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Boys and Reading, a Monday Musing

Today’s Musing Mondays post is about boys and reading…Do you know of any young boys who do not like to read? Why do you think boys so often don’t? What can we do to encourage them to read more?

In my early thirties and being single, I don’t have a company of young boys and girls. When I search my mind for childhood memories, I am not surprised that my love for books and attachment to reading were not contagious. All the boys in my class didn’t read much except for comic books. Patrons at the school library were predominately girls who probably had more enduring attention span on words. The front runners in humanity subjects like language art and literature were always, but not by surprise, girls. Boys are taught to be acting like a man, meaning they are expected to play sports, to justify their being masculine, and unfortunately reading is not the most macho activity that defines the image of masculinity, it’s next-in-line to sewing and knitting in being so passive, quiet, and “clean”—a girly pastime. After all, it’s a tug-o-war between personal choices and societal conformation. I remember rendering myself invisible in the company of other boys because I wasn’t living up to the expectation (stereotype). After all, we all have grown up feeling ashame of ourselves, right? Very quickly I have come to terms with the real me. I certainly have chosen to exercise my brain muscle and give myself away to critical thinking at early age because I’m simply not cut out for team sports.

31 Responses

  1. Thanks for an opinion from the other side! What you say is so true. Sad reflection on our culture, eh?

    Thanks for stopping by.

  2. As a children’s librarian, it bothers me when people tell me that boys just don’t read the way girls do. Perhaps if we gave boys materials to read that were more appealing to their sensibilities, they too could be seen buried in books around school and home. Boys tend to be more visual learners than girls. High impact photos, illustrations, and other graphic components really lure them in. Boys tend to favor factual material devoid of the emotional components of much of children’s fiction that attracts girls. Boys also tend to comprehend text when it is organized into smaller doses – short chapters, lots of divisions with headings and sub-headings, books where the text is an accessory to the graphic components rather than the other way around, and shorter lines of text.

    Granted, these are not the needs of all boys, but if reading in general became a more routine activity with boys then the differences in reading tastes would be less of an issue as well. I also think that you are correct in suggesting that gender roles are assigned to children from a wide variety of social agents making it more difficult to break the negative stereotypes of boys as engaged learners in some environments.

  3. Matt and Frances both raise very good points. I think you’re largely correct Matt, but I would add “novels” after reading in your post. Boys, in my experience, shy away from novels and run away from literature. Give them non-fiction with lots of illustrations like Frances describes or a rollicking adventure with lots of weaponry and they’ll be back for more. A big part of the problem is that “reading” tends to be defined as “reading literature.” The audience for “reading literature” has always been largely female. But there is a world of non-fiction out there as well, some with a large male audience.

    Matt, you make a very good point about social roles and the desire to conform to them. Too often these get conflated with biology or nature. Just because most boys prefer sports to books does not mean that all boys do or should. The two are not mutually exclusive by any means. Hemingway anyone?

    George Sands once said, “There are more differences within the sexes than there are between them.” My job is to find them all a book they’ll like.

  4. I’m glad I read this post. I don’t have anything to add especially, but I’ve got two boys who I hope grow up learning to read like I did. My parents never stopped me from reading, but we never read together as a family. We didn’t have a bedtime routine or anything in which reading was involved. When my brother wanted to play sports instead of stay in and read like I did, his decision was never questioned or challenged and it was probably encouraged, like you said, to go along with masculine stereotypes. I’m hoping that my passion for books and getting the children involved early into enjoying reading will combat some of the pressure on them as they get older. Who knows?

  5. Thanks so much for your answer! And, the comments here have been fascinating, too! 🙂

    Very interesting to get a male’s perspective on the whole topic, so thank you! 😉

  6. It was interesting to read your point of view. Gives me some things to consider if I ever have boys to go about books with them.

  7. I have always liked to read in school until one day when I realized that boys were to play baseball in PE. I was so incompetent that nobody wished to pick me for the team. Gender roles do dictate children’s habits. It’s inevitable that most boys would end up being engaged in sports and more handy type of hobbies, like building a model, playing with Legos, fighting the transformers. I do notice that boys tend to fare better with factual books like science, history, and the geeky stuffs. I remember you have mentioned that girls usually can organize their thoughts. In my AP English class, most of the students were girls.

  8. I think not enough books are aimed at boys. It’s starting to change now and I”ve been seeing more and more boys at the library. I don’t like stereotyping but boys tend to need to more around more too and reading is mostly a sit down activitiy. This may have something to do with it.

  9. I agree that until recently not enough books were aimed at boys. Another problem here is that education is overwhelmingly crafted and executed by women, and we (only naturally) bring our own sensibilities to the job. Those intentions sometimes do not account for the action packed sensibilities of many young boys.

  10. I don’t particularly have anything of interest to add, although I have enjoyed both the post and its responses. In many ways I was not a typical girl. My grandparents and mother recognized this and didn’t fight it. My grandmother and mother made sure I knew how to “keep house” but knew it was a thankless task to get me to enjoy doing it. I was always out with my grandfather hunting, running traplines, watching him do electrical work for neighbors…or I was at school playing basketball, football, or getting extra credits in biology. I also worked from a young age. I spent a lot of time on my own. I’d climb a tree to my favorite roosting spot and read, or put my book in the basket on my bike and ride out into the country to read in hideaways in the woods.

    What’s fascinating is to find each child’s “light bulb”–you know…that light bulb everyone has over his head that pops on when knowledge and inspiration have struck and the level of excitement goes off the chart? I love introducing a child to reading just so I can see that light bulb.

  11. Many of these responses are very interesting. Your post brings familiar memories. I was always encouraged to read at home. Both my parents read quite a lot, and that was a kind of modeling for me. I knew a number of boys who liked to read. There certainly was a lot of pressure on me, though, to get out and be active, to participate in sports. My parents worried about my lack of interest in sports initially, though they became much less concerned about this as I approached high school age. There was some concern about my social isolation. I was perceived as someone who held himself apart, who lived in his head, and I suppose to a certain extent that was true. Some adults and teachers worried about me. Mixing with one’s peers, and, if not participating in team sports, being enthusiastic at sports events, showing so called “school spirit” was part of the small town ethos where I grew up. Many of my friends didn’t participate in sports, however. I remember more than once, teachers using the phrase “being well rounded.” which implied that one rolled smoothly with the majority of one’s peers rather than showing any angular or strong personal tendencies; showing more interest in sports than reading was part of that. There was something of a stigma to being perceived as an intellectual or seeming “bookish.”

  12. It can be a challenge to get boys to read. I think a lot of young adult lit is aimed at girls, because girls are seen as the most likely readers. A little bit of a self-perpetuating cycle. They’re often not socialized to enjoy quiet activities, or to only like adventure books or superhero stuff. So it’s a challenge. As a librarian I try to pull out books that I think would appeal to boys but it’s still hard to sell them.

  13. Matt, I was nodding my head off while reading your answer. What you say is so true… especially on the stereotype issue.

  14. Wow…thank you for all your comments. What a deluge this topic has triggered. It’s very thought-provoking and searching question. Thanks to MizB for hosting. The issues that this question has touched upon has been a constituent part of my upbringing.

  15. Beth F:
    I was just thinking about the question of conformation, which once again comes up in the latest book that I read. What is the limit of conformation? We know it’s inescapable as long as we make the choice to live in the society. But where is the dividing line between making that personal choice and conformation? This Musing question has so nailed on the battleground in which I have grown up. It’s something that I have to confront myself everyday.

  16. Frances:
    I remembered being read to by the teacher in 2nd grade. The boys were just as engaged to the story reading as the girls were. Maybe audio books will capture boys’ attention more effectively? I also notice that boys are keen on factual books, pictorials, books with illustrations, and techy subjects. While reading taste is more personal and subjective, irrelevant of gender, the the choice between reading and football, for example, is not so much as personal because expectation of peers factor into that decision.

  17. CB James:
    Interesting and solid perspective of course from a teacher’s experience! I remembered burying my nose in pictorials on fighter planes and trains. My uncle would get me these mini encyclopedias detailing train cars from the Japan Railway! I could while away the whole weekend whittling down a pile of those books. It was until I started middle school did I cotton up to literature.

    I think it’s the social circles of boys that unconsciously make that decision to take up sports over a solitary pastime like reading. It’s about fitting in and making the team.

  18. Michelle:
    My parents discerned the fact that I wasn’t cut out for serious athletics. I took up swimming and biking but I was completely inept in team sports and any event that involved a ball. Badminton was an exception. They were being very conformative to my choices. I wasn’t artistic but had n ear to music and attachment to language. I think parents shouldn’t worry about the stereotype but instead they should spend more time helping the kids explore their talents and propensities. 🙂

  19. MizB @ Should Be reading:
    Thanks for hosting this great weekly event! I’m so grateful for everyone’s thoughtful comments. This is an issue that has played a huge role in my upbringing.

  20. Confuzzledbooks:
    Boys can use more encouragement in cultivating hobbies that are not conforming to the gender stereotype. As in anything, the right materials will pique their interest. 🙂

  21. John:
    I remember the Transformers oh yes! The boxes of Legos that I played with in my preteen years are still safe and intact at home in Hong Kong. I don’t think I can ever part with those toys!

  22. callista83:
    Boys are more outwardly competitive than girls (maybe not in terms of how they look, etc). Boys would probably enjoy books about sports, cars, airplanes, and even things like science project or medical stuffs.

  23. Cathy:
    I always believe reading is what eventually turns on the child’s light bulb. I remembered being very different from the other boys as early as first grade. I always made sure my school uniform was neat and pristine, taking care not to stain the white shorts, wiping down the chair before I sat on it. As to hobbies, I took up reading and music at a very early age. Sports and activities (like climbing monkey bars and gliding down the slide) almost never interested me. I helped out in the kitchen when my mom and my aunt were fixing dinner. I learned to cut, dice, and chop.

  24. Greg S:
    Ah…school spirit. Staying out of sport events and indulging in apathy was never a problem until I made the transplant to this country, where school politics and sports always go hand in hand. My being incompetent in sports immediately subjected me to the rank of the cooties in PE, which I cared less. But I distanced myself from most the my guy peers who are ball players. Eventually I nagged my aunt, who was then my guardian, to write a letter request pleading my waiver from PE due to possible recurrence of asthma! Ha!

  25. Marie:
    What you said about YA literature is so true. Even their glossy pretty covers are aiming at girls. Why would boys pick them up and read and thus be subjected to embarrassment? But I bet they would love books on sports, airplanes, tanks, and cars. They can get a bit nerdy and geeky. 🙂

  26. Melody:
    The question is so close to my heart and mind. The issues that this question has touched upon has been a constituent part of my upbringing. 🙂

  27. Matt, you are absolutely right about the audio books. The boys also do especially well when they have the text to follow along as they listen. And your other point is spot on as well. I teach in a high-poverty, 100% African American school where gender stereotyping is still prevalent. I could tell you some really sad stories.

  28. Frances:
    Audio books grab their attention. But audio books don’t really get mine because I’m more hooked on words since I was in elementary school.

    Gender stereotyping and racial stereotyping still exist even in America. I remember a movie that was based on a true story about a teacher who launched a music program in Harlem. Meryl Streep actually played the teacher, Roberta. Some African American parents refused to enroll their kids in the violin program, deeming it a “white pastime.”

  29. Your reviews about books is very comprehensive. You are such an avid and voracious reader. Hats off to the habbit u developed at childhood.
    well i think they should be a perfect balance between reading and playing outdoor games for boys and for that matter for girls too

  30. aparna:
    My hobbies aside from reading was Legos and swimming. Subtropical mild weather made swimming possible in winter. On the way back from the swimming pool, I would stop by the library and checked what they’ve got new on the shelf! 🙂

  31. […] to see how parents receive the heavy subject matter on which the book focuses. Against the odd that boys usually don’t read as much as girls do, most of the kids who sat cross-legged and listened raptly the story to be told were preteen […]

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