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This Is the Absolute Worst Way to Teach Your Kids to Read

Apps that force kids to log book time as a way to earn Internet and TV access are a huge mistake.

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Recently, while cooling my heels at the airport, I overheard a boy of about 6 begging his mom to let him play with the family iPad. “No screen time until you do an hour of reading first,” was her reply. The child flung himself back in his seat and opened a paperback book with a disgruntled sigh.

I winced. Of course parents need to supervise their kids’ use of digital devices and the Internet. God only knows, plenty of adults have a hard enough time managing their own screen time, including people with a fundamental investment in literary culture, like novelists Zadie Smith (who uses the Internet-blocking software Freedom) and Jonathan Franzen (who has disabled the Ethernet portal on his writing computer). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no exposure at all to television, computers and cellphones for children under the age of 2 and suggests that older children’s “total entertainment screen time” be limited to one or two hours per day.

Most parents are also acutely aware of the importance of good reading skills to their children’s academic future. If they’re particularly well-informed, they’re aware that a recent report from Common Sense Media indicates the number of children aged 8 to 17 reading for pleasure has dropped significantly in the past few years. Digital media is frequently blamed for distracting kids from books, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that some parents have gotten the idea of using screen time as an incentive for page time.

The site, for example, was set up by parents who decided to “put a system in place whereby their kids had to earn TV or game console time by reading: 1 minute TV time for every minute of reading.” Recently, FreeTime, a user-profile control app on the Kindle Fire, introduced a new setting by which parents can require their kids to spend a certain amount of time reading e-books before they can access the device’s games. In essence, these are digital versions of a clever “game token” allowance system created by a contributor to the Instructables website; her kids earn handmade chips good for computer time by doing chores around the house.

But there’s the rub: Reading should not be a chore. Chores are tasks that nobody wants to do but that have to be done all the same. Life is full of such activities. Part of being an adult is learning to suck it up and take care of them, yet another thing parents have to teach their kids. Kids often have to be bribed to do this with an allowance or game tokens or some other treat because kids aren’t big on the long view. They don’t care that if they don’t wash the dishes tonight; there will be no clean ones to eat off of tomorrow because tomorrow seems so irrelevantly far away.

To make an hour spent with a book into the equivalent of loading the dishwasher is to send the strong, implicit message that reading is a similar task, one that will never be a source of pleasure. You may end up with kids who have logged in lots of hours of reading, but that won’t make readers out of them. There’s a vast difference between dutiful, grudging, joyless reading and the kind of hungry, engaged reading that makes for a good student and a thoughtful citizen. It’s hard to be good at something you don’t enjoy.

The FreeTime read-for-play control makes this bad idea even worse by shucking the enforcement of it off onto a mindless bot. It reinforces the idea that reading is the intellectual equivalent of the spinach you have to eat in order to get dessert, and it suggests that the whole transaction is so tedious your parents can’t even be bothered to enforce it in person. Is it any wonder, then, that reading rates drop precipitously once kids enter their teens and begin to scrutinize the double standards of the adults in their lives?

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