literacy and I am a parent of three kids. I think it’s a terrible idea to bribe kids to read. I don’t like the idea of external incentives for grades or anything school-related. I understand why parents may think they’re effective, but I think it undermines the efforts we try to instill in students to be motivated to read because it’s rewarding.

As a parent, I’ve never pushed reading on my kids. I read to them when they were young, I’m a reader and I always have had books, magazines and the newspaper in our house. My kids don’t have TVs or electronic devices in their rooms; the time before bed or time spent in their rooms is for reading books, writing or quiet play. I feel that by calmly encouraging them that reading is internally rewarding, and by being a model of someone who loves reading, my kids will be readers too.

— Jen Mitchell