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Nudging Kids Toward Reading This Summer

Strong reading skills predict greater success in school and, ultimately, in the workplace. So, we want children to choose reading, but if they never do, what are our options?

kids reading Photo courtesy of Unsplash/Jonathan Borba

The school year we thought might never end has finally come to its conclusion. Kids are eager to swim, eat popsicles and, especially, hang out with their friends.

Most are not eager to read, but that’s not particular to a pandemic year; American kids don’t read much in their free time. But parents know that strong reading skills predict greater success in school and, ultimately, in the workplace. And many parents simply like the idea of their kids being readers.

How can parents nudge their elementary- or middle-school aged child to read this summer?

The idea of “nudging” kids may strike you as odd; we parents are used to setting unwelcome goals for our kids, and we have two go-to strategies for such moments, neither of which looks like a nudge.

One is straightforward coercion. A parent will set a daily reading target of, say, 30 minutes, and deny the child access to video games or other favored activities until she’s completed it. That technique will get the child to read, but it carries a silent, undesirable message: Reading is boring. If reading was, as parents claim, fun, they wouldn’t need to set minimum goals. Parents don’t say, “I want to see you on that swing set for 20 minutes every day, mister. And swing like you mean it.”

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The second common parental strategy, reward, has the same drawback. Offering a child, say, a dollar for each book read may get kids reading in the short term, but research shows there’s a danger they will like reading less once the rewards stop. The problem lies in the interpretation the child makes of his own behavior. Having read a book, he doesn’t think, “I read that because it was fun.” He thinks, “I read that because I was paid.” Once the rewards stop, he naturally asks himself, “If I’m no longer getting paid, why would I read?”

Thus, we want children to choose reading. But if they never do, what are our options?

You can guide a child’s choice while minimizing coercion by making reading one alternative among several. As each of our children turned seven, my wife and I established a summertime rule: Every day you should do something for your body, something for your mind and something for the family. For the mind, my kids might watch a documentary, or use an app to learn about the plants in our backyard. But the most common pick has always been reading; it requires no preparation and can be done in air-conditioned comfort.

Another strategy is to change your home so that when your child is looking for something to do, reading is the most appealing activity available. Note that a child chooses to read not simply because she likes reading, but because she likes reading more than the other things she might do. Getting her to love reading is a long-term goal. In the short term, parents can restrict access to other activities she finds attractive but that you wish she would choose less often.

Obviously, that might mean restricting screen time, but an easier way to start is making books more accessible. Think about where your child gets bored and put books in that location. Put a basket of books in the minivan. Put a basket of books in the bathroom. If they have a tablet, be sure that there’s an e-book reader on it. For really reluctant readers, try playing a family-friendly audiobook during a long car ride.

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Bookstores and libraries are wonderful places to linger in cool quiet during the heat of summer. And lingering in a place with a lot of books naturally leads to reading. If your child is reluctant to go, tell him you need to go, and say that the most convenient time for you is during a trip to take him somewhere he wants to go.

Finally, make sure that your child understands what leisure reading is. If she only reads for school, she may think that reading means plodding through a “classic” book, start to finish, and that leisure reading differs only because she doesn’t have to write a report when she’s done. But leisure readers know that reading can mean non-fiction, graphic novels, manga or audiobooks. Leisure readers feel free to skip around, peek at the conclusion, skim boring parts or drop a book altogether.

Everyone is worn down from a difficult school year, and parents may think kids deserve free rein to choose their relaxation. They do, but a wise nudge from you may help them discover that reading affords a pleasure they had not thought to choose.

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