Yesterday my Facebook wall was littered with a piece from Huffington Post called, How to Talk to Little Boys. There was some chatter about whether or not Lisa Bloom’s advice to use violence in stories was the very best way to encourage more boy readers. There was some chatter about making sure we had the right kind of books to give boys to read. Many boy moms in my world have reading boys or want to have reading boys. I can see wanting to go to any measure to make this happen. I badly wanted to like the article, but I could only hear all the false notes.
First of all I think we all know that age 12 is not little. The author’s friend Oliver is not little. His answers do sound young to me. I have a 12 year old and have had one for almost a year now. But perhaps Oliver is a younger 12. Even so, he is not little. Five is little. Six is little. If we want our boys to read, we have to start long before age 12.
When we encourage our boys to read, I’d strongly prefer that we not induce them with violence. “This book may be too violent for you,” Lisa says to Oliver. If Oliver is a young as he sounds, The Hunger Games might actually be too violent for him. My twelve year old did read the books -well past the downhill slope to his 13th birthday which is next week. They were not too violent for him. Last summer he and I both had several friends reading them, and I felt he was too young til this past winter. At times we have struggled to find the just right books for our kids. However, when you want your five year old boy to love reading you cannot use Bloom’s reverse psychology technique. You have to keep digging through the library stacks to find the topics that interest him, to find the characters he thinks are silly or fun, to find the right ratio of text to pictures that will keep him engaged. Is it much different for girls?
The How to Talk to Little Girls post from last year was lovely. It was everything my mother ever wanted for me and more. In it, Bloom actually spoke to a little girl. She spoke to her about her interests, her reading, her writing and her ideas. In How to Talk to Little Boys, not only is the boy not little but the only possible suggestion for talking to a boy is to entice them with a book that is pretty violent. We simply trade one stereotype about boys for another when we do this.
Bloom’s article is full of the same advice parents get from schools, PBS and literacy specialists: keep books at home, let your kids see you read for pleasure, let them read whatever genre works for them, read when they are babies, read before bed. In a world constantly telling parents just how they are failing their children, this is just one more blog post, one more public service announcement.
I have three boys. I am a working parent of three boys. When people see me with my boys or hear that I have three boys they undoubtedly say, “God bless ya!” Essentially, I take this to mean, “Better you than me!” What do people think my children think of this statement? What do they suppose I think it means? It’s offensive. It means our society already views them as potential menaces. I listen to people with girls worry about the teenage boys who might one day be after their daughters. I look at my about to be teenage boy and wonder what they think about him, as he sits there building legos with his younger brother. He walks to his film class at the library. He texts with his friends about how simply awful all these band rehearsals are. He reads. He reads his little brothers’ Lego magazine. He reads Hunger Games on my kindle. He reads Sherlock Holmes from his dad’s bookshelf.
How can we change the cultural conversation around boys so they don’t have to fight the Dennis the Menace of themselves? Isaac has shrugged it off. We lucked out. He has a fairly strong sense of self. Maybe because we read to him when he was a baby. But I have little boys too. They are 6 and 7 right now. I can see the ways the break down in gender roles at school and in their world is going to be a rougher ride for them than it has been for Isaac so far. At this point, they still love reading. However, when people see me with the boys they often say “What are you doing this weekend? Are you going to take a bike ride? Are you playing sports?” The boys have picked up that the weekend is a time for us to take them around and do stuff, active stuff. When we hang around the house for the weekend reading, cooking, gardening, painting, playing with clay and playing Wii, Henry is unsure what to write on his Monday morning page at school. “What did you do this weekend?” Somehow the weekend at home stuff translates as “nothing.” If we have gone someplace, done something somewhere, then he know what to write. “We took a hike,” or ” We went to visit nana and climbed her trees.” But if we are always going and doing, then we are not home reading.
All of them learned to read quite early but I am not sure we did anything much different than what most college educated middle class families do when they have children. We bought board books. We had story time. We had those alphabet magnets on the frig. We read in our bed at night with children all jammied up then picked up our sleepy children and tumbled them into their beds. We read to Henry much less when he was a baby. We were pretty busy keeping him alive and making sure he stopped growing in the wrong direction. Once the ship righted itself, he started singing his ABC just like the rest of the toddlers. By the time the third baby came, the first thing he read was the Dunkin’ Donuts sign as we drove along in the minivan. Oops.
Like most parents I know, we are holding up our end to the best of our ability. When we walk outside our door, things get rough. Next time you see me with my boys, please, someone ask them what they are reading. Above all do not ask them if they like reading. You are tipping your cards. Let’s assume that kids all like reading well enough even when it is not their first choice of activity. If you start a conversation with a yes or no question, you will get a yes or no answer. We all know how much children love to say no. It’s such a trip to confound the grownups! Help boys who like reading even just a little to like it more by having a real conversation with them about their book.
May I recommend this:
Grown up: So what day is library day at school?
Child: Tuesdays. Sometimes I forget to bring my book back.
Grown up: Ugh, that happens to me all the time! Is it because your book is in your bed and you forget in the morning?
Child: Actually, I think it was in the sofa cushions.
Grown up: I lost stuff their too. Mostly coins but also sometimes socks. What was the last book you checked out?
Child: It was a magical school house book about space but I can’t remember the name of it.
Grown up: That’s okay. Why did you pick it?
Child: My best friend had it last week so I thought it would be good. I like the pictures of Jupiter. Jupiter is huge. I mean really, really, really, really huge. It is so huge that you could fit like a bajillion thousand hundred seventy three and two aliens on it. Someone tried that I think one time…
I think you can take it from there.
And when you see me, don’t say anything that sounds like “There but the grace of God go I.” I am extremely happy, extremely lucky and probably about as a tired and busy as the next working parent whether her children are boys or girls.