Rewards and Motivation

We love to read.  We devour books. I had to set a rule about me not reading out loud before breakfast or I would be reading books to my son two minutes after we roll out of bed in the morning.  When we aren’t reading a book, we are usually talking about the book that we are reading – what might happen next, what might the character’s motivations be, what would life be like if we were a part of the story.

Given the general love of books and reading in our home and our proximity to our local library (we can see it from our front yard) joining the summer reading program seemed like a great idea.  For the kids program, the library will give you a free book to keep for your very own once you read and log one book in the system and another free book to keep for every five books you read and log after that.  Sweet deal!  We love new books, especially free ones.


Once we started the program though, I saw an interesting change in the way my son interacts with books.  Instead of reading what he loves for the sake of enjoying it, he started counting how many books he needed to read to get the next prize. He began requesting short picture books instead of the longer more complex stories he has been listening to for about a year.  He was reading for the external reward offered by the library instead of for the internal reward of an interesting story and new ideas to think about.

We have never been big on rewards and punishments here so he has little experience with external sources of motivation. There is no time-out here; there were no M&Ms for potty training; he doesn’t get a cookie for cleaning his plate; there are no gold stars or chore charts.  We rely on teaching him to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; we try to encourage him to make the world a better place; we thank him for considerate and thoughtful behavior, but no more profusely than we would thank an adult.  Remarkably, he often chooses to do the right thing, or can usually be pretty easily redirected into doing the kind and considerate thing once reminded of our values.  He doesn’t need those external sources of motivation because he has such strong internal sources of motivation.

Seeing his reaction to a reward system, reminded me of one of the big reasons we chose to home school.  Avoiding the tests, grades, behavior charts, punishments, rewards and artificial competition of the classroom is important to us. We want him to love to learn and to learn for the sake of satisfying his own curiosity rather than learning what the teacher says is necessary to pass the test. Would it be easier for me to follow a curriculum which listed a set of skills which the student must achieve before the end of the school year than it would be to rely on his internal motivation to learn and design our days to encompass his curiosities? Perhaps. In a way, that would soothe my anxious parental soul and assure me that he is where he is “supposed” to be on the learning curve, but at what cost to his creativity and curiosity?  And at what cost to the pure joy of learning?

We are still reading and we are still part of the summer reading program at the library.  Luckily, the change in reading behavior was short lived. He is back to longer and more interesting books and he seems to have forgotten pretty quickly about the reward system. I’m still deciding if I should tell him that he has already earned the next free book or not.  – P.L.H.


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