- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

School librarians from coast to coast recently observed Read Across America Day, a celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday sponsored by the National Education Association and designed to get children excited about reading. For the rest of March, teachers will promote reading with adventure themes, author visits and even reading contests in which students will earn pizza and candy for diving into the pages of good books.

It’s not as easy to get a child to read as it is to get him to eat pizza — especially with Harry Potter movies out on DVD. I know. I have a son.

At the risk of making an unfair, sweeping and sexist generalization, let me just say it’s not easy getting a boy to read a book. In my household, the girls are avid readers who need prompting only to put down their books and turn off the lights in order to get enough sleep on a school night.

On the other hand, putting a book in my son’s hands at night is a surefire method to get him to nod off, drool running down his otherwise peaceful face, while his eyeballs move furiously under their lids. No doubt his REM dreams play out at video-game speeds.

Early in our parenting, my husband and I decided reading was a major priority. “Readers are leaders,” we agreed. Over the years, we invested in good children’s literature — hundreds of books — creating a home library to be used by all four children. Every evening, just as the experts suggested, we read to them until they were old enough to read to us.

Then, I took a ride down the slippery slope of parental permissiveness. Responding to my son’s cries of boredom when carted to his sister’s dance classes, I caved on my commitment to avoid electronic pacifiers. I purchased a Game Boy.

It was just for travel, I reasoned — a special toy to be used only on long car rides or other times when it seemed unfair that he was forced to tag along on an activity for his siblings. It wouldn’t take the place of books, of course; it would be an occasional diversion to pass the time.

That just goes to prove that the best laid parenting plans often end in the electronics aisle. The Game Boy led to a PlayStation system, which led to a discount membership at the game store. I don’t need to ask where I went wrong. I already know.

It’s not that we don’t frequent the library — it’s that our trips to the library always include an argument with my son about whether he will spend his time there looking at books or playing a game on the library’s computers. It doesn’t matter that the games are educational — they’re not books. The electronic monster lurks at every turn.

I have tried a host of tactics to get my son interested in reading. Two Christmases ago, he received the entire “Pendragon” series by DJ MacHale — adventures about a boy that seemed to fit his age and interests. He’s nearly finished — not with the series, just the second book. At this rate, he’ll be reading “Pendragon” for a college thesis.

Limiting his time for electronics is an obvious solution. A few months ago, out of frustration at seeing the Game Boy attached to his hands like an appendage, I took it from him and hid it in my closet. Or is it in the dresser? Only time will tell.

Every so often, I initiate a “time trade” system, in which pages of a book buy electronic playtime. This system is flawed because it requires me to monitor time accumulated and time remaining. (I balk at parenting schemes that create more work for parents than they do for children.)

The other problem with this system is that I’m not sure he’s actually absorbing what’s in the book. The entire time he’s reading, he updates me simply on the number of pages he has completed. “Mom, I’ve read four pages,” I’ll hear from the next room.

“That’s great, honey,” I reply. “What’s happening in the story?”

“I’m not sure, but I just read another page,” he says.

Encouraging my son to read is an example of an age-old quandary. You could call it, “You can lead a boy to wisdom, but you can’t make him read ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ ” It raises the question: Why would a boy want to play a video game when he could be transported into a book instead?

I can’t imagine how happy I would be if someone forced me to sit down to read. Then again, this comes from a woman whose literary life is limited lately to the page or two I can complete at the end of the day before my eyelids slam shut like the doors of a bank vault. Rather than devour a current best seller, I’m more likely to be working on a chapter of “Ramona the Pest” (one of my favorite Beverly Cleary classics) or some other book I’m reciting to my 7-year-old.

So this year, March is reading month for both my son and me. Not only will he earn pizza at school, but he and I also are going to discover what it’s like to be awake with books in hand. I’m going to lead by example — read by example — and maybe this year, he’ll realize that the people who make those video games get all their ideas from the pages of books.

Of course, because most of March is also Lent, it helps that he has given up electronic games until Easter.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com), or send e-mail to [email protected]

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