Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

You take time to read to your little one regularly. You go to the library and browse the shelves hand in hand. You sing nursery rhymes and play with words. All wonderful, worthwhile activities. But what if I told you there’s one more lever you might want to pull to directly impact your child’s learning trajectory—and it’ll cost you? 

Have you thought about the ways spending a little money might set your child up for success? Have you thought about the message your spending sends to kids about your priorities? 

This excerpt from my book Reading for Our Lives offers a few ideas on how allocating some dollars toward reading might be a money move. I’m not saying that you have to spend toward this end. I just want you to know it’s an option so that you can make an intentional decision about whether you should or not.

Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.

James Frick

Money talks. Or, in this case, money can pay people to talk with, assess, read to, teach, and support your child. I’ve never seen spending listed in a magazine roundup of ways parents can boost reading achievement, but it is. I think it’s important to say so, plainly, to parents of young children, so that they understand it’s among their options when they can’t meet all their child’s learning needs on their own. And what parent can?

When my daughter was entering elementary school and I spoke with parents of older children about their school experiences, I was shocked by how commonplace tutoring was. One friend paid her son’s teacher to tutor him over the summer, to repeat reading lessons that hadn’t taken hold during the school year. Another took out a high- interest loan to cover out‑of‑school reading support with a national learning center.

The big supplementary educational spending wasn’t limited to my high-earning, high-achieving neighbors. In the decades since many of us were kids, there’s been a steady rise in tutoring for young children—even preschoolers. In fact, some observers date the first “explosion in demand” for preschool tutoring to 2002 and 2003. That means we’re entering a time when millennials who themselves were tutored as preschoolers are becoming parents.

Industry analysts expect preschool tutoring enrollment, which has grown over the last five years, to continue to boom at least through 2026 as disposable income rebounds from the pandemic. All this tells us that tutoring kids before elementary school is not new, it’s not limited to an overexuberant fringe of parents, and it’s not going anywhere soon.

Most often, today’s parents are spending on tutoring out of real concern for getting their kids ready for kindergarten or on “grade level” once they’re school-aged. Plus, cohorts of young children whose early childcare and education were affected by the COVID‑19 pandemic will need extra supports, tutoring or otherwise, over time as well.

Should parents have to pay to secure basic literacy skills for their kids? No. Do they? Often, yes. Private tutoring is a major, longstanding player in American education with implications for how, when, and whether kids fulfill their reading potential. But it’s not the only one.

Literacy spending may deserve a place among the priorities you weigh when budgeting your family’s resources, alongside saving, healthcare, vacations, and so on. Beyond tutoring, financial investment in learning evaluations, educational experiences, private schools, and high-quality childcare are all major factors driving better literacy outcomes for many. And don’t discount smaller, everyday purchases like books, field trips, and after-school activities. They also contribute to the richness of kids’ vocabulary, background knowledge, and enthusiasm for learning.

Many parents make up for what they lack in money with creativity in engineering the experiences and access their child needs, meticulously tracking free-admission days at local cultural institutions and borrowing or making supplies they can’t buy. Sometimes it comes down to choices like paying for a visit to a science museum versus a sports match, an enrichment class versus an amusement park. Conscious spending means recognizing the trade-offs we make every day and considering their impact.

I focus on free and inexpensive ways to nurture reading, and I’m a huge fan of the free books and programming that libraries provide. Still, it’s important to note that how parents deploy the money they have makes an impact: spending to provide more of the language, experiences, and instruction kids need is an option.

Edited and reprinted with permission from Reading for Our Lives by Maya Payne Smart, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Copyright © 2022 by Maya Payne Smart.