Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Bribing

Internet, I did something I'm not proud of.  I bribed my son to read.

As you know if you're a faithful reader of this blog, I've long been perplexed by my son's nonlinear reading habits.  He loves to read and spends a lot of time every day reading -- articles in Trains Magazine or Classic Trains, snippets of books about the London Underground, National Geographic articles, books about great buildings, picture books, favorite chapters of favorite books, Tintin and Asterix, Tintin and Asterix, Tintin and Asterix.  I've tracked the non-picture books he's read on Listography.  He loves to read, he tests very high on his annual national standardized test in reading, and he reads well above 4th-grade "reading level."  He thinks of himself as a kid who loves to read.  It's unreasonable that I am anything but thrilled with his reading.

But it drives me nuts that he starts and abandons many chapter books.  We don't assign any reading to him as part of his "school" work, yet I find myself pestering him to continue reading a book I know he has begun and set aside.  I am a literature professor; I believe really really strongly in the value of finishing books!  I know that nagging is counter-productive, but I can't resist nudging him to pick the book up again and read a bit more to see if it grabs him.  Often, this is exactly what happens.  He reads a bit farther and is suddenly completely absorbed, begging to read one more chapter before lights out at night.  So, despite being uncomfortable that I've compromised my commitment to my child's free reading, I feel vindicated.

When we were in Europe last semester, we had no access to a children's library and had been able to bring only a few books with us.  N. didn't have the range of nonfiction or old favorite fiction to dip into as he did at home.  In London, however, we lived around the corner from Daunt Books, a wonderful little bookstore with an excellent children's section.  They stocked both Tintin and Asterix books (which we have to order online here in the States), much to N.'s delight.  While I wasn't initially thrilled by his love of comics, I've come to see their value as reading material and I decided to use them to encourage N. to read some longer fiction from start to finish.  So I bribed him.  If he read a longer work of fiction, I would buy him a Tintin or Asterix volume when he finished.  We had fun walking to the bookstore and picking out the next novel or the next comic; it is such a luxury to live near a decent bookstore!

During the course of my bribing scheme, N. read a couple Enid Blyton novels (and I wondered if this was really cause for celebration, since Tintin and Asterix are much much better written than Blyton's drivel!), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the first of Frank Cottrell Boyce's sequels, three of the Zack Files books that his grandma sent him, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.  My hope was that this would get him in a more regular habit of always having a chapter book going, but when we returned to our extensive home library in December, N. was back to his preferred mode of browsing.  After reacquainting himself with his favorites, he's read Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms by Lissa Evans and is almost done with the sequel (which he begged for, began, put aside, and picked up after my prodding).

The moral of this story is that my bribing didn't change N.'s reading habits.  When he happens on a book he wants to finish, he does.  While I do think it is important to read novels from start to finish, to cultivate sustained engagement with a story, to open yourself to a novel's development rather than to dismiss it too soon, I also appreciate not wanting to waste your time on a book that isn't worth it.  It took me many years to be able to put a book down unfinished, and I rarely do so.  Now instead of bribing or nagging my son to finish a book, I'm trying to talk with him about why he decides to abandon one.  I'd much rather he develop an awareness of how and why he assesses a book as worth continuing than that he reads to the end simply out of obligation.  I'm trying to think about our temperamental differences as readers as an occasion for talking about why we read, what we want in reading, when reading what we think we won't like can be pleasurable, when to put a book down.


Erica MomandKiddo said...

I've never had to bribe my son to read, although I admit to bribing him to do art projects. You are right -- the habit doesn't stick beyond the bribe.

Fanny Harville said...

I know that research shows bribing doesn't work, but I still thought it would in this case! Especially since I was just trying to help him form a habit of finishing a book when he already loves to read. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

My daughter's reading habits was just like your son. In fact, so taken by the similarities I commented on the post you reference.

Here's part of my comment then: "I've only just recently made the decision to let her be. This "dipping" really bothered me for quite some time. I forget she's still so young, also seven, and I have to be careful not to push her in an effort preserve any love of books and reading...She'll dip into this and that book, not really landing on anything in particular. It's as if she's still looking for just the right one."

Now, at 10, my daughter has found her rhythm and has settled into reading longer novels. What started her off was the Percy Jackson Series. She loves to read about underdogs and people finding their way through diversity. She also likes to ready almanacs, books with strong female leads, historical fiction and science fiction. The one thing I can think of that I did on my part was strew a variety of reading materiasl and let her tell me what she liked. She prefers to pick out her own books without input from me. She'll often ask her big sister (who's 14 and a voracious reader) about the appropriateness of a book. Only just recently has she sought out my input and felt comfortable enough to let me pick out a book without her being there to choose. Once she realized that she really could pick out anything from the library that she wanted, the sky was the limit for her. Some of her choices have made me cringe inside and she's gone through phases where all she'd want to read was American Girl Magazine but it's been great to see her find her reading niche.

All in all, don't despair! All the book bribing in the world would not have gotten my daughter to the point she is now. It took me a minute to muster up the courage but once I let it go, it got much, much better. If only I could do the same with homeschooling a teen in the "high school" years!!!


Fanny Harville said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Cassie!