Better Things


When I was a child, I read almost constantly. This was in part because for most of my childhood, I did not have access to a television, and probably in part because I was raised by bookish types: My father wrote poetry (still does, actually, the poor fellow), and my mother has written a couple of children’s books. Furthermore, I was not a terribly popular child. I was kind of fat and slow and ungainly, and I probably don’t have to tell you that these are not revered qualities in elementary and junior high schools.

I have a vivid memory from this period of my life of setting my alarm for 4:30, so that I could read for an hour or two before school began. I’d set up my bed so that the head of it fit into a closet; sounds weird, I know, but there was something cozy and comforting about it and I read in that closet for hour after hour after hour. Reading is just what I did.

We have spent almost no time formally teaching the boys to read, although we have read to them extensively almost since the day they were born. Penny has an enormous capacity for reading aloud; even now, with the boys nearly the ages of  9 and 12, respectively, she reads aloud to them every night before bed, often for more than an hour, and that’s a mere fraction of what she did when they were younger. Fin and Rye favor real life adventure stories, both fiction and non-fiction, and are particular fans of Gary Paulsen, which is convenient, because he’s a pretty fantastic writer.

Fin started reading when he was eight; a month shy of his 9th birthday, Rye is just starting to read. Both of them spend a tremendous amount of time with their faces in books, particularly during the colder months. Fin in particular carries books with him almost everywhere; I suspect that once Rye is fully capable of reading to himself, he’ll do the same.  I remember being somewhat stressed when Fin turned eight and still didn’t read, probably because their ability to self-learn reading felt to me like the first big test of our informal teaching stye. But of course my stress was merely the result of standardized expectations set by the institutionalized schooling system. Without those expectations, set by – well, set by whom, really? I can’t say, but someone, somewhere must have decided children should learn to read by age 7, just like someone, somewhere must have determined every one of the “educational” milestones that define our sons’ and daughters’ school experience. Maybe the people who set these standards and designed these curriculums really do know a whole lot about how children learn and are thus qualified to make such decisions. But I know for a fact they don’t know my children.

I’m struck by the fact that I don’t see many children reading books anymore. I know some do; I just don’t see it much. I’m struck by the fact that as a society, we seem to revere the ability to read, and we seem intent on teaching it to our children as early as they can possibly grasp it. And then what do we do? We take it away from them. Not overtly, of course. Not with any conscious intent, but by slowly filling every “spare” minute of their waking hours with activities and opportunities. I remember an article that ran in a local weekly paper about the implementation of iPads in elementary and junior high school. Here is a revealing passage (the entire story is here. Gotta love the quote about parents who spend their “time cutting down trees in the middle of the woods”):

BFA Fairfax middle school principal Tom Walsh is equally jazzed about iPads and their power to get kids more excited about learning, in and outside the classroom.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of home you come from. Everyone has the same access. Everyone has the same tools,” he says during a tour of the school. “To me, public schools are the last bastion of equity in education.”

Next door to Skerrett’s classroom, an eighth-grade language-arts class is engaged in iPad learning games. One student is playing “Words With Friends,” a crossword game similar to Scrabble. At a desk alone, a young boy is engrossed in “Math Ninja,” a game whose objective is to defend a treehouse using martial-arts weapons.

Walsh asks the boy what he likes about the game. “You get to viciously attack cats and dogs with throwing stars and swords,” the kid says with a perfectly straight face. To reach the next level, however, the player must answer basic math questions, such as 22 divided by 11.

“Not really rigorous learning,” Walsh says, “but if you’ve got downtime, there’s worse things you could be doing.”

Perhaps Walsh is correct. Perhaps there are worse things a child could be doing than viciously attacking cats and dogs with throwing stars and swords on his way to learning that 22 divided by 11 is 2 (which, by the way, either one of my sons could’ve told you long before they reached the age that would correlate with their being in 8th grade).

Yeah, so, perhaps there are worse things. But l know for a fact there are better things, too.

23 thoughts on “Better Things”

  1. I can’t believe a game that allows to “viciously attack cats and dogs” to learn basic math is acceptable!How about putting 22 marbles in a pile and ask the child to share equally with his/her friend? Then allowing them to play with said marbles outside for the amount of time they sit on their butts inside playing video games to learn the exact same lesson?

  2. Pingback: School |
  3. Reading sure is one incredible means by which to expand one’s world. GREAT photo revealing “exploration and expansion” amongst bales of hay!

  4. I was struck too by the line about how they afforded the initial investment: by leaving vacant positions empty. Fewer actual people to talk to, care about, or be inspired by, more screens and throwing stars. It’s been proved for a long time, starting with Sesame Street, that screens increase engagement in the sense of kids being engaged with the screen, but not that kids actually learn more or better. You’d get fewer discipline problems if you fed the kids tranquilizers, too.

  5. Awesome, Ben. You are my hero. Great writing.

    When you are perched on the high mountains do not forget what it is like for us down below.

    I will do what I can to make you famous.

  6. Went and read the whole article, and all I can say is “Wow.” I am deeply unimpressed with the logic behind this “initiative”. I am deeply skeptical of the value of screen time in an educational context. I am deeply offended by the insinuation that a parent who spends his time cutting down trees is somehow out of touch and unable to prepare his child for the world he is entering. And I am deeply glad to discover I’m not the only person in the world raising passionate readers who didn’t actually start reading ’til about age 8. 🙂

  7. Of course the USA has a high literacy rate thanks to standardized education.
    Division of labor is essential to a society. We need surgeons and infectious disease specialists and engineers and architects and researchers, etc.
    Sal Kahn’s educational videos are a great way for children or adults to learn topics at their own pace.
    Computers air-dropped into Ethiopia are allowing kids that have never seen a book to figure out all by themselves to first work the computer and then to learn to read. Thanks, technology.
    Educational systems undergo change as societies evolve. Cheap shots are not helpful.

  8. Sandra,
    Literacy in the US was higher before public schooling. Whatever you think of the demographics represented by those figures, standardized education wasn’t a factor.

    In my short lifetime we have increased educational funding per student and literacy rates have continued to fall. I think some of that can be attributed to the use of sight words as opposed to phonics but I think the biggest part isn’t technique. It’s an entire nation each fall saying, “Thank God school started. These kids are driving me crazy!” It’s a shame we, as a nation, see our children as a burden.

    Let’s play with that Walsh quote.
    To me, home schools are the last bastion of quality in education.

    There. That’s better.

  9. What a great post, Ben. There was nothing better than being engrossed in a book as a child! (Or now, I might add.) My parents were avid readers and learners. Thankfully, I went through school when they taught Phonix – which helped immensely as I got older and had to learn more – and bigger words. My mom refused to help me once I could read myself – I was to sound it out and then go look it up in the dictionary. She was one smart cookie, as it has served me well in life. I never got into video games much – maybe recognizing their destructive nature at an early age. I do wish there was significantly less emphasis on them by parents and schools overall, as many are created to teach children (who become adults) to compete and war with others. Not a healthy mindset to create!

  10. It seems to me that schools are trying to make learning engaging and fun by utilizing these devices but, in the long run, I think they are doing much more harm than they realize. The device should not be what engages you but the content. This kind of article always reminds me of something my grandfather used to say, “Times change but people don’t.” The “toys” and gadgets may change but the ability to talk to another human being face-to-face, to look people in the eye, to feel comfortable in any situation, to speak knowledgably on a variety of subjects and, maybe even more importantly, to really listen to others and what they have to say will always serve you well and be most important. Ever notice how few kids look at you when you speak to them these days? Very few, in my experience. I also notice they text people they are sitting right next to! Very alien concept to me since I, too, grew up with very little TV and no video games. My toddlers have never watched TV and already spend hours a day looking at books and being read to. They look people in the eye more than most teenagers I see. But, you can bet I have had to defend my choice against the “What’s wrong with Sesame Street?” folks. I think it was in Kim John Payne’s work where I read of a study which found children who did not use computers until they were 12-14 years of age learned in only one month what other children had been learning since preschool. So much for this kind of “early intervention!” So much time wasted in front of a screen rather than just being a child and, apparently, for no real gain. Thanks for another great post, Ben. Your book on parenting/homeschooling is writing itself, right?:)

  11. I’m curious whether the article garnered any criticism or were people in support of this initiative? Just wondering how “weird” the rest of us all are!

  12. There are some countries around the world who do a much better job of education than we do. Finland in particular. France also. Probably the Scandinavian countries also but I don’t really know that for certain. We might learn from others.

    1. And it is interesting that Finland spends less per student than we do. Whatever the source of education, it is most important that we develop a lifelong love of learning. When I received my public school release paperwork I did not have a love of learning. That came much later. Wasted years.

  13. I just think there’s a black and white mentality that typically reigns in these comments, i.e., all home schooling is good and all non-home schooling is bad.

    1. Oh, Ben and his readers probably do tend to glorify one side over the other. I think it’s pretty clear that there are some lousy parents out there. There are also some lousy teachers. There are also some great parents who simply can’t or won’t home school for one reason or other. Let me tell you, the personal and social pressures against home schooling are large and numerous. My own mother is a retired school teacher and has a hard time with our methods (and we’re radically different from Ben). With that in mind, let us high-five a bit that Ben’s kids learned to read and thumb our noses at “experts” and their schedules. It’s less of an attack and more of much needed peer support.

  14. Gary Paulson is one of Isaac’s favorites as well.
    When I was the librarian in Westfield I was asked to be on the evermont committee to help build technology in Westfield and Jay. I thought great – it would be helpful for the artisans and small business owners to have more access to innovative ways to increase business and i was excited about how the library might benefit but as soon as I found the largest part of the grant was to give all of the 4 – 6th grade students their own laptop, I stepped down. (Many of these children don’t even have access to healthy food!) Technology is not required for the younger years – highschool I am all for keeping them up with technology.

  15. When my daughter was little we had TV in the house but she didn’t watch it much. Neither one of us thought Sesame Street was interesting. We did enjoy Little House on the Prairie though.

    When she was around 8 or 9 I think is when video arcades first came to our neighborhood and we enjoyed playing Ms. Pacman and Frogger and Centipede and DonkeyKong for 25 cents a game. But after less than a year she outgrew those games and hasn’t been interested in any video games since then.

    My point here is that television and video games, movies, and computers are neutral things. It’s the use one makes of them that matters.

  16. Horrifying. That a principal would consider that there are worse ways to be spending your time. I guess if actual cats and dogs were being injured, that would be worse.

    My daughter is 14 and still loves being read to. We do it almost every night and her choice of what she would like read is a good indication of where she is mentally. Right now we are re-reading Mary Poppins (she is sick and a little worn down from school). It is a comfort to us both.

  17. Hey Ben,

    Yep, that’s about right. Not at all far from the mainsteam education these days. And my kids get mad at me that they can’t own an ipad or iphone, or any of the other multitude of electronic brain numb-ers owned by a very large portion of their friends. The topper of it for me was when I chaperoned my then 6 year old’s first grade field trip to the marine science center, and several of his classmates whipped out iphones for their lunch break. WHA? 6 year olds? I almost fell of my rock into that Atlantic Ocean…it’s a whole different world then we knew as kids. And we are under tremendous pressure from our kids to “keep up with the Joneses”, it’s a struggle round these parts. Too bad for them that we’re the parents here, huh?

    That being said, my boys both also read voraciously, especially my oldest who basically taught himself to read starting at two. We read to them before they were born. When he was two he started to point to words and ask me what they were, and over a short time figured out what they were once he learned the sounds of the letters. No pressure at all from us, we just answered his questions. Some kids go the other end of the scale from what seems most common with reading and its important to do for them when they are curious about it, whatever age that may happen.

    This was a great topic, I also enjoyed reading all the comments. ~Vonnie

  18. I’ve become somewhat of a curmudgeon in my blaming electronic entertainment and devices for many ills of the current crop of boys. My boys have never been allowed more than a fleeting glance at electronic entertainment, though two of the grown-up ones now make their livings using the computer in web design. My 7 yo is having nothing to do with them for the foreseeable future. I want him to ride his bike and read books and play with the dogs and help with the dishes with no addictive tug to open up that ipad or turn on that game to see what level he could reach today. So there.

  19. Wow! As a mom who is nearly done with kids in school, I’ve seen alot of changes in the 19 years since my eldest started kindergarten. My youngest just started her junior year of high school, and last year her school got a grant to supply ipads to all the students. I was highly skeptical of their benefit. . . and through the year I noticed how much easier access she had to everything online (good and bad, and rarely prioritized). I also noticed that the school, mid-way through the year, started having parent information meetings on subjects like “how to help your student sort through information when doing an internet search” and “how parents can block websites and/or limit time playing games on the ipad when students are supposed to be doing homework”. Mmm hmm. Also, after reading your link to the entire article about the middle school with ipads, I am rather offended by the remark about parents who spend their days in the woods cutting trees. My husband is an engineer, has been for 20 years now. He develops future models of automobiles, and works on some incredibly high-tech stuff. And at the end of a 50 or 60 hour work week full of technology, he likes nothing more than to head out to our woods and cut some trees!

  20. We homeschooled our son from the beginning. He learned to read at 5. His favorite books to carry with him were volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a rule he could only bring what HE could carry. Those books are heavy! He became a voracious reader.

    His favorite bedtime book was a 5th grade history book I found at a tag sale. We read that to him for most of a couple years I think when he was under 8. He spent a lot of time making costumes to be Davy Crockett (his favorite), Paul Revere, Lindbergh (we had a 6′ airplane in the living room for a while), a Roman soldier, and an American Indian.

    I can’t remember when I learned to read, seems like I’ve always known. I went to a preschool (back in the early 60’s) before starting school, so maybe I learned then. I don’t remember my parents reading to us. But our TV time was limited to 1 hr a day, and all 6 kids had to agree on what to watch.

    Our family has not had TV for over 30 years. But we did have a monitor and dozens of educational videos. All screen time was limited to 2 hrs a day, or less. We had computers after our son was 8 years old.

    I grew up on a short street with a library at the end. It was open on Weds and Sat. I was allowed 7 books on each day. Far too few for my liking. There were not lots of books in our house but we did have magazines and National Geographic. I am still a voracious reader. Fortunately our library doesn’t limit how many you can take out. :))

    We probably have thousands of books in the house, of every type of genre, just in case I finish my library pile. Both my husband and I have re-read many of them several times.

    The thing I like most about books at this time is they don’t require power to read. They don’t break if you drop them (well, not as easily). And they don’t have distracting icons and noises.

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