Emmett Rensin and David Shor in the Baffler (Indeed/Photo by Nico Paix):
The State of California believes the following things to be true: first, that reading to children will make them smarter. Second, that parents ordinarily disinclined for reasons of time or temperament from this activity may be won over by means of thirty-second radio spots. These are strange beliefs, but they are not uncommon.
Too Small to Fail, a nonprofit nominally led by Hillary Clinton, believes the same. Among the organization’s many laudable efforts to improve early childhood health and education is a less laudable (but no less costly) attempt to use advertisements to convince poor parents to read to their children. This, the group claims, will bolster kids’ intelligence, and thereby their tests scores, and thereby their futures. Chicago has a similar program. Their slogan: “Take time to be a dad.”
These efforts will fail. Not because PSAs and chipper radio spots won’t conjure quality reading time in the schedules of parents rushing from a 5 p.m. quitting time to the start of a 6 p.m. second shift (although they won’t, of course), but because reading to children, even young children, will not necessarily make them smarter.
It isn’t that reading to children doesn’t have its benefits. Improved socialization and greater empathy skills are among the upsides of childhood reading. If you are a parent with the luxury of time, reading to your kids will help produce better people. It just won’t produce smarter ones.
Chicago and Clinton and California didn’t invent these misconceptions. There is a wealth of data purportedly showing that reading to young children will increase their intelligence and test scores. The trouble is these studies do not actually demonstrate a link between the act of reading and an increase in childhood intelligence; rather, they demonstrate a link between the kinds of children whose parents read to them and the kinds of children (largely the same children) who wind up doing well on tests.
There’s another correlation that goes unmentioned: the parents who read to their children tend to be wealthier and smarter than the parents who don’t (PDF). And so the tail wags the dog; similarly, we notice how many athletes were encouraged to play sports as children, but fail to note how tall and strong their parents are and what nice sports equipment they’ve got locked in the garage.
If we restrict ourselves instead to studies that properly adjust for parental characteristics—that is, how smart, well-educated, and test-capable they were—the impact of reading to children disappears.