Guest blog post from, The Genius in Children: A Blog by educator Rick Ackerly

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.

This article was originally published on –a blog titled: “The Genius in Children,” written by Rick Ackerly. Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker, and principal at Children’s Day School, an independent school in San Francisco serving children in preschool through eighth grade. For more of his expert advice, visit today!