[Note: This is a post I originally wrote a month ago for another website. They changed their minds about it, so I'm posting it here.]
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.
Twice in my Facebook feed this morning people have posted links praising this opinion piece in the WSJ about the problem of getting boys to read books. Written by Thomas Spence (a book publisher in Dallas) it tries to explain the reasons for the apparent disparity in reading proficiency between boys and girls since 1992 (as stated in a study he mentions but doesn't link to). In the piece Mr. Spence points to what he believes are the two main culprits, books that pander to boys through "[their] love of bodily functions and gross-out humor" and, wait for it, video games.
As for the gross-out humor, his argument is that by allowing boys to read books that they think are funny (apparently Mr. Spence has never laughed at a fart in his life) the education system isn't teaching them "manners and taste." He even uses a pretty rich quote from the venerable C.S. Lewis, who talks about how the "little human animal" must "be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful." (As an aside, I haven't read something so utterly condescending in a long while.)
Are fart books really turning our boys into idiot zombies?
Am I really expected to believe that in C.S. Lewis' time there was nothing of dubious literary merit for people to read and enjoy? There has always been things written poorly for cheap laughs or thrills, and somehow "literature" continued to thrive and societies maintained social norms.
Having never personally read any of this newest class of books that "pander to boys' untutored tastes" I can't comment on their merits or lack thereof. But take a second and look at the roster of books Mr. Spence has published. While most all seem to be politically conservative treatises about "the Tyrrany of Judges", How to Beat the Democrats, and The Left Illusion, none of them are books for young readers. So is he an expert worthy of a WSJ opinion piece, or is there some other social agenda going on?
And then there's the old "let's blame video games for everything" argument. To back his conclusions up, the author cites one study from a Psychology professor at Dennison University that purports a causal relationship between video games and academic performance. One study is all is needed apparently, because "Science has spoken" (capitalization is all his too by the way). And the magic solution to fix boys, the education system and America? Take away the video games.
While I have to assume Mr. Spence's heart is in the right place, I think he's got it all wrong. The way to get boys' reading proficiency back up, or make them have better manners, or appreciate some of the truly amazing things humanity has created is to act like a parent. And this doesn't go just for boys by the way, it's also true for girls. I see no problem with allowing children to read so called "gross-out" books if they want, but you have to encourage them to read other stuff too. In my own life, my oldest daughter picks books she'd like to read, but I also choose books for her as well, typically the books I remember reading and loving when I was young. And I haven't had a complaint yet.
The same goes for video games. Act like a responsible parent and limit the amount of television, video games, sports, reading or anything that might be putting your children's lives out of balance. If your son isn't reading books and playing video games for three hours a day, then cold-turkey might be the way to go. But to say it's the fault of the video games is absurd.
And be an example for your kids as well - maybe your son isn't reading because you don't read. When is the last time you took your kids to the library or talked to them about a book you read? There are all kinds of reasons why boys might not read as much or as well as girls, but "I submit" the root of it isn't the video games or the subject matter of the books, it's the parents.
How to Raise Boys Who Read [WSJ.com]