Paying Kids to Read

“Pay me to read? That would be awesome,” my son Jeremy says.

Not only is he perpetually in debt, but he was also faced with a formidable list of books to read before beginning sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge on Sept. 5.

“But it would be wrong,” he immediately adds.

How does an 11-year-old know that paying a kid to read is bad business, while our state governor, Gray Davis, doesn’t? Davis recently doled out $2 million, in $5,000 doses, to 400 California public elementary and middle schools whose students read the most pages during a six-month contest, billed as the Governor’s Reading Awards Program.

In launching his program, Davis boasted, “This will help us ensure that every child in California public schools is a competent reader by the end of the third grade.” Indeed, just as the toy in each McDonalds Happy Meal ensures that every child eats a nutritious, well-balanced lunch.

But aside from an allegiance to public relations puffery rather than solid pedagogy, what is Davis trying to prove? That we’re a state of Evelyn Woods wannabes? That accumulating money for cash-strapped schools is the students’ responsibility? That the end – which amounted to more than 689 million hastily read pages and multiple photo ops – justifies the means? And negates the process, enjoyment, struggle and, ultimately, the sense of accomplishment?

Yes, all of the above. And, even worse, Davis is conveying the message that reading is a burdensome task, so unpleasant that it needs to be compensated by monetary rewards, or, in common parlance, bribes.”If you paid me to read,” Jeremy says, reconsidering, “I promise I’d spend the money buying more books.”The truth, I tell him, is that reading is its own reward.

Just ask the thousands of kids who preordered “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” and dragged their parents – present company included – to stand in long lines at local bookstores at midnight on July 8. Trust me, they weren’t there for the free Harry Potter glasses and the wizard tattoo. They came to be the first on their block to dig into the long-awaited 734-page book, to accompany Harry to the Quidditch World Cup and back to his fourth year at school, to ascertain the whereabouts of the wicked Lord Voldemort.

As human beings, at all ages, we need books to transport us to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” and to Anne Frank’s Secret Annex. We need books to give us the depth and breadth, the joys and jeopardies of others’ experiences. To compare and contrast and ponder the human predicament.

I hope that Jeremy, and my other sons, can find guidance and comfort, adventure, adversity and epiphanies in the books they read. For it is books – not television nor computers nor video games – that provide the true interactive and imaginative experiences.

“One should not leap through a book from its end to its beginning,” the Talmud tells us. Nor should one leap from the beginning to the end. Especially for external rewards.

According to my sister-in-law, Jill Reder, a K-8 principal and educational therapist, studies clearly demonstrate that when students are paid to do a task they otherwise enjoy, which would include reading, they often cease or lose interest in the activity. “The extrinsic reward actually thwarts their intrinsic motivation,” Reder says.

From a parenting perspective, doling out dollars is bad policy. Do we also then pay our kids to pick up their socks and wet towels, to complete their homework and stop teasing younger siblings? To ace spelling tests and nail soccer balls into the net?

Do we opt for the sugarcoated, short-term and ultimately superficial behavioral changes? Or do we invest in the more labor-intensive and long-lasting parenting techniques – including discussion, modeling, reinforcement and endless repetition – that eventually render our children self-motivated, self-satisfied and self-sufficient?

“Take these newspapers out to the blue trash can,” I tell one son, who shall remain nameless.

“I did that yesterday. It’s not my turn,” he answers.

“Turns are irrelevant. If you don’t do it, I’m going to have to do it.”

“What will you give me?” he asks.

“You can continue to live in this house, to be a member of this family.”

Taking out the trash is a chore, a communal and familial responsibility. I’m not going to make it into a game or a gimmick, a battle or a bartering opportunity.

“Just do it,” I say, borrowing the tagline from the Nike commercial, with a different intonation.We parents excessively coddle and cuddle and surrender to our offspring. As Rabbi Stephen S. Wise once said, “Children are given thrills instead of responsibilities.” Responsibilities that should include reading books, as well as life’s grunt and grunge work.

Jeremy recently finished reading “Wringer,” by Jerry Spinelli, the story of a 10-year-old boy who grapples with a serious ethical dilemma – and finds the courage to buck peer pressure and do the right thing. Perhaps Governor Davis should read “Wringer.” After all, political pressure is a type of peer pressure. Then he should speak to my sister-in-law about well-founded reading techniques and sound educational incentives.