Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reading - It Can Help Your Teen Build a Fine Mind

I have a friend whose dad had a personal library of several thousand books. When my friend was about ten years old, his dad enrolled him in a speed-reading course. Soon afterward, he began reading the classics of world literature.

One great book at a time, he became a passionate reader. As a consequence, he began to ponder the meaning of life. The more he read, the more thoughtful and independent his mind became. At age 15 he left home to pursue a life as a painter. And he continued to read, roughly a book every day for the rest of his life.

At age 70, he is now a world-famous artist. And his personal library contains over 18,000 volumes, almost exclusively nonfiction. And he has one of the most interesting minds I've ever encountered.

Of course, his mind isn't the product of a formal education. He didn't graduate from high school, and he didn't attend an esteemed university. He is a self-made man who reads every day and continues to pursue his passion with intensity. The last time I visited him I saw a copy of William H. Gass's latest collection of literary criticism, Life Sentences, lying on his coffee table, bookmarked at chapter four.

If you are raising children and want the best for them, a college education is not the ultimate answer. Don't get me wrong. A college education can have major benefits. It can expose kids to ideas, give them learning skills and punch their ticket for that first job out of college. But you need to know that very few professors consciously try to teach kids how to think. As they see it, that's not what they're getting paid the big bucks for. Their job is to pass along the latest information, to give them the answers.

The problem is, even the best knowledge, information and answers can't guarantee success. In the world of action, it comes down to what you do with what you've learned - action - exercising good judgment and decision-making.

If your child ever does acquire good judgment, it will have to be because you stimulated your child's mind in youth. Or maybe they got lucky and other adults, such as teachers, coaches, counselors, relatives, or other adults who cared about your child encouraged her to think for herself.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who had a fine mind. He knew things I didn't know. He understood things I didn't understand. He had learned to do things I could not do. I admired him and wanted to be like him. I discovered that he read a lot. So I began to read the books he recommended. It was quite an awakening. And it happened at the right time, while my brain's prefrontal cortex, which handles comprehension, analysis, judgment, decision making, planning and organization, was in the sensitive period of development that begins and ends during adolescence.

I was lucky to have a few influences like that. I didn't start reading voraciously until I was 16, but after that I read obsessively.

I earned my Ph.D. from Duke University in 1977, but I like to tell young people that as glorious as that experience was, 99% of what I know today I've learned since then - on my own, from reading.

Reading benefits a young person two important ways. First, it helps build his vocabulary. Having words for things is essential to creating and organizing concepts in the mind. No language, no knowledge.

Second, the content of books can reveal insights which make the child reflect on important issues, to help the child use his or her mind to connect the dots - while programming the prefrontal cortex for critical thinking.

Language. High-level thinking. These are the two mental abilities that separate us from all other species on Earth. And you can get these life-changing powers from reading the best books.

Encourage your kid to read.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .


Anonymous said...

Which books would you recommend for a 9 year old boy?

Denny Coates said...

The important thing is to feed the desire to read, keep it alive. If your son is interested in a certain sport, maybe novels based on that sport, or nonfiction for kids. A lot of kids loved the Harry Potter books. When he reaches puberty, encourage easier-to-read classics, such as Twain's Tom Sawyer and Dickens' Christmas Carol. Then maybe Lord of the Rings books. This will help build vocabulary, which is HUGE.

Kent Julian said...

One of the best posts I've read in weeks, Denny. I think this paragraph says it all:

"I earned my Ph.D. from Duke University in 1977, but I like to tell young people that as glorious as that experience was, 99% of what I know today I've learned since then - on my own, from reading."

I had significant learning challenges growing up and when I graduated high school my SAT scores were so low I couldn't get into college without taking "Developmental Studies." The areas I struggled with: English, Reading, and Writing.

Around the same time, I read the book "Seeds of Greatness" by Denis Waitley. It took me a couple of months to read because I was such a slow reader at the time. But that booked changed everything for me!

The key to the change? To use your words, I started to "read obsessively." This habit has made a huge difference in my life!