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How I Convinced My First-Grader to Read 116 Books This Summer

Hint: It involved a little cash and some clever negotiating.

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The following story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

A friend of mine once told me “readers are leaders,” and the saying stuck with me. It turns out he was right. Most every President of the United States has been an avid reader and the heads of many Fortune 100 companies all have one thing in common: a love for reading.

My oldest son Alec completed kindergarten this past June. As a reward for his efforts, I took him out for frozen yogurt. It was there, sitting on funky orange chairs, that I presented him with my proposal: “I would like you to read one hundred books this summer, and if you do I will pay you $1 for every book.”

Alec sat back with a quizzical look and said, “That is one HUNDRED dollars!” I smiled and confirmed it was indeed one hundred dollars and watched as his face lit up. He wanted to go home right away to pick out the first few books. He spent 30 minutes before bedtime reading that night and every subsequent night for the next few weeks. It looked like he was going to blow past one hundred in the first month, but then he stalled at around fifty.

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One evening I came into his room and asked why he wasn’t reading before bed. He was tired of reading, he said. I could see the lack of motivation in his eyes. I told him he was almost halfway to his goal and to his one hundred bucks. And then I explained: the deal was for one hundred books, not fifty. If he didn’t read one hundred books, he wouldn’t get anything. He thought it was a dollar per book up to one hundred.

He said, “Well, I want you to pay me one dollar per book. So if I read fifty, I get fifty dollars.” Rather than fight him on the number, I would simply add a new lever in this negotiation. I told him I would pay one dollar per book with no minimum and for every book under one hundred he didn’t read, I would pay his 3-year-old brother that dollar.

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He replied with, “What if I read more than one hundred?” I explained that if he read more than one hundred books, his younger brother would get nothing and he would still get the dollar for every book. This was the motivation he needed to push through. Again, he was off to the races.

It was at around seventy books that I noticed a change in Alec’s reading behavior. He stopped reading out loud. I was laying with his brother in the bottom bunk and asked if he was still reading. He said yes. I asked why he wasn’t saying the words out loud and he told me that he could hear them in his head. Score one for the plan!

Fast forward to the night before school. Our family gathered in the kitchen, and I went upstairs with Alec to collect his books. I brought them down to the table and we began counting: “One, two, … twenty-one, … fifty, … eighty-five, … ninety-nine, one hundred, … one hundred and one, … one hundred and ten, … one hundred and sixteen.” He had done it. For one hundred and sixteen dollars, I had helped my son find a love for reading. And it was the best money I had ever spent.

Richard Bagdonas is a proud father, husband, and philanthropist. Also, he writes.