"Daddy, I Want a Book Buck!"

Most nights before bed, Kayley and I read together. Because she's 5, I typically do the majority of the reading to her; however, she's learning to read by looking at the pictures and watching and listening to me read. She's also starting to identify a couple words like her name. And even more importantly, Kayley already loves to read.

When I ask her if she wants to read with me, she almost always says, "yes", and when I ask her why she wants to read with me, she almost always says "because its fun!"

From the beginning, we've worked really hard to inspire a love for reading with Kayley by stocking our house full of books, modelling reading for our own enjoyment and reading to and with her almost every day, especially before bed.

But something changed.

Last night I asked, "Kayley do you want to read before bed time?"

She said, "Yes," and added, "I want a book buck."

I asked, "What's a book buck?"

She said, "If I read 5 books, I get 5 book bucks at school."

I asked, "Why do you want book bucks?"

"Because I get toys."

I decided to let this go for the moment, so we could read the book she brought from school. While I read, I could tell that she really enjoyed it. She got excited during the exciting parts and nervous during the nervous parts. We both smiled and laughed while we made our way through the book.

When we were done, I asked, "Did you like that book?"


"Why did you like it?"

"Because I'm going to get a book buck! Did you like it, daddy?"


"Why did you like it, dad?"

"I liked it because it was fun and we spent time together reading."

"Dad, I'm going to get a book buck, and I'll get one for you, too."

She went to bed.

I didn't.

Instead, I spent the rest of the evening writing this and thinking. Here's what I thought about:

  • Before Kayley went to school she said she read because she liked to read with me and it was fun, but now she says she likes to read because she wants book bucks. I'm not okay that book bucks and toys are competing for my daughter's motivation for reading with me.
  • There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic; and these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. Grow someone's extrinsic motivation and watch their intrinsic motivation wither away and vice versa.
  • Some claim that incentive programs can help get kids interested in reading, but even if that we're true, Kayley is already interested in reading and there is evidence that the book bucks are actually having a negative effect.
  • Motivation matters. There is a big difference between wanting to read a book because the characters are cool and you can't wait to turn the page versus wanting to read a book because you can't wait to get your hands on a reward or avoid a punishment.
  • We have worked really hard to inspire a love for reading with Kayley. We have the best of intentions for her.
  • The school really wants to encourage parents to play an active role in helping their children read so they use incentive programs like "book bucks". They have the best of intentions for students.
  • However, despite our mutual best intentions, I think it's pretty clear that there's a problem here. Does Kayley still love to read with me. Yes. Is her love for reading instantly destroyed. Of course not. However, reading for its own sake has been something that we've worked on for 5 years but now she's distracted by book bucks and toys. Is this good for Kayley?
  • If the school's incentive plan undermines a child's intrinsic desire to go on reading for the sake of reading, what should a parent do?

What would you do?

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Joe Bower

Joe Bower teaches in Alberta, Canada.