I happened on this subject the other day when I was riding on a London bus. There were two boys sitting in the seats across from me. One was about ten and the other was probably twelve. Were they brothers? I guess so, but it doesn’t really matter. They were at least friends. The younger boy was playing with his Gameboy (or whatever it was). He was concentrating to the extent of moving his upper body to coax the hero in the game to move in the right direction. His fingers were flying over the keys, and occasionally, when the hero got in a tight spot, his tongue would dart out to better express his tension. Now and then, he would emit a groan as – I suppose – either the hero wasn’t as heroic as he had hoped, or his time was up. When this happened, he would sigh with frustration, and drop his hands into his lap. There was one occasion when the boy emitted a shriek of delight, nudged the older boy, and said something triumphant.
The older boy was reading a paperback book. I have no idea what kind of a book it was, except that I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a text book. He was reading for pleasure. He was quite absorbed, paying no attention to his younger companion, to the other passengers on the bus, or indeed to where the bus was going. (I guessed the boys were going from one familiar place to another.) Deliberately, he would turn the pages, following the text with complete attention, but he showed none of the emotion of his younger companion. He did, however, shrug off the attempts of the younger boy to involve him in the electronic game.
The boys reminded me of my own grandchildren. Several of the older ones are a dedicated readers; some of the younger ones are addicted to electronic games. Does it matter? I suppose I have a bias on the subject, which is that by the age of about 12 kids should be into books, and out of hand-held electronics (unless it happens to be an e-book reader). Why? I suppose that e-games are great for helping develop hand-eye co-ordination, for improving concentration and dexterity, and for building problem-solving skills. But, they do nothing for developing language skills (vocabulary, grammar, etc.), nor do they teach much about the real world. And they have very limited ability to build intellectual skills.
How do we as parents help to stimulate the transition from games to books? When I was about 10, there were no electronic games. The games that were available were card games, and games like Parcheesi and Monopoly which you played with other people. My big distraction was comic books (which I had to read), and serial Western programs on the radio, which I could listen to while I did my homework. Both my mother and my maternal grandmother liked to read to me. They read the great children’s classics like Treasure Island, and I remember sitting or lying nearby, with my head full of the imagined action. I knew that books were good!
I’ve tried the same strategy with my children, with mixed results. Some like to be read to and others couldn’t be bothered. Of the five ‘children’ two are readers. My oldest daughter is a committed reader of fiction. My son reads mostly business literature, although an interesting bit of non-fiction may catch his eye. Not a great batting average for me.
But, I’m not sure what I could have done to stimulate more interest in reading. I’m sure, though, that it’s an important role that every parent has.