My friend Oliver is 12 years old. I give his single mom a break every now and then, and he comes over to hang out. He’s a whiz on a skateboard, has some killer dance moves, and radiates angelic sweetness. “You’re a good person,” he said to me once, apropos of nothing, getting me all choked up. He sees the best in everyone, though his own life has included years in a homeless shelter and an abusive dad. Recently, I saw Oliver on a sunny California day. We were outside at the pool, eating watermelon and relaxing. He loves to talk about his Xbox or Weird Al YouTube videos. Instead of going there, I asked Oliver, “Read any good books lately?” In response, he mumbled, “I guess.” Books aren’t Oliver’s thing. I know he’d rather talk about basketball, or sneakers, but I wouldn’t, and I was on a mission.
“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, staring off into the distance.
Oliver reads only when absolutely required to. You’d never find Oliver sneaking a book under the blankets with a flashlight, as I did growing up. (The midnight glow from his bed would be an iPhone app.)
When I had this moment with him, I was in the midst of writing, “Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture.” I had been researching all the cultural forces that are dumbing down our boys. So I needed to drill down to the root of the issue.
“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.
“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.
“Do you think reading is girlie?” I asked — an appalling attitude I’d found in my research — keeping my face as flat as possible. I’d first read that in Peg Tyre’s “The Trouble With Boys,” and I’d found this attitude in many boys I interviewed. Last year, I wrote “How to Talk to Little Girls,” and I was thrilled when it went viral, being read and shared by millions around the world. Parents were passionate about encouraging girls to embrace their intelligence and love reading. What I didn’t realize was that getting parents to instill the same love of literacy in boys was much harder, due to our cultural stereotype that boys are better for more active activities, like sports.
“No,” Oliver said he didn’t think reading is girlie, possibly giving me the answer he believed I wanted. But then, he blurted out, “A lot of my friends do!”
“Why do you suppose they think that?”
“Because we’d rather do stuff,” he said, gaining steam now on behalf of his “friends.” “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.”
I didn’t get sidetracked and tell him that, hello, we do mind just sitting there. Instead, I pressed on and asked what books he has enjoyed. Oliver could name only one book series he likes, “39 Clues.”
“Did you know that reading used to be considered more of a boy thing?” I continued. He looked out at the horizon, enduring my questions. “No. Can we go swimming now?”
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.
Some parents, even teachers, have a fatalistic attitude about this, and reduce expectations for boys. The new cultural trope is that girls naturally mature faster, that they have better innate verbal skills, and so pushing young boys to read is unrealistic and vaguely unfair to their boyness. (Then how do we explain that all three winners of the last Google science fair were girls? Do we now believe that girls are just better at everything?) Let ’em be boys! Let ’em play!
No. 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!”
Where do boys get this new, crazy idea that reading is “girlie”?
From us. After all, Mom is usually the one who reads for pleasure at home, not Dad. (Women read almost twice as many books as men.) Typically, Mom reads the kids their bedtime story. Mom takes the children to the library or the bookstore. Dad throws a ball with them. At school they are read to or encouraged to read on their own by their (usually) female teachers, while their team coaches are (generally) male. Children’s books reinforce this by portraying girls more often as readers and boys more often in action roles in illustrations in children’s books. (Think Hermione Granger, the prodigious bookworm, in the Harry Potter books.) For birthdays, holidays, or “just because,” we give books as gifts more often to girls and sporting equipment to boys. Kids get the message early, despite our best intentions: Girls read, boys do not.
Time to turn that ship around. Because the path for our nonreading boys is perilous, truly. Poor readers – mostly boys — struggle to read textbooks and tests in all subjects. They get suspended, expelled, flunk out and drop out at alarming rates – the majority of our African-American and Latino boys (who have the lowest reading proficiency of all) drop out of high school, with white boys faring only slightly better — why isn’t this the lead story on every newscast?
While writing “Swagger,” I looked closely at the soul-crushing forces that pound our boys: popular music that celebrates punching your girlfriend, gunning down your rival, attacking gay men, popping pills. Education cuts that leave teachers out in the cold, literally — teaching classes outside — or begging for books for their overcrowded first-grade classrooms on charity websites. Uneven law enforcement sweeps in working-class neighborhoods that can land a minor in adult prison for years on a first-time drug-possession offense.
New prisons are being built every day, waiting to house the next generation of American boys.
Oliver’s not going there. Not on my watch.
The good news is that the research offers clear, cheap, doable solutions, starting with raising expectations, rewarding values of humility and effort, and minimizing his “screen” time (TV, video games, computers). After combing through the studies, interviewing parents, teachers, and experts, I came up with 10 rules for raising smart, strong, ready-for-the-real-world boys. Parents, I hope you’ll read them all in “Swagger,” but here’s an important one right now:
Make your home a reading mecca. Model for your boy that reading is your default pleasure activity, one you take up eagerly and put down reluctantly.
Kids with parents who read for pleasure are six times more likely to do so themselves — and their grades shoot up. Which is why I talk about the books I love, and ask kids about their favorites, every chance I get. I’m intentionally role modeling for them that books and ideas are something adults value.
Before I let him jump in the pool, I told Oliver that I’d just read the entire unsettling Hunger Games trilogy, recommended to me by my daughter. “This may be too violent for you,” I said, calculatingly. “Hm, I don’t know, you’re probably too young for it.”
I wasn’t born yesterday.
Oliver’s eyes shone. “I heard about that one! I heard there are games and kids fight to the death!” Then, “I’m not too young for it!”
I’m not above manipulating a 12-year-old to get him to read, and you shouldn’t be either. Check out my lengthy “Books Boys Love” reading list at the end of “Swagger,” ask his teacher or school librarian what’s hot with boys right now, get him to read the book before seeing the movie. Take him to the library, the bookstore, book festivals. Bring him to lectures at your local college and author events in your town or online. (I call on kids first at my events.) Program all his favorite grown-ups to enthuse about their favorite books in his presence. Put up bookshelves in every room in your house, yes, even in that favorite male reading venue, the bathroom. Read to him, read with him, read side-by-side nightly. Listen to audio books together in the car. When you’re called to dinner, beg to finish your chapter, and let him finish his.
Push reading as if his life depends on it.
Because, just about, it does.