{My Four Sons} How One Dedicated Father Made Reading Fundamental For His Son


For the most part, he’s everything I’m not.

Well, not everything. I just wish I was born with his intensity and fire. But hey, were both devilishly charming. I’d say we share the same quick wit, infectious sense of humor, and enormous amount of modesty. My middle son, Solo, is a bona fide star already, at the ripe old age of six. He should have his own channel or website or something. Amongst his many nicknames, I call him Solo Dot Com when he does or says something vintage Solomon.

He has that it factor. That intangible, little Black boy from the block, neighborhood superstar, jena se qua that you just can’t pick up at your corner bodega. He’s always fly. His haircut is always crisp. He keeps a fresh pair of Chuck Taylor’s on his feet. Funks out his school uniform with a leather jacket and pops the collar on his white shirt like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. He has a lightening quick temper that can be mistaken as an attitude by others, but I just see it as unbridled passion a competitive, confident switch that’s always on. He’s an awesome athlete (he wants to be an All-pro cornerback for the New Orleans Saints and a sports agent when he grows up). Basically, he’s Eddie Haskell if Eddie Haskell was a cool, handsome little Black boy; the kind that parents want their sons to bring home as a friend, and their daughters to introduce as their future husband. That’s my man, Solo.

As cocky as Solomon is, there is one area that breaks his confidence down like Kyle West (pick up a copy of Al B. Sure’s  In Effect Mode for that reference). We work on it every single day. I’m on him tough with it, too. His cool melts away slowly and it’s tough to watch sometimes, like a snowman being attacked by a cruel, warm breeze. His face crinkles and twists. Every now and then, but not as much as he used to, he breaks down and cries out of frustration when it’s time to read.

Occasionally he flips that Solo switch all the way down and refuses to even read along with me. He’ll act as if his brain has been picked clean of everything he’s ever learned about phonics and vowels. I have to catch him at the right moment and the right time of day in order for him to cooperate. And more than anything (and this took me some time) I can’t, under any circumstances, allow myself to get frustrated.

See, my eldest son, Ezra, spoiled me. He’s been reading since he was three and a half. To be fair, the eldest child statistically does better than the rest of the tribe because they’ve had more one-on-one instruction, but still I expected Solomon’s mind to operate similarly to Ezra’s. These dudes are so polar opposites in every way it’s ridiculous. But you know, that’s been the coolest challenge of being a parent; figuring out the best way to craft three different plans of discipline, teaching, motivation, rewarding, and expectation building.

Solo’s deal isn’t a lack of ability or a learning disorder. It’s a lack of interest. He’d rather be tackling the stuffing (literally the stuffing add roughneck to his list of glowing attributes) out of his brothers, riding his bike, listening to music, dancing with his fine momma, or pulling pranks on some unsuspecting sap. My deal was figuring out the best way to get this cat to not only learn to love reading, but the best way to get him to process and retain everything I’m teaching him. Where Ezra has a great memory and uses simple repetition to lock in information, I have to be patient, creative and calm with Solomon.

For instance, flash cards were my first tools of instruction when the boys turned two. With Ezra, I could show him a sequence of twenty cards, maybe three or four times, and he’d absorb everything printed on the cards, front and back. With Solomon—no haps. What I figured out was that order and a straight-lined presentation of information would bore him to death; repetition only created disinterest. So I said cool, what I’ll do is lay out all twenty cards and ask him to recognize the letters, shapes or numbers. It worked. So from that day forward every technique I tried with Ezra, I did the exact opposite with Solomon. I also learned that in order for the session to go well, I must start off with material that builds his confidence. He responds better when he’s as sure of himself intellectually as he is when he’s intercepting a quarterback’s pass or beating one of his little buddies in a foot race.

It’s still a struggle, for the both of us, but he’s improved a lot. The key is to sit down and read with the brotha every single day for at least twenty-five minutes.  And every time I sit down with Solo I think about the thousands of little Black boys across the country that don’t have anyone that will take time to figure out how they tick. There are thousands of brilliant, talented, energetic Black boys that would no doubt be straight A scholars, and could easily have their names on the principal’s honor roll on the regular if they were not buried in the wasteland of special education classes.

Educator and author Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu has made a lifelong commitment to reverse this morbidly disturbing occurrence in American education; Black boys make up almost eighty percent of students placed in special education classes nationwide. I taught special education classes as a substitute when I lived in New Orleans for three years, and it always blew me away to discover how normal the kids placed in the classes were. Not normal in a regular sense but normal meaning other than the occasional behavioral issues, they were really no different than the rest of the student population. Most importantly, I wondered how those children could be properly educated by anyone that didn’t have a vested interest in their lives, community, families, and their futures. I could relate to most of my students, specifically the Black boys, because my family make-up mirrored most of theirs. I taught at one school in Metairie, LA for an entire month, and the following month my wife gave birth to our second son, Solomon Matthew Barnes. He’s our Louisiana baby.

In hindsight, I wonder how I would have related to him if he would have been one of my students. Would my baby be amongst the sea of unfortunate Black boys in this country that have been discounted and disregarded as dysfunctional if I were not in the picture? Would he be just another mis-educated, misguided Black boy that no one took the time to sculpt and craft an educational plan of action for? Would he become just another case of unrealized potential, primed for a grim future filled with criminal behavior, violence, and drugs, stamped as property of the state instead of a son of unlimited promise?

God willing, I’ll be around to see all three of my sons become men; fathers, husbands, college graduates, difference makers. We’ll never know the answers to any of those questions. My hope and plea is, that every Black man, whether he be a busy father of three or not, makes himself available wherever he might live, and become a tangible, living, breathing example of what a young brotha can become. Black boys are in dire need of mentors, tutors, big brothers, father-figures, and teachers.

Solomon now totes a book in his knapsack everywhere he goes just like his big brother and ol’ man. In fact, as his confidence grows, he is increasingly enjoying reading to himself. Although we arrived here gradually, there was one gigantic bridge we crossed a couple of months ago. It was a monumental scene between Solo and I that neither one of us will never forget.

He promised that he would read a series of three books by week’s end, and I held him to it. Every day after homework we would sit down and read two to three chapters. By Wednesday it was like pulling wisdom teeth, plugging those joints back in, and then pulling them again. He would make that face of frustration, which would eventually lead to tears, but I wouldn’t give up on him. We’d finish each and every evening. By Friday, he was spent, but we only had three chapters to finish. By the time we began the last chapter, he was almost in full shutdown mode; eyes red, voice trembling, and the waterworks were on full blast. After being prodded to push through the last sentence, he gave me the ceremonial conclusion, The End before whimpering like he had just battled through a twelve-round boxing match. I closed the book and sat there at the dining room table, exhausted, as he sulked out of the room, very un-Solo-like. He snatched a handful of Kleenex to clear his pitiful little face of what remained after a week full of treacherous reading.

After about two minutes, he returned to the table, wrapped his arms around me, and we embraced like two victorious combatants.  He composed himself, looked me dead in my eyes with that Solo confidence that lights my soul, and told me, Thank you, daddy, for helping me with the books. Right then and there I thanked the most high for two things: for patience and for giving me an assignment that sometimes I don’t feel like I deserve. I could not be more grateful for this moment in time.

On Solo’s recent report card, he received all As and only one B. The B was in Art. I asked him if the work he created wasn’t what the teacher asked for. He responded with another quote straight from Solo Dot Com, Maybe it’s not what she wants, but I like it. She probably doesn’t understand my style. On so many different levels, I could not have agreed with him more.

What can I say? I’m on his jock. Big fan.


{The BBD hip-hop joint of the month: Little Brother by Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), from the soundtrack of the 1999 feature film, The Hurricane}

Derrick D’wayne Barnes is the author of eight children and young adult books, including the saucy MyBrownBaby favorite, the Ruby & The Booker Boys series. He’s given his insights about fatherhood on GreatDad.com, and is an incredible role model for brown babies everywhere. He lives in Kansas City, MO, with his wife and their three sons. Read more about him on DerrickBarnes.com.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Sounds just like my little guy. It’s a sports hound and a gamer. I’ve learned to turn just about anything into a game. It works like a charm and he’s learning all the way.

  2. As a mother of a little Brown boy, this post touched me on so many levels. So many of my fears and worries summed up in this post.

    This: The key is to sit down and read with the brotha every single day for at least twenty-five minutes. And every time I sit down with Solo I think about the thousands of little Black boys across the country that dont have anyone that will take time to figure out how they tick.

    And this: Would he be just another mis-educated, misguided Black boy that no one took the time to sculpt and craft an educational plan of action for?

    And this: Black boys are in dire need of mentors, tutors, big brothers, father-figures, and teachers.

    Actually, I’m just gonna copy and paste the whole darn thing. Well said, man!

  3. Love this post!!! I am excited to read other parents excited about their children!!! LOVE THIS POST!

  4. I love it…this article has givien me inspiration on what’s to come for my little boy who is only 2months old. He loves when I read to him because i do character faces and sounds he seems very aware of the distinction of what a real voice and mommy’s imaginary voice in the book is supposed to be like. But it seems like already I try harder with him than when I did with my daughter. I don’t know why that is they are both fast learners but I feel like I’m already afraid of the what if’s when it comes to my baby boy.

  5. Wow!! Thanks for this! I am definately going to share! It is amazing to me that two little people from the same parents are so polar opposite. My kids are like night and day and one of the challenges of parenthood is finding what works for each of them. You and Solo are to be commended for your tenacity!

    Thanks for sharing this story–

  6. Solo in some respects sounds very much like my 8 yr old son. He has a certain it factor which adults including some men seem to cater to. Its like this his world and we just live in it. I can’t get him concentrate on anything else unless it’s connected to gaming or the computer. We recently had a conversation where I was trying to explain for the ump teenth time how important studying, writing neatly and reading are. He word to me were “Mom I don’t care about those things so much cause I don’t know why but I really feel like videos are my destiny”. I have to say all I could do was walk away after that. I was stumped. But thanks to your article Ill keep plugging away. Thank you.

  7. Derrick–

    I loved reading this post and almost anything else you write. (I am a huge fan of your Ruby and The Booker Boys series) I was especially touched by your description of your struggle to be patient with your son. I think we all need to remember that with our children. My heart aches for boys with no one to read to them and with them, and we all need to do more to make sure our children are getting what they need when they go to school to learn.

    Thank you for this article and God Bless Solomon.

    Melinda Emerson
    JoJo’s mom

  8. This is powerful, brother! Thanks for sharing. Your first two sound a lot like my boys that have grown up to make me proud every day. There is no role more important than being a father and no work more rewarding.

    Peace & blessings. Keep fighting the good fight!

  9. Wonderful article! I’ll admit I was concerned about our son (2), because unlike his older sister (3), he had no use for a book at first. I know he’s still young, but I knew if we couldn’t find a way to get him interested in reading, it could prove a problem later on when he was school-aged for all the reasons you mentioned.

    But because he was so young, I didn’t force him to sit still whenever his sister and I read books. We just always made sure that we kept books around in their room and that they were read to every day. I’m so happy that now at the ripe old age of 27 mths, he actually enjoys reading time and even has a few faves. What was the change? I firmly believe that the reason my son enjoys reading now, is because his fave person in the world, who happens to be his daddy, is the one who reads to him and his big sis at night before they go to bed EVERY night. It took a black man to show my lil black-man-in-training, that reading was worth sitting still for!

  10. Nice! *Hand claps* Lovely post, definitely on the same track of learning to love reading with my boys. Reading is so vital and crucial in reducing the educational gap between black children and others.

  11. I’m so glad that you were patient with Solomon. I would be prettty frustrated if I had to go through that with my daughter. Lucky for me she inherited my love of reading.

  12. I am in tears after reading this post. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

  13. I love this. We must do more for our people.

  14. Jacqueline Uk

    I could cry with joy reading this post, as a mother of 6yr old and 4yr old boys, who are like chalk and cheese, my goal has been to ensure they enjoy and learn to read. I smile when solo turned his back as my little one did, as I work and the hours in the day fade, my only option was to look at words and letters on the way to school and nursery, but I smile now my 6yr old is flourishing with reading, one to one support from me, he tries reading everything he sees even the teachers work, oops, the younger on is rapping out his abc’s and points to letters on the street, both methods have worked for me but I sure see the benefits of that 5 min read. Bless this post is such an inspiration and will encourage me to ensure we all continue to read as family

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