What is the best way to encourage young men to read?

My answer is to have all-male schools, with all-male teachers, with all fiction books and drama selected by men, and field trips that appeal to male needs, (e.g. – the war museum! the air show! the underground caverns! a computer lab!).

But what about video games? Do they make reading seem boring to young men?

Consider this Wall Street Journal article.

The problem:

When I was a young boy, America’s elite schools and universities were almost entirely reserved for males. That seems incredible now, in an era when headlines suggest that boys are largely unfit for the classroom. In particular, they can’t read.

According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, for example, 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.

The good news is that influential people have noticed this problem. The bad news is that many of them have perfectly awful ideas for solving it.

Everyone agrees that if boys don’t read well, it’s because they don’t read enough. But why don’t they read? A considerable number of teachers and librarians believe that boys are simply bored by the “stuffy” literature they encounter in school. According to a revealing Associated Press story in July these experts insist that we must “meet them where they are”—that is, pander to boys’ untutored tastes.

Spence explains how many publishers are writing books for boys that are really childish and disgusting.

Spence’s solution:

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.

The other problem is that pandering doesn’t address the real reason boys won’t read. My own experience with six sons is that even the squirmiest boy does not require lurid or vulgar material to sustain his interest in a book.

So why won’t boys read? The AP story drops a clue when it describes the efforts of one frustrated couple with their 13-year-old unlettered son: “They’ve tried bribing him with new video games.” Good grief.

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

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.

What do you guys think about his idea?

I love video games. ECM helps me to find ones that I will like, and then I play those very sparingly. So this year, I played “King’s Bounty: The Legend”, “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway” and “Arma II: Operation Arrowhead” on PC, “Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard” and “Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies” on my Nintendo DS.

And previously I played games like “Silent Storm: Sentinels”,  “Dangerous Waters”, “Silent Hunter IV: Wolves of the Pacific”, “Combat Mission: Afrika Korps”, “Hidden & Dangerous 2: Sabre Squadron”, “Steel Panthers: World at War”, “Harpoon”, “Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers”, and my favorite RPG, “Wizardry 8”.

So I basically like large-scale tactical squad-based first-person shooters, large-scale realistic military simulations, and 2D turn-based fantasy role-playing games.

But what I noticed is that picking games like these that are adventurous, and playing them modestly, really hasn’t stopped me from reading. So long as I can link the topics that I read with apologetics or with developing a Christian view of politics, economics, marriage, family, parenting and foreign policy, then it seems to me that my reading is just an extension of my game playing. Life is an adventure, and books are weapons.

Specifically, I like to be adventurous and to fight, and I read books that help me to be able to have a job in engineering so that I can travel the world, and also fight about science, philosophy, history and religion. Maybe the real problem is that boys don’t see books as adventuring tools. My married friends view their marriages as very adventurous and subversive – they are very serious about reading and planning things out.

12 thoughts on “What is the best way to encourage young men to read?”

  1. I think the solution is fairly simple, and I use myself, an army of one, as anecdotal proof of it:

    Make damn sure your kids are hooked on reading *before* you introduce them to video games, because once you sacrifice their attention spans to Nintendo, Destroyer of Free Time and Ambition, it’s too late to resurrect them w/ Tolkien, Lewis or even the utterly-banal Rowling.

    The point is, yes, I’m pretty much a first generation gamer (i.e. Pong, 2600, etc.) but I still read avidly today because I was in love w/ reading before I was in love w/ gaming. (This also explains my consternation w/ the utter dreck that passes for ‘writing’ in video games.)

    And deprogramming your kids is easy, if you have the nerve (most parents are pussies and don’t): simply cut them off, cold turkey, for 6 months and tell them the only entertainment they’re going to have is books and other, traditional, entertainment options like: climbing (and falling out of) trees; building couch forts (w/ quicksand blankets); and a perennial favorite, organized athletics. ( strongly recommend gymnastics, especially for the males, because the ladies will really appreciate that physique later on, plus it takes up A LOT of time leaves you too tired to play games all night.)

    Failing that, I’d limit their kids game playing, etc., to the 1-2 hours/day range, rather than letting them arrive home from school to spend 8 hours fragging people online. (Believe me: if you play as many games as I do, you quickly learn that most of the better players are in their early teens because they are spending days/week playing particular games when they could, you know, be outside/reading/database programming/etc.)

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    1. I love building couch forts. My mother tried to stop me from doing it, but I just kept doing it and doing it. But I never used quicksand blankets.

      Basically, parents need to get hold of the Dangerous Book for Boys and do everything in it with their boys. I don’t think that video games can compare with all the other fun and dangerous things that there are to do in real life. I actually think that building up a Christian woman who has a bad past is pretty dangerous, because they’re like trapped animals. They bite people who are helping them because they are so crazy and confused.

      Today I try to go to the firing range once or twice a year, and I drive a roadster. I drive with the top down, very fast, and at night under the stars. And I also practice dangerous maneuvers. I try to do this in empty parking lots though.

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  2. I do most of my reading online– and most of the video games I play require reading and typing, a well. It’s not like we have only Doom for the video games, after all.

    Way back when, the school thought that I couldn’t read– long story short, I wouldn’t read the garbage they were handing me. (Library time was limited by your rated reading skill– the shelf I was allowed to look at was utter pap, especially for someone whose family is so big on stories.) The special ed teacher turned me loose in the book section and a month later I was “amazingly” reading far above my grade level, to the point that I picked up the original Dracula and got up to the point with Drac in his coffin, something about a leech bloated with blood, and quit because it was gross. Also wore out my aunt’s set of Narnia books.

    If someone’s looking for boy-friendly stories that aren’t moronic or gross, the old Hardy Boys are good… For the younger side, and funnier, there’s Hank the Cowdog. (Bonus, the authors are great people. I wrote in to their web site just once, to tell them how their books helped me come to love reading, and BOTH of them wrote back a full email!)

    Possibly the biggest problem with Lord of the Rings is that the good Professor wrote like…well, a professor. Beautiful writing, but hard to get immersed into, maybe because he did always pay attention to words.

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  3. I also agree with ECM. Develop a love for reading FIRST. And be very selective as to what your kid gets to read. Limit TV especially. Most of the stuff on TV is mindless and rots the brain.

    There are LOTS of cool books for boys. Captain Pugwash, Rupert the Bear, Hardy Boys, Louis Lamour westerns, Treasure Island, etc. Oh and Richmal Crompton’s William books were written for adults, but kids love ’em! And they do wonders for your vocab.

    But y’know what? Some of us girls like that stuff too! I read most of those books when I was little. Except I read Nancy Drew instead of Hardy Boys and only one Louis Lamour. I also want to go to airshows, and the war museum! My dolls when I was little were very girly and wore pretty dresses and went to the ball, but they didn’t have tea parties, they had adventures! Maybe part of it was that I had a brother close to me in age, and that we played together a lot. He didn’t have much time for my fairytale stories, but he liked to play adventurous things with me. We even had a secret society. :-D But I can’t tell you the name. It’s a secret. ;-)

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  4. I have always found video/computer games to be a total waste of time. But there wasn’t much of it when my kids were young (now 32 and 29). I always read to my kids and we had family reading time where I read to the family. My daughter loved books from the time she could make out words and read everything she could get her hands on. My son, however, when he started getting interested had public school in the 3rd grade ruin it by forcing them to read some of the worst junk they called “literature.” He found it boring and really disliked it and didn’t want much to do with books outside of our reading time. But they both loved history. My daughter soon read as many history books as she did novels, but my son didn’t want to read “boring stuff.” So when he was in the fifth grade I told him about a story that I had read that really intrigued me when I was young and I gave him the synopsis and made it a real mystery to him. So we went to the library – who didn’t have it, but got us a inter-library loan – and after reading that book he never again was without a book to read. Unlike my daughter, he became like me and rarely read novels – he love reading about history. What was the book that got him hooked? “The Lady Be Good.” All about a B-24 bomber which disappeared in WWII and was found in the Libyan desert 16 years later, and the enigma of the crew’s attempt to walk out of the desert and how they got there in the first place. We ended up finding a copy of the book for him to own, and I later decided to get another for me!

    Their grandfather gave us our first computer from a throw-away he had from work this was about 1988-89. It had “The Oregon Trail” game on it, and the kids were interested because it was history. We went to a cousin’s house a few years later where computer games were the rage and he after about half an hour play decided it was too “dumb” – I thought it had way to much violence. Can’t remember the name, but it was a war thing where you got to kill all sorts of enemies with all sorts of weaponry. They were never interested in buy any for our family – which was great because I wasn’t either!

    Stick to good books and they’ll want to read.

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  5. Well as a game developer you know I had to respond to this :-)

    My three year old daughter is incredibly fascinated with video games already, and plays on her own little leapster 2 system, and even plays Dragon Quest IX on my DS (I have to help her of course).

    But she also demands, BEGS for me to read her books, and I spend a lot of time doing that. Of course what I hear from word of mouth of that girls tend to gravitate more towards books and stuff anyway, so I’m not surprised. She’s smart… and has a MASSIVE head! Seriously! Like 98th percentile or something :-)

    In all seriousness, ECM is right. Just put some limits and the kids will be alright. And I agree that doing some “dangerous” silly things is important for boys.

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  6. To this day I have still not read any Tolkien, but as I loved the LOTR movies, I’m strongly compelled.

    I read as a boy. I have always been one to take my time, and was often called a slowpoke as a child. One of my first books was even called, “Hurry Up Slowpoke”, which I took as an insult but read it anyway and liked it. I also remember that at the same time, my older brother was given “Mr. Pine’s Mixed Up Signs” which I also read and liked. A bit older, my mother brought home a book for me she thought I’d like called, “Houndog Man”, because I liked dogs. I liked picking out books, but don’t remember most of them. In high school, I was one of the only people in my circle that enjoyed English because of all the books and short stories we had to read. I dug “Great Expectations” and have a good Dickens collection. These days my reading is split between books of politics or religion, and the classics, like “Three Musketeers” (and it’s sequels), “Last of the Mohicans” (will get to other Hawkeye stories eventually) and “Moby Dick” (which I haven’t finished because it’s really kinda boring, even though I like it).

    But I also like video games. Mostly first person shooter, though I used to really like the Madden football games. A guilty pleasure is the Grand Theft Auto games, of which I have two, and they are really as nasty as advertised (got ’em as gifts). Totally inappropriate for kids, and not much better for adults, but are funny at the same time for their over-the-top total criminal tone.

    My daughter is a voracious reader. She now has a laptop and spends way too much time with on-line role playing and chatting and facebook. But she still reads like crazy. When we go to the library, she will get as many as six books and have them finished before they’re due. I used to think she reads too fast to enjoy them, but she tests extremely well if being tested on a book she reads takes place and she talks at length about them if we ask her. She just starts and doesn’t stop until we make her. We never had to make her read. I don’t know how it would be if I had sons.

    I don’t even know what’s available for boys to read these days. From the above posts, there seems to be some issues regarding quality. I like the classics for the themes present in them that used to inspire boys to be something good and honorable.

    All kids should be forced to read, and forced to read good books. I don’t mean to threaten them too much, but to put pressure on them to read good books and to think about what they’re reading. To dwell on them and savor them. To allow themselves to get lost in them and perhaps to apply what they’ve read or allow it to compel them to achieve something noteworthy.

    I’m currently driving a school bus part time whilst searching for better gigs. I think I can tell who the readers are who who aren’t. But this discussion compels me to ask which ones read.

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    1. Great comment, Marshall.

      Marshall, you and I like the same kind of books. I loved Great Expectations and the Three Musketeers. Great Expectations is a must-read for young men, who have to need to be careful with trying to love a woman like Estella, who is not capable of love. And the same thing happens in the Three Musketeers with Athos and Milady de Winter. The best part of reading the classics, like you recommend, is the wisdom you get by stepping out of your own time and learning timeless, politically incorrect, truths.

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