Raising Boys to Read

“According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy…substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls. The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents.”

So writes Thomas Spence in a recent op-ed in the Wall St. Journal that’s well worth reading in its entirety. He goes on to detail the strategy of what he describes as “considerable number” of teachers and librarians, aided by several publishers, to address the problem. To get boys to read well, they must read more. (So far so good.) To get boys to read more, we must “meet them where they’re at.” Translation: encourage them to read “books that exploit [their] love of bodily functions and gross-out humor.”

If you find yourself questioning the wisdom of providing boys with a steady diet of books like Captain Underpants and SweetFarts, you have an ally in Spence. He continues:

Education was once understood as training for freedom. Not merely the transmission of information, education entailed the formation of manners and taste. Aristotle thought we should be raised “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right education.”

“Plato before him,” writes C. S. Lewis, “had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”

This kind of training goes against the grain, and who has time for that? How much easier to meet children where they are.

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.

In light of the correlation between boys’ higher consumption of electronic media and their lower reading skills, Spence goes on to suggest an alternative solution: “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.”

To all of this, I’ll add a few comments of my own.

1. While I by no means think all video games and other electronic media usage are always reprehensible, Spence makes a good case to limit your kids’ involvement with them. This is an obvious, common sense solution.

2. To my mind, however—and I think Spence implies as much—it’s just as important to make reading a normative activity for your kids. This means reading to your children even from infancy. My kids are young, so I don’t claim that they’ve developed an unassailable life-long love for reading as of yet. But our regular routine includes reading before naps and bedtime and we’ll read at other times as well (very often at their instigation). So far at least, they love it. When other options become more available to them, they’ll at least be rooted in a solid foundation of experiencing the benefits of books.

3. Don’t underestimate the favorable light you’ll shed on reading by actually participating in it with your kids. If my son likes to join me in pulling crabgrass out of my yard (yes, I’m one of those people), I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that he likes to read with me.

4. Part of what children (and adults for that matter) discover is that their imagination, fueled by the narrative of good books, can compete with more visual media. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how often you thought the book was better than the movie. (And I say that as a serious fan of both.)

5. Spence’s general point that good books help form boys into the right kind of men is well made. But I’d add that developing good reading skills is specifically integral to growing in the Christian faith. Christianity, by God’s own intention, is a religion guided by written revelation. Developing a solid habit of reading, as well as the comprehension and critical thinking skills that come with it, is of great help in mining the truth of the biblical text. And when that text is the primary place where God, by his Spirit, reveals the good news of his Son, it pays to read indeed.


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