Opinion

The way to get your kids to read

Step 1: Unplug them. Step 2: Give them solitude.

By

"Mom, there's a lot more to life than reading," my 14-year-old son said as he rushed in from school one afternoon and texted another reading-averse boy down the block.

"That's a girl's book," he later said when I asked him to spend some quiet time with "Jane Eyre." "And, anyway, I only read at night."

So when my local library offered a talk on why boys don't read and what parents can do about it, I signed up. Many of my neighbors had the same idea: We came, desperate for advice on how to get our boys off the technology and into the books.

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Here's what the reading expert said: Boys don't read because they don't like stories, poetry, or tales about relationships. They prefer nonfiction – science, math, and instructional booklets. He suggested parents entice boys with material they enjoy such as sports statistics, instead of sports stories.

Several audience members nodded in agreement. Yes, their sons fit that description. They probably couldn't read Robinson Crusoe, but they could zip through a LEGO manual.

Call me a renegade, but I'm not falling for this latest theory. Several decades ago, my brother fell in love with Cathy and Heathcliff and never once questioned the gender-correctness of "Wuthering Heights." He plowed through Jane Austen, and continues to be a serious reader today. What's changed?

With my suburban house serving as an anthropological study on the behavior of teenage boys, I've constructed my own theory: Boys don't read because they are never alone. Many years ago C.S. Lewis, in his autobiography "Surprised by Joy," said: "I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude…. Also, of endless books."

Today, there aren't any quiet attics, only crowded sports arenas and a frenzied push toward socializing. On the rare occasion a boy – or any child for that matter – finds himself alone, we worry and tell ourselves we better get him back on track – always playing, always competing, always moving toward the next event, until, dulled by distraction, he becomes unable to concentrate on the pleasurable work of reading.

"My son never reads," commiserated a father of a 16-year-old boy recently. "He plays fantasy football." Maybe solitude will be a concept our children study about but never experience. "Oh, yeah, solitude, wasn't that something done by monks in the 13th century?" they'll ask. But isn't a certain amount of solitude – and boredom – necessary for reading?

As a child, I found refuge in the unfinished basement of a suburban split level, its concrete walls lined with books. Like C.S. Lewis, I had no restrictions on what I could read.

Unfortunately, quiet rooms with books and soft lights have been replaced by home entertainment centers and Internet access – hubs of whirring activity and plasmatic imagery.

At my house, I try to create a suburban sanctuary amid the chaos: I turn off the television during the week. Music goes off early in the evening. I don't have cable and I keep the Internet password a secret. The rest of the time I bribe, beg, and cajole. Mean? Maybe. Are there arguments? Yes. But I'm hoping for the big pay-off someday: an adult who reads.

So while theories proliferate on why boys don't read – their brains work differently, women teachers assign books that appeal to girls, boys like silly stories – I think the answer is less complicated. Before they become adults who don't read, we must guarantee our children long stretches of time to revel in solitude.

"Don't come in, Mom," my son said one evening when I knocked on his bedroom door. Later, I found what he had tried to keep hidden – a corner of his room, surrounded by blankets, with an outdoor lantern hanging above a pillow. Scattered about, a few books.

I wonder how many other boys are reading in corners, far from the world's unremitting noise.

Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer in Deerfield, Ill.

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