Children, books and dads

This morning, a friend challenged a Harvard research study finding — that I cited in this March blog post — that “father’s expectations and background apparently had no effect on [children’s] reading [habits].” This just doesn’t match my friend’s intuition or experience. He believes he’s having a strong positive impact on his daughter, who is a very active, enthusiastic reader.

Though I was inclined to believe the study’s findings because my mom encouraged my love of reading more than my dad, I too believe I will positively impact my children’s reading habits. In fact, I wrote my friend, “I clearly don’t believe the finding because I go out of my way to buy books for my nephews. If dads can’t influence their kids' reading, how can uncles?”

So, are we flattering ourselves that we matter, or is the Harvard study wrong?

I began with some hunches about why the study’s findings:

I suspect it partly reflects the cultural norms of the era the study was conducted. The book that cited the study was first published in 1993, so the study itself probably occurred twenty years ago. Back then, men spent less time with their children and more time at the office. So, much of the reading they did probably occurred out of view of their children. And fewer mothers worked back then, so their sheer time with children was greater.

I suspect it also partly reflects the fact that many men — esp. dads busy with jobs and parenting — just don’t read much. Let’s assume that a dad who reads a lot greatly increases his children’s reading. If there were few such dads in the study, then the overall impact of dads' reading habits on children’s reading habits would be small because the study measured the aggregate — rather than marginal — impact of fathers' reading habits.

I also suspect mothers are more likely to read children’s books with their children whereas fathers are more likely to read their own books on their own.

I then hit Google and found that facts support my hunches and that more recent research has found that dads who involve themselves in their children’s reading do exert a major positive impact:

  1. “In most cases, it is the mother who takes the lead in reading to her children – with 73 per cent of youngsters saying she was the main reader in the family compared with just 16 per cent who said their fathers took the lead role.” (Source: The Independent)

  2. “38% of male members of [The Swedish Trade Union Confederation] LO admit to not having read one single book during the past year.” (Source:

  3. “In a recent study conducted by the United States Department of Education, researchers discovered from surveys of over 20,000 parents that when fathers took an active role in their children’s education (e.g., attended school meetings, volunteered at school, helped children with homework), children were more likely to receive A’s, participate in extracurricular activities, and enjoy school, and less likely to repeat a grade (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).” (Source: Journal of Extension)

  4. “Several reliable studies have shown high levels of interest by a father in his child’s schooling and education, his high expectations for their achievement and his greater direct involvement in their learning, education and schools to be associated with their better educational outcomes. These include: better exam / test / class results; higher levels of educational qualification; greater progress at school; better attitudes towards school (e.g. enjoyment); higher educational expectations; and better behaviour at school (e.g. reduced risk of suspension or expulsion). And these outcomes do not derive from the school-involved fathers already being richer or better educated. Whatever the father’s socio-economic level, his high involvement paid off. One high quality study demonstrated that a father’s interest in his child’s education is one of the most important factors governing the qualifications he or she will grow up to have in adult life – more important than family background, the child’s individual personality, or poverty. It may well be that the time fathers actually spend with their children on homework and schooling could be more important for their eventual success than the money they bring into the household (for review see Goldman, 2005).” (Source:; this site has lots more info)

  5. “Parents who read books for fun daily are six times more likely than low-frequency reading parents to have kids who also read for fun daily.” (Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Clearly, dads can make a huge, positive impact on their children’s reading (and, indirectly, life outcomes), so it’s a shame so many dads apparently don’t bother.

Don’t let Caroline Snow’s decades-old negative finding discourage you from helping and encouraging your kids to read.

Posted by James on Wednesday, August 04, 2010