(This is continued from SB Day: The Guy Edition (Part One), and will only make sense in order.)
It’s A Boy Thing
My mother, having gotten rather retrospective in the last few months, blames herself for my brother’s lack of reading love. She feels she may have shorted him by trying so hard to be the perfect wife and mother. When there was just me, there was time to sluff off the cooking and cleaning in favor of making mud pies and reading books, but with two children (one of whom already had a set schedule) and the doubling of her workload she feels he didn’t get the same one on one attention I did. “Of course, he had you,” she’s always quick to point out, but we both know that he wasn’t the object of my sole attention either. Very few things, other than My Little Ponies, are to a four year old, and there is no reason he should have been. So while at age three I’d memorized entire books because they’d been repeated to me over and over again, my brother (at the same age) was entertaining himself with cars and army men.
My parents did not set out to short change my brother, nor do I think they did. Had his schooling been the same level that I experienced, had he had someone to come in and read with him daily in the classroom, then whether or not he’d memorized Cinderella at age three would be a non-issue. This wasn’t the case, and hasn’t been for most kids in public school. With classroom sizes getting larger, volunteer programs getting cut back, and a general dumbing down of education, kids like my brother fall through the cracks every day. And I fully believe more of them are male than female.
Again and again the gender bias of women as readers and men as doers is reinforced despite the fact that generations before this one produced male readers a plenty. If a boy consistently chooses anything (sports, outdoors, video games) over reading its simply considered a masculine trait. Boys who choose reading over these things are considered peculiar, while a girl who would rather read then play soccer won’t find much resistance. It’s a double standard that I’m aware that even I perpetuate. As much as it pisses me off to hear a mother or father say there son is not a reader because “he’s a boy,” I find myself worrying that the little boy who loves books to the point of fanaticism. Does he get outside enough? Does he have other interests besides reading to talk about with his friends?
And the most insidious thought of all, “Does he not have friends to play with?”
How could I, a semi well-rounded person and acknowledged bibliophile, even think that? I know it is quite possible to be a reader and have a fulfilling social life. I know that wanting to talk about books with your friends and being unable to is a sign of education failing those other kids, not a detriment to the boy who loves to read. I know all of this, and yet the thought is there because over and over again the image we’re presented of the bookish male is one of a skinny, pale fellow who is not in touch with the real world. A similar stereotype can (and is) applied to female readers, but in a more joking and accepted manner. Rarely does a friend or relative follow up your, “Oh, my daughter, she always has her head stuck in a book,” with a, “Why? Doesn’t she have any friends?”
Please Read the Parental Advisory Label
Boys, like my brother, see reading as work, not escape, because they are never taught to enjoyment. With an education system that will only pay attention to them if they act out or are at the top of their class, they skate along by learning just as much as they have to, or are able to without help. The disconnect grows with parents who aren’t aware of where their kids really are education-wise (or mistakenly believe they are receiving the same education as those who came before), and don’t have time to provide the one on one attention that their children need.
There isn’t time to read to them when you have to get dinner ready, so why shouldn’t they play that video game.
It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like to read, he is a boy, and there are so many distractions these days.
The excuses are many and varied and perpetuated time and again by parents and teachers who don’t realize what they are doing. They don’t have time to instill the love of reading, and therefore pass the buck in believing that someone else is taking up the job. The overworked parents believe the teachers are doing it, and the overworked teachers think the parents aren’t doing their job. In the end, the gender bias when it comes to male readers sets in, and everyone walks away believing that little Joey or Simon just wasn’t cut out to be a reader anyway, but gee, he sure likes baseball or basketball where he gets one on one attention from not only his coach, but also his teammates. It’s not like reading is a team sport, anyway.
Slightly Off-Topic, But Since I’m Ranting Anyway
In her comments on Part One of this essay, Robin said, “I also think there are simply more books aimed at girls than at boys.” This is something I would agree with, but for this simple problem. Teachers, in attempt to lure those reluctant boy readers, often seem to choose books with male protagonists to be read in the classrooms. Time and again, I’ve worked with a teacher to pick out books for her classroom, only to have her say, “Oh, we can’t read that. My boys won’t identify with a female protagonist.”
It’s never a question whether or not the girls will identify with a strong, male protagonist. No one has ever wondered aloud within my hearing whether or not the girls will be left out because we’re reading a “boy” book. It’s simply accepted that the girls are already readers and that they don’t differentiate either way. The girls buy their “girl” books on the off time, or seek them out at the library. When they grow up, these girls will be just as likely to pick up a “boy” book as they will a “girl” book, while the boys who occasionally read might find a “girl” book too feminine as if that were a bad thing. Maybe these very same boys would have benefited in reading about a strong female character that they could respect and admire. Maybe they, as Joss Whedon talks about in his Equality Now speech, these very same boys could have identified something in that female character within themselves, that in a male character would have been skipped over or considered “girlish.”
Boy Meets Girl. Boy And Girl Read A Book.
Do we need more books like Harry Potter that celebrates strong male and female characters as well as cooperation and learning to be read in the classroom? Hell to the yes.
Do we need an education system that shores up these cracks that children fall through, funds smaller classrooms and has more volunteers on staff? Yes.
Are we going to get these things? Probably not anytime soon, and this places even more pressure on the two parents trying to work two or more jobs to achieve the American dream.
Are there always going to be some people who would rather do something other than spend their time reading? Yes, some people are just wired differently, but there is no excuse why they shouldn’t understand why reading can be enjoyable or why they should go through their entire lives without being touched by a book.
Reading is a tool, a pleasure, an escape and a teacher. Reading teaches about the past even as it lets us imagine the future. Everyone, boy or girl, should have the opportunity to experience this. Creating a reader could be as easy as reading to your child at night, putting on an audio book in the car instead of letting them play with their hand-helds, or inviting writers into your classroom to talk (and read) to your students. Reading is everywhere, and a necessary fact of life, so why shouldn’t also be viewed as a necessary escape from life. Blaming the rise of electronics for falling readership is too easy and blaming overwhelmed teachers too simplistic, we all need to accept that we play a role in that little boy not reading, even if it just by letting someone get away with the “he’s a boy” excuse.
If he likes books about snakes and slugs, then get him books about snakes and slugs; they’re out there. If he likes the movie version of Hoot or Holes, not only get him those books, but offer him options that are similar. If changing the freaking advertisement world to better represent male shoppers a la the Business Week article is necessary, then bring it on.
Support him as a reader; don’t let him fall through the cracks. Because there is nothing worse, as bookseller, hearing anyone from a little boy to a full-grown man in a suit say, “I don’t enjoy reading, it’s boring.” Especially when you know it only takes one book to spark their interest.
You just have to get them to pick it up.