Thursday 17 March 2011

Raising Boys Sights Above the Gross & Violent

In an article in the Wall Street Journal (24th Sept 2010) Thomas Spence suggested that if we want to teach boys to read, we should avoid "gross-out books and video-game bribes". We know that the difference between boys and girls in reading ability reflects an earlier start with language than boys and the fact that boys don't read enough. The question is why don't many boys seem to like reading as much as girls and what can we do about it? Spence lays the blame at the feet of video games and a diet of reading that is based on gross topics. He writes:
"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."

While, we can't simply blame the sins of a generation of boys on reading the wrong books and playing too many video games, Spence puts his finger on a key issue in the raising of boys. His comments resonate with some thoughts expressed by C.S. Lewis in his book 'The Abolition of Man'.

"St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in 'ordinate affections' or 'just sentiments' will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him 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."

The comments of Spence are probably a little unfair to the many authors who seek to engage boys with topics that focus on topics like gory death, macabre crimes, weird and unusual life forms etc? The philosophy of writers for boys like Raymond Bean who writes Sweet Farts, R.L. Stines who writes 'Goosebumps', and Terry Deary and others who write 'Horrible Histories' is to shock boys and to appeal to their interest in death, bodily functions, horror, blood and so on. Their overall aim (beyond selling books) is of course to get boys reading.

While the 'Butt' books by Andy Griffiths (and others) with titles like 'Zombie Butts from Uranus', seem to hit a fairly low mark in terms of linguistic complexity and their banality of plot that I'm not keen to see children read, there are other books like 'Horrible Histories' the work of authors like Dahl and others that have a place. Writing about gross or sensational topics can be done well or poorly. In limited quantities they can be helpful in motivating reading. The key is to make sure that this isn't all that boys read; that boys have their literary horizons expanded.

As Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi, we are to fill our minds with good things that will move us to worship God and serve others. We are to encourage our children to do likewise.
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Philippians 4:8
How can we use books and reading to train and mature the affections of the child?

The reading of literature as well as the Bible is a key way that we train the hearts of our children. Books give us opportunity to talk with our children about life; including their fears, hopes, desires, frailties, prejudices and so on. The more you can involve yourself in your children's early literacy experiences the better. Here are 6 things pieces of advice that might help.

1. Fathers and mothers need to work hard at listening to and reading with their sons. Share the experience of reading with your children. Read to them and with them as they grow older. I've written a post on my 'Literacy, Families & Learning' blog about how to do this (here).

2. If your boys find it hard to concentrate on books, tell them stories. You don't have to be a great storyteller, start by telling them about your childhood memories, your interests, real life stories etc.

3. Fathers or another adult male role model should have a key role in any boys' early literacy and learning development. Stretch the interests of your sons rather than trying to constantly appeal to their gross instincts.

4. Boys need help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help them. If they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it, this will be a disincentive. This will help to expand your boy's reading horizons.

5. The writers who are into 'gross' or unusual topics know that boys are more likely to be pick up books and read them when the books and the reading events offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia, tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things.

6. Read the Bible with your children from the first year of life. Make it interesting and exciting not a chore.

Other related posts I've written

'The Redemption of Children's Literature' (HERE)
Thomas Spence, 'How to Raise Boys Who Read - Hint: Not with gross-out books and video-game bribes', Wall Street Journal, 24th Sept, 2010 (HERE)
Post on 'Boys and Reading Success: Get them Reading' (HERE)
'Getting Boys into Reading Through Fiction' (HERE)
'Getting Boys into Reading Through Non-Fiction' (HERE)
'The importance of reading to and with your children' (HERE)
'Twelve great books for boys' (HERE)

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