Raising Boys Who Love to Read
There is an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning about getting boys to read, which is an important issue because in most cases, boys are lagging seriously behind girls by their teenage years. The only way, of course, to improve reading skills is to actually do it and the author of this article, Thomas Spence, tries to make a connection between bribery with video games and reluctant readers. I think it’s a very valid point, overall, but misses the mark in a few rather significant ways. I do agree with the general premise, however, that if you want a kid to read, then bribing him with a video game is at best merely a distraction and at worst completely counterproductive.
About a month ago there was an article that came across the Associated Press in which librarians maintained that parents should worry first that kids are reading at all and worry about what they’re reading later. Hence, you have Captain Underpants and Sir Fartsalot. I’ve got to admit, I’m with Mr. Spence on this for three reasons: First, I think they’re gross myself and I don’t want to see them; Second, I don’t think every boy is really intrigued by boogers and farts that much anyway-at least not enough to read books about it; Third, I think the idea simply throws all boys into the same mold without any sense of individuality.
My daughter has only recently really caught on to reading and what did it was not the American Girl series. It was Zombiekins. She found a couple semi-scary books that catered to her interest. She also read the first couple Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. She now says she loves reading and reads everything in sight. So, it may be pandering to their interests, but I’m not sure that’s ultimately a bad thing. What isn’t usual is that you can’t assume that all girls will read X and all boys will read Y. That equation just doesn’t work out and reinforces stupid stereotypes (which is one of the things we’re trying to overcome anyway, right?) Let’s instead treat boys and girls as individuals, shall we?
I’d agree with the author that video games need to be kept under watch, but there’s no need to be a prude, either. Video games were no more and no less available to my daughter once reading caught on with her. What happened was she just matured to a point where reading was attractive, available, interesting and always encouraged. I think the key is not to go all crazy on TV and video games. Think, after all, of all the things you might’ve been denied in your life. Have you ever wanted anything more than the forbidden fruit? Yeah, me neither, so let’s not create an artificial lack thinking we’ll change kids’ ideas about games. This is the part of the argument where I think Mr. Spence gets off track. If you create a video game free environment, you don’t needCaptain Underpants anymore. Your 13 year old son will read Robinson Crusoe instead, just like magic. I don’t think that’s surprising. I’m pretty sure I could get a 7 year old to take Sartre out for a spin if I locked him in a room with no other stimulation. We could withhold food and get them to dive into Wittgenstein even, maybe. I can guarantee one thing by that approach: You might get them reading, but they’re going to resent it. And, despite what Mr. Spense says, I’m not sure anyone could devise an adequate torture device to get a pre-teen boy to read Jane Austen. It won’t be happening.
I’d argue if boys aren’t reading as much as girls, it’s because they’re encouraged more to engage in different pursuits than girls that exclude reading (and sitting still for that matter). Before we had my son, I thought my daughter was active. They’re not even close. So, yes, I can understand that most boys are very different than most girls and getting them to stop moving long enough to look at a book is a challenge unto itself, not to mention that we parents want them to burn some of that excess energy off. That’s just something we have to overcome.
Instead, here’s what I’d propose: Throw books at your kids every chance you get. Not literally, but if it works, go for it. Take them to the library once a week. Talk about books. Read in front of them. Read to them. Buy them books. Let them pick out books they want and if they judge it just by the cover, so be it. Don’t judge too harshly what they choose. Try to expose them to other things, but don’t take it too hard when they balk at it. Just keep trying until something sticks. Insist on at least 20 minutes of reading a day as soon as they can manage it and scale that up as they improve and age.