Reading, as a past-time activity, is still regarded as something girls do, and as something bothersome that has to be done for school (i.e. the marvellous and intriguing book reports). Looking back at my schooldays, I have to say this is quite accurate. During the primary school days reading was fun; it became a bit more serious by the time we had to give presentations on the book we had read, but it was still enjoyable. It changed with my A-level years, where reading books was mainly a school related activity. The choices were limited, the assignments predictable, and, basically, just enjoying a book was not much of an option.
Reading as Gender Related
At home reading was second nature, there were books and magazines everywhere, there still are; reading bedtime stories was an activity rarely skipped; my brother and I were both members of the library; and books were always on the holiday list, birthday list and probably on the Sinterklaas list, too.
I still remember how parents read stories to their children at the beginning of the day at preschool. Since I was around 5 years old, I don’t recall whether it were the mums or the dads doing the reading. Last week, however, I came across an article (at work of all places) that makes me believe it must have been mainly mothers doing the reading. Fathers were invited to read to children during the Dutch National Volunteer days (20 and 21 of March). Apparently, reading to children is often done by the mums and not by the dads and that has to change. To get the dads more involved, the Leescoalitie (the reading coalition) started the campaign Vaders voor lezen or ‘Dad’s for reading’. (In Dutch there’s a pun in the slogan: read as too separate words, voor lezen means ‘pro reading’, however, written as one word voorlezen means ‘reading to’.)
Before reading the article, I had never given it much thought that reading is often considered to be a feminine activity. Neither did it occur to me that dads aren’t involved in reading to their children. My dad was the one reading bedtime stories. And no-one else. My mum can tell great stories, but reading bedtime stories was dad’s job.
It was not just reading, on the cover of van der Hulst’s Ik zie, ik zie wat jij niet ziet (I spy with my little eye) was a picture of a town during the summer, and if you turned the book the title is Kijk het heeft gesneeuwd, where the cover shows the same town except it is now winter.
Each story could be traced back on the cover. So besides listening, I was busy tracing the cover to find the story.
The second book I can still remember clearly was called Kevertje Plop by Jan van Oort. It’s about a little dwarf called Kevertje Plop, who loves reading about adventures and heroes that he wants to become a hero himself. He ventures out with a little elephant called Krumpie and fights seven evil scary creatures in order to save the sultan. I remember finding the pictures really freaky as a child.
The main characters Kevertje and Krumpie have a catch phrase that my dad usually started and I finished. Misschien wel en misschien ook wel niet, which means: much as maybe and maybe not. He stopped reading to me after I got the hang of it. I was probably too impatient to wait by then, but I still listened whenever he would read to my brother.
Curious about this role assignment towards reading, I found several websites and studies on reading habits. “Let’s Read Them a Story! The Parent Factor in Education” by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) being one of them. PISA is an international organisation which evaluates educational systems by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds.) The study focuses on the involvement of parents in the reading development of their children. It shows that reading to children from a young age stimulates the language development and increases the joy of reading. It also shows how parents are involved; fathers are less involved than mothers.
The Dutch study ‘Van Woordjes naar wereldliteratuur‘ by Frank Huysman (2013) states that the joy of reading tends to shift from being fun during the primary school years to functional during the secondary years. Like the PISA study, Huysman’s shows that the involvement of parents is important in the development. The participation of the parents stimulates reading as a hobby more than schools, bookstores, libraries and reading campaigns can achieve.
Lead by Example
When parents read for themselves, it sets a positive example and it will benefit the reading habits of their children. Talking about books that their children have read, and offering advise on what books to read also has a positive effect on children’s reading habits. Looking back at the books I have read as a child, I remember reading The Famous Five because my mum had read those too. And I read The Lord of the Rings because my dad had read them.
Besides changing the attitude from tedious to enjoyable, reading and reading to children has a positive effect on the vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension of texts. This can all be stimulated when children have easy access to books, so libraries are good, and filled bookcases at home are even better. Most of the books I read for my Dutch literature list belonged to my parents.
In both studies, it becomes clear that fathers don’t read that much. This might explain why reading is seen as something feminine and why boys might be less interested in reading. Why dads read less and are less involved in reading is, unfortunately, not examined.
Whatever the reason, I hope more reading will shed this image of being something only girls do.
So, dads: It’s time to get busy.