My fellow presbyter Ryan Martin alerts me to this column in the Wall Street Journal, lamenting the decline in reading among boys and suggesting solutions for it. In passing, Thomas Spence deplores and dismisses the “Sweetfarts philosopy” of teaching boys to read by “meeting boys where they are” through an appeal to their “love of bodily functions and gross-out humor.” He rightly observes:
One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.
Spence pens some important and useful words about why boys today aren’t reading very much or very well. And, then, he answers the question posed in his column’s headline:
The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.
All this got me to thinking about the fact that I was a voracious reader by the time I got to kindergarten. I recall that my brothers (no girls in my nuclear family) were readers too. This was long before the internet and electronic media. And, while our home was not exactly filled with shelves of good books (we did have some), our tiny town (population 3,500) had a respectable library, regularly restocked by the circulating collection from the San Bernadino County Library. So, yes, we had plenty of good books available, and we boys regularly haunted the library shelves for additional copies of books that boys aged 7 to 12 and older would inhale like Sweettarts (no Sweetfarts were available, as our parents, teachers, and librariens weren’t particularly interested in rearing morons and barbarians).
So, was that why I and other boys pillaged the library like Ghengis Kahn pillaged feudal China? I can’t speak for other boys, but I can speak for myself and my brothers. It was our parents’ reading to us that got us started reading.
Especially it was my father reading to us. I can remember specifically that he read to us Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He also read the Sunday comics to us out of the Los Angeles Examiner. And, the Sundays he wasn’t reading them to us, my brother and I were sprawled on the floor, the Sunday comics from that paper spread out before us, while someone on the radio read the comics out loud. How’s that for radio programming? A different sort of world, huh? I’m grateful I have a photograph of that scene.
Boys want to be men, and the first and most formative man they ever encounter is their father. If Dad reads, it’s manly to read and boys will read. If Dad reads out loud, it’s manly to read out loud, and boys will want to read out loud like Daddy does.
If you want testimonials and scientific reports on the effects of reading to children, then Google “reading to children” and click on a few of the tousands of links that pop up. Better yet, Google this entire prhase: “fathers reading to their children” and digest what you find. Nothing against mothers reading to their children, even to their sons. But, I suspect that for a boy there is nothing that will shape his inclination to read more than the experience of his father routinely reading to him — from well before the little boy can read anything, all the way into his late boyhood. Try Googling “fathers reading to their sons.”
Spence’s recipe for getting boys to read is satisfactory as far as it goes. But, it seems to assume that if the distractions (internet, video games, other electronic entertainments) are missing and reading material is present in the form of shelves of good books, then boys will read.
I don’t think so. Boys need more “inducement” than a bound copy of Treasure Island on a shelf. Like everything else that is good, boys who read need to be taught that it is good. And, a good way for that teaching is through the modeling of a father who reads to them.