This blog post was inspired by an article published this week in The Wall Street Journal about boys and reading: How to Raise Boys Who Read by Thomas Spence.
However almost all of the issues discussed here can apply to girls.
There are many ideas about why boys don't read more. Others expand this discussion to why so many boys don't seem to care about excelling academically at school. I feel there are many reasons and causes and that the issue is complex. In this post I’ll focus on reading. Too many times adults try to boil the cause down too narrowly. Some even whittle it down to one or two reasons. I think they're all committing a mistake as the very nature of trying to make something complex simple and to nail it down to a one, two or three reasons will always fail to reveal the full truth.
As with parenting books there are two approaches that people generally make.
First there are the people who look at a problem and investigate the current state and pick out what is wrong, they also cite the history of how the thing was approached since birth perhaps, and say the wrong things were done along the way and it’s the parents or other adults in the child’s life that are to blame for the current state of affairs. They may give up and declare it’s too late to affect change, or maybe they insist that certain changes are in order if the situation is to be turned around.
The second approach is to envision an ideal situation, if a person was to have advice from a child's day of birth, what would "doing all the right things" look like? Those people try to influence those at the beginning stages of parenting to help them do the right thing from the start. Some who have this idea of an ideal environment would then point out that in real life that child didn't have that, it was the cause. The problem with that is sometimes people do follow all the advice and it still works out to have not the intended, ideal result.
I used to think that as a parent if I did all the right things and created an ideal environment then only good things would result and that intended results were guaranteed. I learned I was wrong as life is more complicated, other people have influences upon my children and there are also factors within the individual child that are beyond my control.
So when we talk about why boys don't read more or when we read a newspaper article about the topic, it can be helpful to try to determine from which school of thought the person holds. No matter which perspective people have, some of these facts can apply to discussing the issue with them.
I can speak of the lives of two boys, the ones I raised from birth who I know very well. They are boys who have been raised at home by a loving mother, not raised in groups or institutional settings. There has been no group daycare, and other than eight weeks of thirty hours of babysitting by a loving and patient grandmother for months four and five of one child's life, there has been no outsourced child care at all. There has been no group preschool and no formal schooling. There has been socialization from babyhood in small playgroups with same aged children and play groups over the years ranging from a couple of kids to two dozen, in short bursts with more than adequate adult supervision. In the elementary and middle school grades my sons were involved with various group learning or group sports situations overseen by adults other than me.
As a parent I have done all the right things in order to "raise readers". You name the advice given by teachers, reading specialists, psychologists, and parenting experts, I've done it. Here are some: read aloud to your children starting at birth and keep reading aloud after they themselves can read. Find exciting books and read them aloud both before the child can read and after. Select books that have content your child is interested in. Expose your child to a variety of writing: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Also let them indulge in fluff reading: comics, graphic novels. Let your child pick their own books. Have your children read to answer real life questions they have. Allow your children to read for information and their curiosity. Mail order catalogs, books and magazines about collecting, and information guides to video game mastery are some examples. I could go on and on, but won’t bore you with any more details.
Regarding reading instruction I nearly killed myself with stress in learning about the different methods and picking which to use. Whether to use an intensive phonics system or a combination of sight reading was something that some experts lead you to believe is practically a life or death decision. No matter which I used it should be underscored that my kids were taught gently and only after showing signs of reading readiness. Actually my second born was teaching himself at age three so was largely untaught until he demanded I give him formal lessons with the reading curriculum book I used with his older brother, which I delayed until he was four years old (as I thought there as no good reason that a four year old needed to decode words at a third grade level and as I wanted him to just play and enjoy life as a non-reader a bit longer).
Another group of people discussing the reading issue like to point to the child's parents and the home environment. Teachers and school administrators do this frequently. First they like to shift blame for the child's sub-par academic performance is based on the student’s family not on the teachers or the school itself. They accuse that various situations are the blame: income level (especially poverty), ethnic origin (minorities are expected to struggle), location (city dwellers are thought to fare worst), education level of the parents, reading and literacy is not important to the family, and being raised by English as a second language parents. This argument is made to justify no matter how good a teacher or a school is, some kids are just unteachable and lost causes (this all started with a study done in the 1960s I believe). (I will look the name of this study later.)
Those who want (all) children to be readers may accuse that the child is spending their time doing non-reading pursuits like watching too much TV or playing video games from a too-early time and for too long. These two activities are the most targeted (probably because they are respected little or felt to be the least enriching).
Also the reading-encouragers may say, even for middle class families or Caucasian kids or suburb dwellers, that the family does not value formal education and they are not being supportive enough of education in general. They may say the parents do not read themselves, or don’t read enough (and they may quote studies that say that most Americans don’t even read one book a year) so they say the child’s own parents are not good role models.
Few pro-education and pro-learning adults admit that there is negative peer pressure for learning and studying. The fact is that it's not cool to be smart or to do well at school, and that currently it's a social stigma to be a geek or a nerd. (Even kids who somehow escape learning this from real life peers get enough on TV or in the movies. Look at the Disney show Suite Life of Zack and Cody, identical twins, one is funny, cool, dumb and bad at school (those being two different things in my mind) and the other is smart, good at school and enjoys learning and for that gets insulted by the stupid brother.
Regarding my family, most of the factors that people worry will create non-readers or uneducated kids are not present. My husband has a mater's and I have a bachelor's degree. In addition to that both of us are bookworms, we are avid readers. We also live daily, self-education by reading and researching. My husband's job involves a lot of research and analysis; he uses the printed word as well as Internet research and face to face investigation and discussions. Our home is filled with books, right now it's at about 8000 volumes, and many are children's books for pleasure reading and for learning. Both my husband and I are autodidacts and teach ourselves things for fun, hobbies, as well as important real life information such as researching treatments for Cancer for our afflicted parents, using the printed word in books and on the Internet also.
Education is so important in our family that I've continued to not work for pay at my career and to be with my children, raising them and homeschooling them. The fact that they are homeschooled also had, for many years, let them escape the knowledge that American kids today generally hate both school and learning. They know it now as their friends and acquaintances talk about it with them. Every boy I've ever spoken to about school hates it, save for lunch and recess. Some like gym, and some don't. Most like that they see some friends, but in the same sentence they talk of negative social experiences, living daily with annoying people they are forced to be with all day, or on the bus with year after year, and sometimes they are bullied.
Only girls have said they like school but most don't like it too much, nearly all hate the academic part, the way they make them learn in class. The homework is not enjoyed, and the testing is not liked either. Most children have disdain for the process. They say they “have to” go to school not that they “want to”. They feel it is dumb work for no real purpose except maybe to help them get into college which they only want to go to in order to get access to do the job they desire or to have fun and party while “living the college life”. The only ones who say they like school get good grades for little effort, learning has always come easily to them, and they feel ahead of their peers, quickly getting through the lessons before the other kids. They seem to have not suffered in any way, other than boredom from their faster pace and their resentment that some of their peers are holding them back from going forward faster than they are capable of.
Now to those who point to the use of television or video games as being bad for a child’s development or hindering learning or reading ability, our family has also been atypical. My kids did watch Sesame Street and some children's TV shows from a young age but their life was also filled with quality enriching experiences. They are not an example of the "watching TV prevents the kids from doing more worthwhile things" theory. They had plenty of quality face time with me; a nurturing mother and they’ve gone more places and done more great educational things than I ever did when I grew up. Although it's true that I used their time in front of the TV to do other things, like volunteer work centered around my children's activities (i.e. Cub Scouting) or cooking meals from scratch or cleaning the house or researching homeschooling methods and materials, the TV was not a babysitter in the worst sense it's most often referred to.
My kid's use of live TV has been very limited. First we used a lot of VHS children's videos so they could watch better shows than what was on at live TV at that exact moment and they also avoided the commercials. We've used a DVR for over eight years now, so we can fast forward through commercials. My kids have watched plenty of nonfiction TV shows, everything from cooking instruction shows to documentaries (for adults but watched since age two). You may be surprised at all that can be learned from documentaries, even by young children. I have also found that kid’s TV channels with documentaries for children are often dumbed down in language, content, and are sometimes also patronizing in tone.
My kid's use of video games has been atypical as well. The original plan was to ban video gaming in all forms until my child could read (which I followed through on for both kids). I didn't want video games to be a replacement for time reading books. I hated the idea of using portable game systems so those were banned. I have still never purchased one. We had a seldom used GameBoy bought by their grandmother from a tag sale but I never bought more games for it. It was only used on full day driving trips (like the 500 mile drive to my grandmother's house), and then, for just one kid. Then we were given an unasked for thing, two used GameBoy Advanced SP's, with some games, and the rule was to use only on car trips longer than 200 miles.
We did not buy a video game console until my oldest was ten years old. We also rarely used the PC for video game playing (some families brag they don't have video games but they let their kids play the same games as are better played on the console on the family's PC, which is a nonsense statement if I ever heard one). The video gaming has limits and always had, except for a rare holiday or on some summer days when they took full advantage and played for eight or more hours in a row.
While my kids are on long car trips we read books, talk, listen to music, and sometimes listen to audio books. What we have done with our time has shifted over the years. The songs have shifted from Raffi and John McCutcheon to country to 80s pop and now to some pop. In recent years we also have started to listen to more talk radio in the car, thanks to the fact that we're on year two of having Sirius satellite radio, and we discuss current events issues and politics. If there were more quality nonfiction topics on Sirius we'd listen to those (imagine documentaries, lectures, or something more in depth than the current radio talk shows on nonfiction topics).
Are my boys readers? I guess so. I had hoped they'd be even more bookworms than they already are, to be honest. How much really do we want from these kids? How much is enough?
This leads me to the question of how kids spend their time. Before I get into what my kids and what other kids do, let's talk first about the pace of life. In the last year our family has shifted our pace and lifestyle to more closely resembles mainstream American families. No, they are not in school but they are doing more group classes with homeschooled kids and have some teachers who are not me. They have homework and due dates that are inflexible. Each son has also added a formal sport to their schedule. So now in addition to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts meetings, camping trips and learning activities (merit badges and Webelos activity pins to earn), they have homeschool lessons and a sport, and one has music lessons. They are pretty busy.
The more I get to know the teens we live near and know through our various activities the more insight I'm getting into the typical American preteen and teenager. The more I spent time with mothers who work full time outside the home the more I am getting an idea of what it's like to raise multiple kids in a dual income family. I also know some divorced parents and blended families (some with some kids in college and some in early elementary school) so I’m seeing a range of how other families live.
They are all hectic lives; let me tell you (all of them, not just the dual income families). I also have friends who do very different things with their time so have different glimpses. There is the family with an only child who spends summers out of state at a resort location. There are families heavily into sports. There’s a family with four kids, one is academically gifted and one is on the Autism Spectrum. There is a family where the middle school aged girl has not a single friend and her time is spent with immediate and extended family, they are a much enmeshed Italian-American family. There are latchkey kids and kids who are raised in before and after school care, and in group daycare before that. There are families who are so busy with all the different activities each child does that the family is lucky to eat one meal together. A number of families have one parent who travels pretty extensively for business, and in a couple of cases both parents are in and out, on business trips.
Why I Think Kids Read Less Today
Some of the things I blame on kid's lack of reading is this:
Teachers force boys to read books that are girl centered.
Boys may have gotten turned off to reading fiction at an early age and just read for assigned school lessons.
There are too many problem novels and reading them can be depressing and upsetting, kids want to avoid that.
Teachers force too much reading tied to assignments and grades.
Teachers drag out readings too long. It doesn't not take a full year to read "Because of Winn Dixie". There is too much analysis of what is read and not enough enjoyment.
Teachers dumb down the reading assignments for a myriad of reasons making reading annoying and boring.
School textbooks make up the majority of schooled kid’s reading material (in middle and high school) and they are dry and boring. They are terrible models for reading and kill the desire to read for information. If students think that self-teaching by reading nonfiction is anything like reading a textbook they won’t go on to do it. (Perhaps that is why statistics show that adults rarely read nonfiction books.)
Kids are too busy doing homework and extra-curricular activities to have lots of time for pleasure reading.
Kids are too busy with school, homework and life to even think about being an autodidact to read nonfiction in order to learn something. An exception are the "deep curiosity" kids (which is one factor in labeling them as gifted so they are not in the typical category anyway).
Home life can be hectic, running from school to a sport to a music lesson. The kids are living a fast paced life. It is not easy to shift into the relaxed state that most readers settle in to, to read.
Kids get sick of being told to do with their time most of the day. They are directed to go here, do this, and do that by this date and time. They want down time. They want to be in charge of what they do, even if it’s just to choose to chat live with a friend on Facebook. They are sick of being bossed around and don’t want to hear adults telling them they should be reading for fun. They want to decide how to spend their time.
Kids are tired and need to sleep. Those who want to stay up late to read are discouraged to do so by their parents who say it’s more important to sleep. If the child wasn’t so busy during the day perhaps they wouldn’t think the only time they have to read is late at night when they can finally relax and have spare time.
A home can be noisy and busy. This is not always conducive to reading. Even if the boy wants to read they are distracted by other family members who are talking, watching TV, or whatever else is going on. Some family's homes look more like a hectic zoo than a quiet library reading room.
Some readers need quiet or prefer it, when reading. If they are in a car with music playing they will choose to not read. If the car was silent they'd either be talking or reading.
If someone has the TV on at home this may draw them in and they may spend their time watching it instead. Since most homes have more than one television sometimes it can be hard to find a quiet room in the house.
Parents who put TV sets in children’s bedrooms are tempting the kids to use it instead of using the bedroom as a quiet retreat area.
The use of DVRs allows for customization of TV viewing so viewers can easily feel there is more to watch than they have time for and it’s available any time they want. That is a different situation when you had a TV show you would have liked to have watched but you were out playing a sport at that time so now it’s too late. Now the show can be watched whenever you want.
Easy and free or cheap access to TV shows. Cable TV shows and also network TV shows can be borrowed from libraries for free in DVD format. So if you missed the first five seasons of LOST you can (as I did) catch up quickly with the DVDs before the final season began on live TV.
Easy and free or cheap access to movies. Unlike the early 1980s we can have any movie we want any hour of the day for home viewing, not just using movie theatres or waiting for the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on network television. Not only can we borrow from public libraries for free but we can rent via Internet and mail (Netflix) or have instant downloads of media from Netflix, Amazon, or even from our satellite or cable TV provider. (Downloads can also be made from Netflix to certain video game consoles and the consoles can be used in place of a DVD player!) Many of these movies are free or are a very low cost ($2 is much less than the $55 I spent for myself and two kids to go see a movie at the theatre last month, with snacks).
Video media has changed over the years. What is produced now for young children sometimes seems to me to have been designed by someone with ADHD. The action is too fast, it cuts from one scene to another so fast, and the talking is almost nonstop. My eyes can barely take in all that happens on the small and big screen. Books are boring and more drawn out in their storytelling style. Children raised on video media with that type of fast action and lots of talking and some music too may find books too slow and dull. For movies that teens may watch compare the pace of Godfather to Inception or compare the pace of Airplane to The Other Guys.
Movies ruin the book. Sadly some boys I know saw the movie first and didn't always like it. They tell me there is no point to read the book since they "know what happens anyway". These boys and their parents like to go to big screen movies for entertainment. Few families make the rule "must read the book first" (like we do). Three boys I know started watching Harry Potter when too young to read the book and refuse to read the books saying they aren't that thrilled with the story as known through the movies anyway.
Video media is quickly consumed. It may take a tween aged boy a dozen or more hours to read the exciting book "City of Ember" but the movie adaptation can be consumed in less than two hours. It may take thirty hours to read one Harry Potter book but the movie can be watched in two hours.
YouTube: it’s free and fun. YouTube has everything from reruns of a television show you missed to allowing you to rewatch funny parts of movies. Kids watch amateur videos and the latest viral videos going around. Now that MTV has less music videos, kids just watch any music video that they want to watch any time they want to. (Although I’ve never seen the music video for Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog, today my ten year old asked to view it on YouTube.) It can be easy to waste time on YouTube going from one video to the next to the next. You Tube is a time suck.
TVs in the car. I have always been against it. When it came time to buy our minivan we were unable to find one without TVs. We had an option of paying a $500 fee to get one without a TV but would have had to wait for it to be delivered from out of state. It killed us to think of spending more money on top of what we were already spending just to NOT get a TV in the minivan, so ours has it. The minivan came with a year's free TV live channels which come to find out was just three channels of kid's programming. This is proof that the TV was intended by car manufacturers to be used for kids to watch. I was disappointed as I was envisioning a full range of channels that I could just listen to as a driver or even as a front seat passenger (in my state it is illegal to have a working video screen in the front row). Ours has two DVD players so different passengers can watch different movies should they desire (they use headsets for the volume). Having not just radio but now TV in the car provides a distraction away from reliance on reading books while in the car, even on long trips. Of course families can limit the use of this, as ours does, but on long trips it's so tempting to just let them watch movies and keep quiet and happy instead of risking bickering or complaining.
Portable audio devices. The ability to listen to music anywhere and everywhere via an iPod or other MP3 player fills up kid's time and takes away potential book reading time. As an adult I like to listen to podcasts but kids usually listen to music. Examples are siblings listening while their sibling is at sport practice or a Scout meeting or while in the car going somewhere or even inside their own home. Oddly some kids show up to playdates or other intentional social experiences where they are supposed to be talking and interacting with other kids or teens but seclude themselves by plugging into their music. At this year's Cub Scout award banquet I saw a handful of siblings listening to iPods instead of listening to the awards being given out, and clapping along. Some teens and kids also are allowed by their parents to listen to iPods during wedding receptions and communion celebration dinners.
Mobile phones. I have seen parents letting one year olds play with the mobile phone as a toy. They take photos and play the video games and pretend to talk on them. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers often give kids their phones while in public places to use it as a portable video game player, in the car, in restaurants, or while their sibling is playing a sport game or at practice. I have seen families give children their own phone at age seven. Once in hand they use it in any number of ways. Most kids seem to use the phone least to actually talk on the phone.
Texting is big with preteens and teens, especially those with unlimited texting family plans. It's also hard to escape into a book for a sustained period of time if their mobile phone is always beeping to notify them a new text message has been received. Kids seem so pressured by their devices. They demand immediate attention which takes precedence over everything else happening. A formal Easter dinner was once interrupted by my nine year old nephew texting his babysitter giving Easter wishes. Once at an extended family dinner another nephew had a friend visiting. While watching the movie before the meal and during the meal the two eleven year old's exchanged text messages with each other instead of speaking out loud. Frankly I find this rude also as it is not unlike whispering secrets. For all I know they could have been badmouthing us. Actually, I'd not be surprised if they were, after all, what were they saying that they’d not want to state aloud?
The Internet. While at home kids use a PC or laptop for any number of purposes, some is playing various video games, some even on sites owned by Scholastic (a book company, need I remind you). Teachers also seem to be requiring the use of the Internet more for homework and school projects. Kids and teens visit joke sites such as People of Wal Mart or serious topics sites like PostSecret. Most adults know that it is easy to get sucked into the computer. So sit down at the computer to do homework and extra time may be spent online instead of walking away and picking up a book.
Portable Internet. I know that's not a real phrase but this encompasses several gadgets and I don’t know how else to phrase it. Some kids are allowed to surf the Internet while not in front of a PC using their own or their parent's mobile phones, their iPhone or Droid or on their Nintendo DSI, PSP or PSP Slim. Yes, parents did you know those game systems have Internet? Some kids use them to view porn with, but I digress.
Social Networking, such as Facebook takes the time of teens and some preteens. Yes I know you are supposed to be 13 to use Facebook but I see people's cats and dogs on there as well as some three year olds. I'm not joking. Well I guess the pet is not actually doing the surfing but the pets have accounts. Boys are on Facebook doing live chat with friends, posting status wall updates, reading their friend’s wall posts, playing FB based games, taking silly quizzes, and uploading photos they took with their mobile phones or with their digital cameras.
Photography and Videography. Now that digital cameras are cheaper and since there is no film processing free, nearly every kid I know has their own digital camera (if only the hand me down when their parent upgraded). They also take video using a video recorder or the camera itself or even their mobile phone. Some boys choose to spend time using computer software to manipulate this media into something funny or even into a short movie. Some boys upload these to YouTube.
Video gaming. Those with an xBox360 with xBoxLive can play games with strangers or friends. This has brought video gaming and social networking to a new level. Some create teams and play games as a team. The allow for live voice chat during the games. There is on screen text messaging also and ways to send messages similar to an email that can be retrieved later. Video games are also fun to play with your friends in the same room, much talking and laughing can result, this was a surprise for me. I'd always envisioned kids playing in silence staring at the screen like zombies but this is not always the case. The other day I woke up to find my son playing xBoxLive with a close friend. They were talking and laughing about non-game topics as well as game play strategizing. When my younger son awoke the three of them were talking and laughing up a storm. (And the general Internet is also available through some game consoles.)
Working for pay. Teens who work for pay can add that to their already full "to do" list.
The family has disposable income. Perhaps also having extra money for all the extra-curricular activities and money to buy video games, and to go to the movies and to give their kids mobile phones and to have enough computers in the home so everyone in the family can be online all at the same time is another reason. Children are no longer relying on books as an escape or as pleasure reading because they have access to so many other fun things to do with their time.
Busy summers. Families who fill the summer calendar with enriching activities for kids instead of leaving them alone to flounder in boredom or stuck staring at the clouds may be robbing their kids of the time to read for pleasure in the summer months. This includes kids who are forced into daycare situations or "summer camps" back to back all summer long, for the primary purpose of using it as paid childcare for a working mother or if the mother claims she "doesn't know what to do with her kids all day long" or is unable to find ways to not have the children bicker all day. Oh but add to the list that schools often give homework to do over the summer including reading multiple books and doing analysis and writing assignments on those books.
Traveling on trips with family. It seems now more than ever families are traveling. Air fare is so much lower now than twenty years ago that babies are traveling. Fill the time with travel and vacations and that tires the kids out also. Again they have less totally free time at home. This is not to say that some time on the trip and in travel can be spent reading a book, it can, but often the kids are doing other things with their time while away or they are tempted by any number of other things I listed here.
They are already reading enough. They can’t take any more. Some kids have limited tolerance for reading time and it is used up on school work. Kids with learning disabilities, diagnosed or undiagnosed, can fall into this category. It is a fact that an LD can tax the neurological system (brain) and that person has less “energy” to use on reading in a day. When you’re fried, you’re fried and there’s no more mental energy that can be expended (but vegging out in front of a TV is possible).
Vision problems. Some people have undiagnosed visual problems and need glasses. One adult I know has been struggling to read for the last few years as the eyeglasses they wear are not fitted correctly. At one point there was even double vision. The doctors are struggling to resolve this and the glasses have already been sent back to the lab several times. This person is a bookworm but has not been able to read much lately at all. When my own son tested to need glasses for close work I was shocked. Why didn’t he tell me everything was blurry? He thought it was supposed to look that way. Wow.
Visual related learning disabilities. A person of any age or gender may have various learning disabilities that hinder reading. The book "Reading By the Colors" has some examples in its pages of what written text looks like to people with certain LDs. If the text moved and wiggled and jumped and danced on the page would you read it? If you kept losing your place on the line and got sick of re-reading the same lines over and over to try to get that paragraph read once in its proper order, would you bother to read? If reading literally hurt your eyes or your brain would you do it? If listening to the radio or watching TV was do-able wouldn’t you do that instead of reading?
There are many solid reasons why more boys don't read. It's not always tied to the family's view on the value of reading, or on their outlook on the importance of an education, which is tied closely to reading text, and some of their challenges may be due to learning disabilities. The bottom line is that today’s kids are busy, they have almost too many options for what to do with their time, only some of which is spent playing video games or watching television. A good number of middle and upper class kids come from families with enough disposable income to keep them occupied with so many extra-curricular activities and surrounded by so many electronic gadgets and so many different types of entertainment that there are just too many non-reading pursuits competing for the little free time that they have in their lives.
I’m not so much defending television watching or video gaming as I am asking adults to wake up and get real about the lives of today’s children (of both genders). The answers as to why middle and upper class boys are not reading enough books to suit some adults is staring us right in the face: just look at how the kids are spend their time. Parents who don’t like how their kids spend their time should assess their role in all of this: how do they prioritize their children’s time, what are the family’s goals and focus and is what they are doing supporting those? What activities do they choose to enroll their children into, and how they spend their money on entertainment all matters. As to the video gaming and television time, I’m more an advocate for living moderation, setting limits and parameters and teaching my kids about self-discipline and making best choices than banning them altogether. Removing temptation and prohibiting normal behaviors does not teach moderation, priority setting, time management or self-discipline.