You Can Bribe Your Kid to Love Books

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Photo: Oxana Bogatova/Getty Images

Critics of summer vacation often make their case by pointing to the “summer slide,” in which kids — particularly those from low-income families — spend the break forgetting much of what they’ve learned over the course of the school year. As KJ Dell’Antonia noted in the New York Times, there’s an at-home remedy for the summer slide: Kids who read regularly retain more knowledge during the summer months.

Which is all well and good, if your kid’s already content to settle down with a book. Dell’Antonia’s own children, she wrote, “have an enviable amount of time to read,” but “very few pages are likely to be turned unless I do something.”

Like, say, bribery. It’s a tactic that’s long been disparaged as ineffective; kids will do something only as long as they’re compensated for it, researchers have argued, and then stop once the rewards dry up. In 1998, a meta-analysis of 128 studies found that tangible rewards — like gifts or money — tend to “significantly undermine intrinsic motivation,” especially for children.

But intrinsic motivation, which comes from internal desires, and extrinsic motivation, which comes from some outside source, don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Earlier this month, for example, the Washington Post highlighted a handful of studies showing that when kids are bribed to choose healthier foods, they’ll often keep up the new eating habits after the program ends. “People are psychologically inclined to favor short-term rewards, like goofing off or eating tasty food, over long-term ones, like being healthy or saving for retirement,” the Post article noted. But “giving people rewards for healthy behaviors just helps align their short-term incentives with their long-term ones.”

The same thing, Dell’Antonia wrote, may happen with reading. “I think we underestimate the power of extrinsic motivation,” pediatrician Rahil Briggs, who studies behavioral health, told Dell’Antonia. “You want your child to be naturally fascinated, and some are, but some children can benefit from a little bit of a jump-start.”

That jump-start could come from literal bribery — one parent told Dell’Antonia she offered her kids a penny a page — but more effective, Briggs said, would be to integrate reading into the family culture, like making it “a special thing to go to the library with Dad, and that the alone time is part of what’s rewarding about it.” The penny-a-page family also sets aside time to discuss what the kids are reading, adding a new dimension to their motivation to seek out new material. And both tactics are easier to grasp than the long-term incentive: that there are lasting benefits to growing up around books.