How to talk to little boys

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Photo by susivinh, used under Creative Commons license.

Last year Lisa Bloom wrote How to Talk to Little Girls, a piece that discussed how people generally like to comment on how pretty a young girl is when they meet her. Bloom is back with a new piece, How to Talk to Little Boys, that's just as stellar.

Lisa was hanging out with Oliver, the twelve-year-old son of her friend, when she asked him if he likes reading:

"Do you like reading, Oliver?" I asked him.

"Sure," he said, unconvincingly, in that way kids tell you the answer they know you want to hear.

"Really?"

"Well, like, if there's nothing else to do, it's okay," he allowed. "Like if you can't play sports or watch video games or play with your friends."

There's a ringing endorsement.

Bloom explored the idea further, and Oliver says that many of his male friends think reading is something that girls do. He says: "'[Because] we'd rather do stuff,' he said … 'When you're reading you're just sitting there. Girls don't mind sitting around, but we'd rather be skateboarding or something where we're doing something.'"

Say whaaaaa-at?!

As a mother of a son, the idea that the same little dude who currently requests that we read upwards of 150 pages a night will one day NOT like reading both baffles and saddens me. It turns out that Oliver's friends aren't alone:

The implications of the news that girls have surpassed boys in reading — at every grade level, in all 50 states — and that girls are graduating high school and college with better grades and in larger numbers have not been fully absorbed by parents of boys. Show me a valedictorian, and odds are she's a she. Top 10 percent of your kid's class? Probably crowded with girls. Bottom 10 percent? Where the boys are.

We cannot accept diminished prospects for our sons, because the implications for their lives are so dire. There's nothing innately male about illiteracy. Boys today do worse on national reading tests compared to their own gender a generation ago. There's no mystery as to why boys have slipped. Boys read significantly less than girls, and less than their dads did when they were kids. Nine out of 10 boys today do not read for pleasure — at all. As one boy put it: "I'd rather be BURNED AT THE STAKE than read a book!"

So where are boys getting this attitude? According to Bloom, right at home: typically, their mothers are the ones who sit down with a book just for fun — not their dads. Mom takes them to the library, Mom reads at bedtime. And even in books, girls are usually the bookworms, while boys are off fighting wizard's chess and defeating the Dark Lord (I'm looking at you, Hermione & co.).

You can read the rest of the article at Huffington Post — then get back to me! I'd love to know what you guys think about this.

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  1. I love it when someone writes a really well-thought article that's on something that I've noticed hundreds of times, but never really pinpointed in quite the way the author does.
    I grew up with this throughout my school years. All the girls were in the Accelerated Reader program while the boys were busy doing… other stuff.
    I love the premise of these articles–everything starts with how we TALK to children. The conversations children have with adults are oftentimes weightier than the ones they have with other children, because the adults children know are their impressions of what it's like to BE an adult, how adults live. So shouldn't the first things out of our mouths to children be the things that ARE important?

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  2. A lot of these ideas are explored in Raising Cain (a great book about the emotional lives of boys written by two child psychologists).

    We're atypical in that my husband is an academic – we BOTH spend a lot of time reading for work & pleasure, and both of us read to the kiddo. I suspect that a lot of Offbeat families buck this stereotype.

    My husband also often points out that NO ONE read in his house – not his mom OR dad – and that he fell in love with it as a way of being independent.

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    • My husband's also an academic and reads a lot for pleasure, so yes. Although his mom did read regularly, he can't really remember either parent reading much at all, but he's always read and he's kept reading in his adult life.

      I was a hardcore bookworm as a kid (as is my mom) and am not quite as hardcore anymore (can't stay up til 4am reading anymore), but books are a HUGE part of our lives.

      Our kid hated being read to for the first three or four years (we kept at it, tho), then started loving it and is now at 6 reading on his own (and being read to, of course).

      He had a (in-utero) stroke we didn't know about, though, which messed up his language acquisition, which is the reason for that weird gap of not liking books, I think.

      After he started catching up (his stroke/ ASD was diagnosed at 3 and we started speech therapy), that's when he got into books and they helped a lot with language acquisition because it turns out reading is easier for him than understanding speech, I think.

      (He is a self taught reader, I don't know exactly what level, but it's above grade two at this point, and he's in kindergarten.)

  3. That article is awesome. The comments make my head hurt though. Hopefully the ones here will be better. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Both me and my fiancรฉ are huge bibliophiles. We'll do our utmost to make our kids love books too, whether they are boys or girls.

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    • This is pretty much the only site where I read the comments without any apprehension. Whether people agree or disagree they find a way to do it respectfully and intelligently.

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    • Shout out to Stephanie, who works her ASS off to keep Offbeat Mama's comments civil. I wish I could say that Offbeat Mama's readers are just magically more mature and articulate than the rest of the internet, but it's simply not the case.

      So big snaps to Stephanie for keeping the peace! She moderates from the minute she wakes up, until just before bedtime.

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  4. I worry about any time we focus only on girls or only on boys. Any time we gender stereotype children we do a disservice to both boys and girls. While boys are having a hard time with reading and verbal/written communication, girls still fare worse in math and science as they age. And math skills still explain a fair bit of the gender gap in employment and pay. I just don't understand why our society feels the need to dichotomize gender in such superficial ways instead of focusing on making sure all kids have the opportunity to be well educated with good social skills.
    A must-read book on this topic is "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs"

    • My impression is that this article the author using conversations with boys as a way to compensate for all the weird, cultural-infused gender bullshit children deal with daily — even if it's not coming in from parents, it's coming in via the rest of our gender-warped society.

      In other words, she's writing about gender as a way to tackle your same concerns. You guys are fighting for the same team here, I think.

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    • Actually, a number of studies indicate that girls get better grades in math throughout school and college. The only place girls do worse is on the Math SAT. Nonetheless there is a perception that girls flag in math.

      As MC pointed out however, the problem is often our conception of what a girls' subject is and what a boys' subject is, how we encourage or discourage skill sets according to gender and gender polarization. And this does lead to occupational segregation which (only partially) explains the gender gap in wages.

      Altogether, we should be careful when exploring differences that we don't overemphasize them and inadvertently strengthen them. Boys and girls are more similar than not and when we turn things into a boys' problem what message are we sending. That's not to say it's not an issue to avoid and that we shouldn't do something, but care needs to be taken. As the article points out, we teach our children what boy and girl mean unintentionally for the most part.

      but, yes, all fighting on the same team.

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  5. Maybe if someone hands the "I'd rather be burned at the stake" kid a copy of Titus Andronicus, he'd be more interested? ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Interesting article, thank you for finding it. I may have to buy the book though my son is still -18ish weeks old.

  7. my kids are hyperlexic so….. Do they count comic books/ graphic novels? Marvel is sure enjoying popularity…

    • Oh my god. Neptune (the 9-yr-old for whom I nanny) is seriously obsessed with all things Marvel. The THINGS I could TELL YOU about the characters! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • My personal experience with comics is that they are still telling wonderful stories. I sometimes miss the ability to visualize things myself instead of having them shown to me, but it's not like a movie where everything is perfectly realistic and acted out. I do find that comics go a lot more slowly for me, and sometimes I crave the speed with which I can read a book, but honestly not everyone can read quickly, and comics may help them practice. Finally, my one biggest worry with comics is the vocabularly level (and the fact that they are often poorly edited for proper grammar). Books help increase your vocabulary, but comics tend to try to appeal to all levels, including kids, which limits the vocab used. Although I'm sure it depends on which graphic novels you are reading; this has just been the case with the marvel comics I tend to read.

      • I agree, comic books and graphic novels are great ways to spur kids into reading, especially if they're artistic at all. But I would continue to encourage my children to read novels, too so they can build their skills of visualization and imagery.

  8. I find it interesting that this is the same author who last year wrote the "how to talk to little girls" article (spoiler: her answer was to talk to them about books!). Couldn't she have just written ONE article about the importance of promoting reading to children of both genders, and the importance of parents, teachers, and other family figures of both genders modelling reading for kids in their lives?

    Don't get me wrong, I think it's worth reading (and I used the same Hunger Games trick on the little boy I tutor!) but I also think it's worth having the conversation about why we're still treating little boys and girls as though they're totally different creatures.

    • If I'm thinking of the same article, didn't she also talk about how we tend to relate to girls based on how pretty they are or what they're wearing? My main take-away from the article was that reading was just one example of how to talk to girls about subjects other than appearance. And my take-away from both articles is how easily and inadvertently we can reinforce gender stereotypes by how we talk to children.

  9. I think part of the problem with boys not wanting to read and with boys falling behind in general is in part because the pendulum has swung the other way in the school system, and because the stories that are read in school just aren't interesting to boys. Same with drawing. Let's face it, most teachers are women, so when they show an example of drawing something, they draw what they like (flowers, landscapes, hearts, etc.). Those things are exactly what boys don't like. My 5 YO was pretty uninterested in drawing until my husband showed him he can draw stuff he likes. Such as space battles or robots or monsters. Just the other day, my son decided to draw an amusement park. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think more boys would be readers if they were exposed to more boy-centric books in elementary school. I think books like Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket are a good start, as they are more action-oriented and feature male leads. Boys simply are not going to be particularly interested in books about people's feelings (there are other ways to teach empathy, like modeling and role-play).

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    • I'm not suggesting gendered reading lists, by the way. I think teachers need to pay attention to the types of books that boys like and the types that girls like and make sure that books of all kinds are read throughout the year.

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    • Wow, this is a really interesting perspective that I hadn't thought of. I do wonder how much the increase of women teachers has changed/influenced things. Interesting to think about!

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    • The question I would pose to this is why can't our boys become interested in books with female leads that are more about science than action? For years, and even still today, girls are expected to be interested in books and movies with male leads whenever female leads aren't available. With less gender socialization, I believe we'll begin to raise children that are interested in certain story lines because of who they are, not because of their gender.

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  10. I really disliked this part. Way to plant the idea into his head:

    ""Do you think reading is girlie?" I asked — an appalling attitude I'd found in my research — keeping my face as flat as possible"

  11. I've heard all of these generalizations about boys since I was pregnant with my first and I'm sure there's a reason for me but they drive me crazy and I've refused to buy into them. My son wasn't slower to pick up on language, he actually talked earlier than and still speaks better than a lot of girls he plays with. He wasn't "harder to potty-train," I think two is a pretty solid potty-training age. I don't know what will happen as his classmates' influence gets to him, but as of right now he loves library day at school. One of the kindergarten teachers is male and we don't know which class my son will be in but I think with the emphasis they put on reading in kindergarten, a male teacher will be a wonderful thing. I can't speak for what happens when he's with his dad, but his stepdad has always been the one who reads the bedtime story, it's their ritual. I hope he continues to love reading as much as I did growing up.

  12. As a teacher, (though in another country) I have some quibbles about the article – partly because it generalises boy's attitudes to reading, when in my experience it's not actually what I'm seeing. For example, in one of my classes of 12 year olds, out of the seven or eight best readers in the class (and they are very good) only one is a girl. And over the last three years, when I was teaching Reader's Workshop in class, I saw many, many boys of different interests and reading levels devouring all sorts of books.

    As for book selection – well, I'm in my first year in a high school and had to fight to get one book with a strong female lead, because the general opinion is that girls can be forced to read only about boys, but boys will never read about girls. (One more reason I love Hunger Games)

    I do agree with the author that more visible male adult readers would be great for everyone to see – my father and grandfather are both bigger readers then my mother and grandmother, and I loved seeing that – but the article still makes me feel like we're setting this up as a gender thing, when the best thing we could be pushing is Everyone Reads!

    • Well, to be fair, you did say that you teach in another country. Is it possible that inconsistencies you see with the article are due to differences in culture between your country and the US? As a former elementary reading specialist in the US, what I saw was completely consistent with the article–almost all of the students who qualified for reading services were boys.

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