To bribe or not to bribe?

My son wants to be paid to read a book. I am torn because while bribery is bad, it achieves its aim

It was the December school holidays and I was trying to get my son to pick up a book and read.

But my eight-year-old son wanted something for his effort.

"What's my reward for reading a book?" he asked.

"Your reward is the joy that you will get from reading," I told him.

I think he was hoping my reply would be "a new Nerf gun for you to shoot zombies".

Not one to be beaten off easily, he tried again.

"How about you give me money to read? 10 cents for a book? 20 cents?"

Sure, I could just force him to read, but that will hardly help to grow the love. Which is why I was tempted to just hand over the 20 cents to get him to start somewhere.

I was tempted.

The 20 cents he quoted me is a rather low going rate for ensuring his compliance.

It becomes even more enticing when you consider that my other attempts to get him to read have failed.

He's surrounded by books that he chose himself and I have tried to make things more fun by reading to him and together with him.

I also make sure he sees me reading so he cannot point a finger at me and say: "But you don't read! Why should I?"

Unfortunately, my son is a stubborn non-reader and simply cannot be made to sit down with a book on his own without endless protest.

His refusal to read independently is a bad thing, because reading, like eating your vegetables or getting regular exercise, is a non-negotiable part of life, like it or not.

And it's important for him to not only read a lot, but to also read a wide variety of materials, from story books to non-fiction tomes to periodicals, whether the aim is to do well in school, acquire more knowledge or boost creativity and critical thinking skills.

I understand his resistance towards reading - it is hard work, unlike the easy pleasures of other things such as playing with his toy cars or kicking a ball around.

Also, as an emerging reader, my son has not yet developed the fluency of proficient readers, so it takes him much longer to wade through text.

The irony, of course, is that the more reluctant he is to read, the harder it is for him to become skilled in reading, which then discourages him further.

But there's no shortcut to proficiency except by plunging in and plugging away at it.

Sure, I could just force him to read, but that will hardly help to grow the love.

Which is why I was tempted to just hand over the 20 cents to get him to start somewhere.

There are drawbacks to paying him for reading, of course. The first is how paying him to do something he should be doing anyway could breed greed and materialism.

Also, experts say rewarding a child for reading may cause him to lose interest once the reward is withdrawn.

But I'd rather he read for a reward than not read at all.

To soften the impact of the bribe, however, I decided not to give him money but, instead, get him to trade reading time for iPad time.

Under my proposed one-for-one exchange rate, if he read for 30 minutes, for example, he would earn himself 30 minutes of screen time.

iPad time is a rare commodity for him because he is allowed the device only on weekends and for limited periods of time.

He agreed to my proposal willingly, although he did try to bargain. (Him: "Today got offer? Can I read 20 minutes and get 30 minutes of iPad time?" Me: "No.")

The iPad turned out to be an even greater motivator than I thought. I have never seen him pick up a book so willingly.

And then, nearing the end of the holidays, he suddenly told me: "I think it's fun to read, because some books are exciting."

This caught me by surprise because all I wanted was for him to read to improve his skills; I didn't expect that he would actually enjoy it, given his aversion to books.

So while bribery may be bad in principle, it did fire up his interest in reading and allow him to discover the magic of books.

And, post-school holidays, he is now reading much faster and stumbling less over difficult words. Which is a good thing.

He still has many years of reading to go. But I think he'll make it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'To bribe or not to bribe?'. Print Edition | Subscribe