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Simple Secrets to Growing Readers Part 2: Books Are the New Candy

Pictured: Pictured: Actual books made of candy for my daughter’s 9th birthday this-totally-counts-as-your-sweet-16 extravaganza.

Originally printed at Think504

Want your kids clamoring for more reading time the way they beg for more candy? Well, you can either give them books that are made of candy... [Pictured: Actual books made of candy for my daughter’s 9th birthday this-totally-counts-as-your-sweet-16 extravaganza.]

or treat books as if they were candy.

Let us suppose that to limit tooth decay and childhood obesity you choose the latter. How do you go about getting your children to beg for things to read with the same gusto they have for sweet treats? After years as a mama and classroom teacher, I have boiled this down to three simple steps. I promise you that this works.

Step 1: Mmmm. Candy.

Think of the way you talk when you talk about dessert or your favorite food. You say things like, “want to” and “get to” and “delicious.” The look on your face probably even reflects how much you enjoy it and, even if it’s a treat that you only allow yourself every once in a while, since you think of it as a treat you take the time to really savor it.

Now think of the way you talk about reading. Do you use the same kind of delicious language? Do you talk about what you’re reading like you can’t wait to get back to it? Do your kids see you relishing your time reading the same way you relished that slice of…say… bananas foster cheesecake? If not, it’s time to make a change.

Step 2: Bribe Them

I know. I know. You’re better than that. You don’t bribe your kids to do anything. They do everything they’re supposed to because of an intense internal motivation to do the right thing and/or the loving yet firm boundaries you have set. Right? If you’re over there smugly nodding to yourself that I’ve hit the nail on the head about your perfectly angelic child/your expert parenting, congratulations! You win! Please write a book and get your DNA mapped so that we can all follow suit. For the rest of us, we know that a little bit of bribery with kids can go a long way. Ok. We don’t have to call it bribery. Let’s call it a “reward system.”

You probably already have a reward system in place, but if your child is not begging for books, part of the reason may be that your reward system is actually rewarding other things. For example, let’s imagine that your child has just asked you for permission to play a video game. Being a loving parent who knows that books are more important than video games, you might be tempted to say something like, “Have you read a book yet?” This comes from a perfectly loving place, but it’s all wrong. When we say something like, “Have you read a book yet?” or “Why don’t you read something first,” as a condition to do something fun, you automatically teach your child that reading is not fun. Reading is the chore, the video game is the reward. And don’t even get me started about when parents send their children away to “read something” when they are in trouble. If you want to make reading pleasurable, associating it with punishment is definitely not the way to go.

A better plan is to make reading a reward. In my house we say things like, “If you do a good job brushing your teeth, Mama will read to you!” and “Finish cleaning your room or there won’t be any story at bedtime.” Or “You did an amazing job! Let’s go to the bookstore and you can pick anything you want!” The trick is that just like any other reward, you really have to earn it. It may seem odd to withhold reading when you really want to encourage reading, but if you get the reward no matter what you do, the reward doesn’t seem as cool or as special. Like anything else, training your child’s reward center to respond to books takes time. But trust me on this one. You’ll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself when you see it beginning to work.

Step 3: Simon Says. Copy Cat. Monkey See, Monkey Do.

All of your efforts to bribe your kids with reading will be wasted if they never see you read. As most of us already know, saying “Do as I say and not as I do,” is pretty much a waste of breath. If you want your children to love reading, they need to see you loving to read. So either find something you love to read—anything from sports articles to recipes or prayer books—and let your children see you really enjoying it. Or find something you don’t mind reading and pretend you love it. If you convinced your child to eat baby spinach by fawning over a fake bite, or if you ever did the Santa Claus thing, you can definitely do this. It will be well worth the effort once your child sees a trip to the library as on par with the ice cream man.

All by itself, turning books into candy is not enough to turn your child into an excellent, voracious reader. But it’s a huge step in the right direction.

For more Simple Secrets to Growing Readers, read part 1 of our series, Turn Television to Your Advantage, and be on the lookout for part 3: The Kids’ Choice Awards.

Marti Dumas (@MartiAndreDumas) is a mother, teacher, writer from New Orleans, and recent Twitter convert. Her latest book, Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time comes out in June, but her first book, Jala and the Wolves, is available in stores and online now.

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