Many of my memories of being a mother to young boys are wonderful. Not all, mind you, but many. But someone recently posted on Facebook something that brought one of my least favorite memories back. Here’s what Paul Hankins wrote (which I am borrowing with his permission):
Ooooh. . .I don’t come out swinging often. . .but when my son comes home horribly upset because he lacks one book shy of the goal of forty read for the year. . .and according to his account the teacher questions his ability to have read some of the books he has read in the last little reading blitz he has done? Oh. . .we will be talking. Here is a kid that has read across genres–faithfully all year long. He is right there as a reader. I guess the rule is you cannot attend the swim party unless you have read the forty books required. Noah IS a READER. And this celebration CRAP has created a most negative experience for him now.
Probably anyone reading that would be outraged, but some of us were doubly outraged having gone through something similar ourselves. I will never forget the sight of my 8-year-old son sobbing over Mrs. PiggleWiggle, knowing that when he finished it he would still have 3 more books to read to qualify for a pizza party. That was just one particular evening, but there were many more like it. He liked to read, but he was the kind of reader who goes slowly and remembers thoroughly, just like his father.
Reading incentive programs only work if the student has a fighting chance of being successful. Clearly Paul’s son is a very good reader who worked away during the year only to have his efforts thrown back in his face. Luckily for him and his classmates, he has a knowledgeable father who can help the school understand where they are going wrong. But it’s a scene that plays out all over America as people try to encourage improving reading skills by turning it into a dagger over a child’s head.
Here at the library, we also struggle with how to keep kids reading over the summer without turning it into an ordeal for parent and child. We long ago gave up counting the number of books that children read because it was clearly unfair for the child who was tackling Redwall or Harry Potter to be penalized for their ambition. We’ve been encouraging children to instead keep track of the time they spend reading, giving them a turn on our gigantic game board and giving them prizes along the way. This year, we’re taking it a step further and just saying Read something every day, and come in once a week to take a turn on the game. No pages counted, no time counted, just form the habit of reading daily.
But we very much hope that no child ends up feeling humiliated and disappointed that maybe their sibling or their friend finished the game and they didn’t. It’s hard to balance incentives against the potential for failure, so we have made it as do-able as possible. The worst possible outcome of creating an incentive for reading is creating a child who hates reading because it has become a burden instead of an adventure.
I’m glad Noah has a great dad who can help him deal with his disappointment. No child should end up left out of a party because they didn’t read quite enough. And no child should ever ever cry over magical Mrs. PiggleWiggle and her funny cures for badly behaved children. I can only assume that Betty MacDonald and today’s children’s authors would all be horrified if they knew what children are put through in the name of reading goals.