Take ‘Em to BOOK Camp!

The other night, Husband and I popped in to to our local pizza and salad spot for dinner. You know, the one with those gourmet, individually-sized, overpriced servings? As we approached the front station to be seated by an enthusiastic teen who appeared to be no older than 12, we passed a large crowded booth where two adorable toddlers,estimated age: 3, were silently engrossed in individual iPhone games. Two toddlers. Two virtual games. Two obscenely expensive tech gadgets.

Several adults surrounding them were engaged in cheerful conversation, undoubtedly pleased to be having a relaxed dinner out while their kids were entertained on cyberdrugs. I don’t blame them one bit.

Our early family years (pre-iphone, pre-gameboy) hold memories of rare restaurant meals spent rushing through our order before the inevitable meltdown began. If the timing was off we’d be stuck having the food boxed up to be eaten at home.

Fast forward a few years past those early days.

One summer we were on vacation with our kids at an island getaway we’d been to before. We stopped at a favorite lunch spot, and were seated near another family of five whose kids looked to be about the same age as ours. Our three were pretty restaurant-civilized by that time, and could make it through most any meal without getting crazy rowdy. But we noticed something remarkable about this other family.

Between bursts of conversation, all three kiddos picked up books they carried with them. For pleasure. Without coercion. A few pages in, one of them would look up and make a comment about something he’d read, or the amazing blue of the ocean or whatever, and a discussion would ensue. Then they all went back to their books. It was a sight to behold. Husband and I were green with envy.

Stay with me here, I’m going somewhere with this.

An article in Newsweek Magazine titled Texting Makes U Stupid, by Niall Ferguson caught my attention recently. In it, he bemoans the reading habits (more accurately, the absence of habits) of today’s teens. And I quote …

Half of today’s teenagers don’t read books—except when they’re made to. According to the most recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7 percent, the lowest for any adult age group younger than 75, and down from 59 percent 20 years ago. 

Ferguson’s conclusion, and I share it, is that kids who don’t read books are cut off from their history, and from the history of the rest of the world. Electronic media can’t connect you to the past the way the written word does, and, as we know, past is prologue.

Sure, you can read about history and past civilizations on Wikipedia and zillions of other internet resources (including this one!) designed to feed information, but you miss the depth and flavor of the time those words were written that only a book can give.

Texting does, indeed, make u stupid.

But wait! All is not lost! Ferguson offers an idea for remediation that I love. It goes something like this:

The next time you plan a family trip, tell your kids you’re taking them on an expensive vacation. Now you’ve got them hooked. Get in the car and drive to a remote location with dismal connectivity. You’d be surprised how easy it is to find small towns that fit the bill. I live in a major city in southern California, but I can get out of cell and wireless range in under an hour.

Settle in to your cozy vacation home with dozens of actual books you’ve hidden in the trunk of the car. The real kind, made with paper and binding and glue. You’re at BOOK CAMP! Activities on this adventure include … reading, reading, and more reading. Maybe punctuated with a few hikes in the woods or occasional swims in a nearby lake. No electronics of any kind.

Spend a week or two and I guarantee your kids will emerge with a new appreciation of the places a great book can take them. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll keep it up afterwards. Maybe they’ll be sparked to start a book club at their school or with their friends. You never know.

Thanks for the revolutionary idea, Mr. Ferguson. The parents of those toddlers I ran into last night may appreciate your wisdom in a few years.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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