I LOVE LIBRARIES. Really I would marry a library if I could. When I first moved to Missoula I was basically single (even though I was in a relationship), with no kids, no friends, not even a dog!, and my family/friends/community was the treasure trove of books at the Missoula library. I often sink my nose into the spine of the books I love and breathe deep. I love books and I love libraries.
Summer Reading Programs are put on by local libraries. They are basically a coloring sheet to track the hours that a child reads (or is read to) and after each milestone the kid receives a reward of some sort, like a Dilly Bar from Dairy Queen. The idea is to get kids reading. Great! And keep them intellectually engaged over the dog days of summer. Great! And really these intentions are great, but for kids that already are reading and loving reading the method sucks.
It basically boils down to the "evils" of praise/reward in order to illicit desired behaviors from kids. There is a lot of research about this. Alfie Kohn spells it out like nobody else in Unconditional Parenting and once I read that I was a complete convert to a non-rewarding style of parenting. The theory is that extrinsic rewards (praising phrases, gold stickers, chocolate) work against a child's natural intrinsic motivations. It's completely counter-intuitive but basically if you reward a behavior that a child naturally loves to do, it muddies their own interests, and actually deters them from continuing. I say it's counter-intuitive because many of us have seen praise "work", and when I say work I mean that we have all seen a child swell with pride when dad or mom says "Wow! Good job! You did that all by yourself?!". We've seen that same child then scurry to do more of that sort of task and return to show mom or dad his achievements.
But what we often fail to notice is what happens next, or in a few years, or later as the child grows into an adult, which isn't so great. Some of what occurs is a growing lack of interest in tasks like those if the child doesn't receive the same kind of praise or greater praise. The joy of achieving something is eclipsed by the need to meet someone else's approval. This is why children that receive allowance or treats or any kind of reward for doing chores don't do any other or different chores that aren't rewarded. It's also why some children will treat people one way when mom is watching (generously), and another when mom isn't. The behavior is chosen based upon what the child might get as a reward, not because that behavior feels good, is pleasurable, or is the right thing to do. Basically if parents use rewards as a form of motivation, that motivation evaporates as soon as the reward does, and at the same time reduces the type of motivation we'd rather they have - personal, intrinsic.
But that's all theory. Read the book and you'll be convinced by the theory as well, ready to drop praise and reward like a bag of poop. But one can basically find a theory that can prove anything, especially in the world of parenting. I myself am inspired to drop praise/reward because I have seen the negative effects with my very own eyes.
Take Summer Reading Programs for instance. Nathan and I don't say Good Job! when our girls do something pleasing, we don't give stickers to them when they make their beds, we don't promise ice cream in exchange for good grades. But sometimes reward rears it's head in unexpected places, like the beloved library. Last summer during one of our trips the girls spotted the Summer Reading Program, and gathered three log sheets. When they got home they penned their names on them and hung them on the fridge. Then a reward horror movie ensued before my very eyes.
Our girls LOVE to read. Absolutely. Love. It. They read all the time. Echo would have me read to her all day, every day, if I was willing. These girls would fore-go food in exchange for books. And once the Summer Reading Program was in effect they still read, but with no joy. I am not kidding. The joy immediately evaporated and in it's place stood competition and stress. The older girls became acutely aware of how quickly the other one was filling in the reading log. They'd read for thirty minutes, just to be able to fill in another box and either catch up to the other sister, or stay ahead of the other sister. Suddenly the kitchen timer was being used constantly as the girls were clocking themselves. They were counting their completed boxes and snapping at one another if their reading time was interrupted. "XI! Stop playing near me! I have thirteen minutes left on the timer!"
Xi, so stressed-out by the whole thing, stopped reading altogether. From mid-July until school started in September she didn't read at all. And Bella, once she filled in the entire log and received her Dairy Queen coupons, stopped reading as well, not altogether but almost. (Echo meanwhile had no notion of what the whole thing was even about so she merrily read her way through the summer, drinking in every word.)
That's when I decided: Fuck Summer Reading Programs.
So this summer, when we went to the library and the girls gathered books by the dozens I didn't mention those pesky reading logs and hoped they had forgotten the whole thing. We made it all the way through June before Bella remembered and grabbed a log. Nathan, recalling last summer, said "Um, let's check with Natalie about that..." I groaned when I saw the multi-colored fun-looking sheet. I said Bella could bring it home only if she immediately filled in every box. Bella was utterly confused by this reaction. Isn't that cheating, she asked. I said she already had read enough to meet the requirements and in any case I didn't care, because my primary interest was in preserving her innate interest in books.
Bella isn't a complicated person. She immediately deciphered that she'd get to check out books, get to reap Dairy Queen coupons (which by the way, went completely unredeemed last summer), and wouldn't even have to keep track of a single minute. But later I overheard her explaining the situation to Xi. She added that last summer she was so intent on filling the reading log and reading so fast that she didn't remember any of the books she read.
Theory Shmeory. This is for real.
Right now from the library we've got a million Bone books, several Royal Diaries, a poetry volume, some Spiderwick Chronicles, an historical book about hair, and dozens I don't even know about. And everybody is blissfully turning pages. No timers, no races, no stress. Just unadulterated, unrewarded, beautiful reading.