I recently found out that there is a project to encourage children to read called “A piece of the picture book, a piece of pancake“. You guessed it: the children who take part in the picture book reading program later sweeten up on pancakes. This news was accompanied by a photo of children gathered around a tray full of pancakes. It all sounds ‘sweet’ at first glance, but those pancakes somehow leave me with a bitter taste. Is it necessary to persuade children to read with sweet rewards?

Reading should be a reward in itself

I believe most parents want to raise children who will consider reading a reward in itself and will not ask to be rewarded for reading. Generally speaking, there are two types of motivation: internal and external. Rewarding desired behavior such as reading for a pancake (in this case) belongs to an external motivation that is short-lived and will not awaken a passionate reader in a child.

In schooling, assessment is the main external motivation that makes students learn with the fear of failure, instead of the desire to know and discover something new. A great example that it doesn’t have to be this way is the Waldorf school where there is no numerical evaluation of a child’s knowledge and progress, so Waldorf students have a better chance of developing curiosity and a spirit of research. If children are learning in order to receive a new cell phone, or if they are reading to get a pancake, this may affect their expectations of rewards in the future. They will attach too much importance to rewarding their behavior.

Although external motivation can be very effective, psychologists warn that it can be counterproductive in children. Because of external motivations, play and fun activities such as reading picture books can be turned into a task or job to get that reward. Just as factory workers do a multitude of jobs they don’t like because they know a paycheck is waiting for them, so too can a child treat reading or learning in this way because a pancake or cell phone are waiting for them.

External motivators are often used to achieve children’s desired behavior, but this can resemble animal training, and a dog will do what is required of him to get a cookie after a few repetitions.

Rewards are most often applied in those cases when children have little interest in an activity or they have not developed the basic skills to master them, which is not the case here. Most children enjoy it when interesting and fun books are read to them, and they often like to read them by themselves. They don’t need sugar stimulators. The problem is not in the lack of children’s interest in books but in the choice of books and the ways in which those books are presented to them. The fact that books are sadly losing the battle with video games and cartoons is another topic.

Food as a reward or punishment

Food should not be associated with reward or punishment. Read a book or listen carefully to it and you will get a pancake or ice cream, but if you don’t, alas, broccoli and cabbage are waiting for you. In the case of punishment, a child may associate healthy food with some unpleasant experience for life, such as not reading and learning with broccoli or cabbage.

Sweets are mainly used for reward and lasting associations are created between sweets and good feelings. Along the way, a healthy diet is disrupted.  Children whose parents use food as a reward are more likely in adulthood to treat their bad feelings with food. Sweets can thus remind them of some pleasant feeling and experience from childhood when they were given a pancake as a reward for their efforts. There is a big paradox in rewarding kids with sweets. On the one hand, parents try to give their children as healthy food as possible, preaching to them that sweets are not good for their teeth, but then they reward them with sweets?! Isn’t that maybe a confusing message for kids?

Well, one pancake after reading a picture book is not that dramatic, but that pattern of giving sweets to kids as a reward is not a creative way to encourage long-term reading or make bookworms from young readers. Does all this mean that your child should never eat a pancake or candy again? No, this just means that foods such as sweets should not be used to bribe a child or as a reward for good behavior. Instead, teach your child that it’s okay to eat sweets sometimes as long as we eat them in moderation without connecting them as a reward to books unless perhaps it’s Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Finally, external motivation can be a really good thing, like when you collect points for a discount at the supermarket, but rewarding reading with pancakes is superfluous because the book itself is a kind of treat.