How did you earn money as a kid? Maybe you babysat, mowed lawns, or did chores around the house. Did you ever get paid to read? Probably not, but now one creative company rewards kids for reading while they get their haircut.
A haircut is a uniquely intimate interpersonal experience for someone of any age. You sit still for a half hour or more, while a person you may not know very well stands inches away, repeatedly handling your most important body part—your head.
Beyond the physical experience, there’s the social dimension of a haircut. Sitting so close to someone for that amount of time, it’s awkward not to talk. However, even adults can find such chitchat challenging; for kids, it may seem impossible. Most children don’t have advanced conversational skills, and they’re naturally short on life experience and knowledge of topics that tend to be good conversation starters, e.g., current events, food, sports, etc.
Those aren’t the reasons, though, that City Cuts, a barbershop located in Kutztown, PA, pays children to read while they receive haircuts. More comfortable kids may be a side benefit, but it wasn’t the main thing that motivated shop founder and owner Jon Escueta to start the ‘novel’ program.
Escueta immigrated from the Philippines when he was just eight years old. Not knowing any English proved to be a formidable social barrier, but a caring teacher helped him overcome the obstacle by using a book about basketball to encourage him to read.
Escueta, now 32, employs the same strategy in his barbershop, where kids can read aloud a book of their choice to the person cutting their hair, and anyone else within earshot. For every book kids read, they receive $3.
The benefits of reading are well known: greater knowledge, mental stimulation, vocabulary expansion, memory improvement, stronger analytical skills, improved concentration, etc. However, all of those advantages can accrue to readers who sit alone and read silently to themselves. Why, then, doesn’t City Cuts simply let kids borrow books to take home and read on their own time?
The reason is there are also significant benefits that can come from reading aloud in front of others. On her website Tutoring Academy, Sharee Chapman identifies some of those positive outcomes, for instance:
- Improved diction and expression
- Enhanced visual memory and the ability to see images in one’s mind
- Better spelling from sounding out words, detecting syllables, and visually connecting words to sounds
- Great practice for public speaking
It’s the last benefit that aligns most closely with Escueta’s intent and reflects the way his program seems to be working. For example, 8-year-old Connor, whose mother travels 20 minutes to take her two children to the shop, says that reading aloud has really helped him in the classroom. He explains: "It [the reading time] made me speak up," so that "I am always raising my hand to get picked."
However, as much as Escueta may want to help, City Cuts isn’t a charity. Without seeing its financial statements, one can imagine that a small barbershop, located in east-central Pennsylvania, doesn’t make money hand-over-fist. So, how can it afford to pay both its barbers and its customers?
Fortunately, the program has gained considerable community buy-in. City Cut’s customers and others donate both the books for the young readers and the funds to compensate them. Also, this past January, Escueta started a GoFundMe account that has raised over $6,100 toward its $7,000 goal.
So, the reading program seems sustainable, but shouldn’t we be cautious about such corporate influence in children’s lives?
From banks to bakeries, all kinds of businesses want to make inroads with kids, not because children have much money to spend now but because they are the next generation of consumers. Some big players have even used reading programs as a way of reaching kids.
For instance, Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT program has been rewarding kids for reading for the past three decades and still seems to be going strong. Children enrolled in the program receive a certificate for a free one-topping Personal Pan Pizza, a prize, and a sticker for every month they reach their reading goal.
Given that the program is “free,” those rewards for reading seem like a great deal. Of course, most parents don’t drop their kid off at Pizza Hut and say, “Go in and eat your free Pizza,” i.e., one certificate likely draws the entire family into the restaurant for food and drink, resulting in a profitable tab for the company.
Pizza Hut also gains brand exposure in the ‘sacred’ learning environments of schools from BOOK IT-related items on which its logo appears such as posters, flyers, and the award certificates. All that said, it’s reasonably to wonder if the benefits the company receives far outweigh the few pizzas the children earn.
Then again, BOOK IT does get kids to read. Maybe that outcome justifies the corporate influence, but there’s also the risk that kids’ interest in books may begin and end with free food. In other words, the extrinsic, physiological reward of pizza may overshadow the more important intrinsic, intellectual reasons for reading, mentioned above.
City Cut’s reading program, on the other hand, appears to avoid these risks. Unlike pizzas, haircuts are necessities that children typically don’t crave and upon which families rarely overindulge. Similarly, unlike problems inherent with connecting reading to eating, it’s hard to imagine an association between reading and haircuts that could negatively affect kids later in life.
In terms of corporate collateral, it would be naïve to think that City Cuts doesn’t profit from its reading program. Like the mother who drives 20 minutes to take her children to the shop, there are probably other parents who go out of their way to involve their kids in City Cuts’ reading program.
However, whatever increased business City Cuts gains, it deserves. By encouraging children to read aloud, Escueta and his colleagues offer young customers a uniquely valuable, developmental experience while extracting very reasonable value in return.
It’s fine for companies to profit from their philanthropic efforts, provided that the community/company benefits are balanced. City Cut’s reading program seems to strike that right ratio, which makes inspiring confidence in young customers “Mindful Marketing.”
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