Let’s not kid ourselves. Children in western societies are reading less because they – like us – are spending more and more time in front of various screens. We seem to have somehow created an increasing number of hours for that … even as we ourselves find less and less time to cook, clean, shovel the walk, even have physical sex, let alone children.
In fact, we were so very strapped for time that, coming home after the two-income three part-time overtimed jobs, all we wanted was to stick dinner in the microwave, put our feet up in front of the television, and hibernate. Oh, and for the kids to do something quiet while we vegged. The youngest ones had to stay home, slightly older ones still required a curfew to keep them at least technically under parental supervision while out of school (and in N. America especially, there is a growing culture of fear discouraging non-parental supervised outdoor free play) but always: “Can’t you find something to keep you occupied? (and out of our hair during our ‘me’ time?)”
Getting children their own screens fit the requirement well, the younger the better. Set up the Net nanny, maybe screen some of the games, and then let them do their own thing, freeing us to do ours. Younger and younger, the televisions and computer screens and cellphones moved into the bedrooms: and the programming grew exponentially to match the growing addiction. We deluded ourselves that the screens could serve an educational function which some basic interaction with a living person could not serve better; could act as substitute motivator in our stead; and sometimes we didn’t even try for motivation but simply for distraction so that we could do other things. But no matter how theoretically interactive, the vast majority of programming for screens is comfortably passive, no thinking required. In fact, screens in bedrooms have also been clearly linked with decreased school grades.
Oh, irony: that such a small investment of parental time as to read to our children every night could have so easily teased children into wanting to break the written code and read their own books – and thus ultimately created proportionately more parental “me” time. We seek tips to “hook” children into reading (and just think about the actual meaning of that metaphor!), but always forget that we ourselves are the ultimate models to our children. We mourn the decline of literacy, but not enough to ourselves cultivate a love of reading.
Instead reading, like bringing home a paycheque, becomes the substance of endurance so that we can be released to do what we actually enjoy, never of enjoyment in and of itself. Who learns to read at home anymore? Learning to speak is a natural process of osmosis: a delightful merge of social modelling and verbal neural hardwiring. We have the neural hardwired potential to process symbolic thought, and so learning to read can be just as easy, needing only an adult who enjoys reading to instill that all-important hunger to discover what lies hidden in that teasing code. I learned myself somewhere around the age of 2 or so, moving so seamlessly from listening memorisation to reading that I don’t remember the first time I actually read (although to this day I still know the full text of that first book). To the very young child, learning is a fascinating thing, and the painful thing is to be kept from it.
But what if the child learns that learning is not supposed to be enjoyed?
Parents are models, never more so than during those crucial years before organised education begins. Just from their example, they can teach a child to relish books and discussion and walking the dog – or to resent everything that detracts from a completely personalised and sanitised environment. From Teletubbies on up, our children learned what to enjoy and what to hate.
In seeking a societal solution to the growing epidemic of functional illiterates, don’t look away from the mirror. We encouraged our children, every step of the way. And they learned well.