Reading and gender and the messages we send

Published by Lori Pickert on July 28, 2014 at 06:25 PM

Yes, yes, a million times yes to this:

A couple things happen when we focus all of our collective attention on boys and whether or not they are reading. First, we tell boys that they are not reading, and that reading is not an inherently “boyish” thing to do. We expect them, in fact, not to read, and boys who love reading are outside the norm. Next, we start gendering books and telling boys that they like certain kinds of books, that they are interested in humor and adventure and fun. And they specifically do not like the sort of books that help kids at this age figure out how to be in the world, and they specifically do not like literary books or hard books or emotional books. And they absolutely positively do not want to read a book starring a girl.

When we give panels on boys and reading with only (or even predominantly) male authors, we tell boys they are only supposed to like books by men. (This will be surprising to JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins.) We tell them that only men have something to say to them. When we say boys won’t read books with girl heroes, we are constructing that reality for them. (It gets troubling in all kinds of ways — the act of reading as a child is about empathy for and connection with the protagonist, and it’s quite problematic to tell boys we don’t expect they can empathize with girls.)

And in all of this, we’re telling boys that we don’t expect a lot from them. — On Gender and Boys Read Panels

The post goes on to make many more good points.

Related posts of mine on and around this subject:

[I]t’s a shame to treat reading as a sort of punishment — or something that requires a spoonful of sugar to go down, which is why I’m a curmudgeon about reading programs that bribe kids with prizes or pizza if they read. Reading isn’t punishment — reading is one of the greatest things ever. When we act this way, we are sending a clear message that reading isn’t awesome — it’s something that requires cajoling, bribery, or denial. It’s good for you, like broccoli.

But why — why?! — do we keep presenting reading as something that is incompatible with normal life? Why can’t you read and watch TV? Why can’t you enjoy playing the Wii and reading a good book?

Does it really follow that children need to be bored to read? And in order to invoke boredom — and cause children to read — we have to smash all the other entertainment options?

If we are going to put forth this idea that readers are people (and children) who sit around in horn-rimmed glasses and sweater vests, who don’t play football or Xbox, who don’t like Spongebob or Spiderman, then how are we going to convince reluctant readers that reading is one of the most awesome activities ever? — In defense of reading, which should need no defense

and

I worked for years in a school environment, and I constantly had to take kids and convert them into readers — convince them that they were wrong about hating to read, about not wanting to read, about wanting to do anything but read. When you try to promote something good (reading, playing outside) by attacking something kids love, you are seriously not helping me.

I tie this to the “books are broccoli” approach. Imagine a cartoon where a teacher is handing two parents a sheet of paper and saying, “Now, the way we introduce children to hating learning is to first get them to hate reading. So require your child to read 30 minutes every night and then fill out and initial this form.”

If you want to suck the fun out of anything that your child enjoys doing, I suggest you force them to do it for 30 minutes every night, fill out a form, and have you initial it.

What is the message there? Reading is broccoli. It’s good for you. You won’t do it unless we make you. Eat your broccoli. Read!

The kid who liked to read sees reading turned into an assigned chore. He gets the message: Reading isn’t cool, dude. It’s something no one would do if they weren’t forced to do it. And by the way, you don’t get to pick out what you read anymore. That book is too young for you; that other one is too old. And neither of them are leveled readers. Here, read this flat, melba-toasty book for a half an hour and then I’ll initial your form. Make sure you get your form signed or I’ll make you read it again. It reads or it gets the hose.

Does it ever work to encourage activity A by denouncing activity B? Books are broccoli and kids need their broccoli so that makes TV and video games candy. Sweet, delicious candy. I’m in my 40s but even I know: candy good, broccoli bad.

The either/or approach focuses on scarcity. The glass is half empty, your day is almost gone. Your free time is as scarce as hen’s teeth. Don’t waste it on things you enjoy! Invest it in these more intellectually valuable pursuits instead!

An entirely different approach would be to present books as candy, the outdoors as candy. — Why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time, Part I

Our choices convey beliefs; we need to stop and think about whether we’re sending the messages we really want to send. Something worth thinking about.

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19 comments

Comment by Patricia Shepherd on July 29, 2014 at 07:48 AM

This goes along with how much I dislike book reports. Never as an adult have I read a book and thought to myself ' that book was awesome, I think I'll go write a book report about it!'

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 29, 2014 at 10:49 AM

another way to ruin reading — i agree. :)

Comment by mckittre on July 29, 2014 at 03:11 PM

The real-world equivalent is book reviews, I suppose. How much better if kids instead helped out other kids and kid-lit authors by putting reviews on amazon instead of turning in papers to teachers.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 29, 2014 at 06:19 PM

the thing that’s wrong with book reports is, of course, the fact that they’re mandatory! so having to write a review would also pall if you had to do it and you didn’t want to. but my sons loved having a goodreads account when they were younger and writing pithy reviews of the books they read for their relatives to read.

Comment by janet on July 29, 2014 at 02:27 PM

funny coincidence. today when a box from amazon arrived, i yelled to my 7 yo son (who was playing a video game): "new books are here!" he came running grabbing at the box, "what is it? what is it?"

parents look at me like i'm turning down money because we don't do the summer library reading program. my son loves the library, and he loves reading. why would i want to make it about earning coupons?

p.s. love the image. my son carried a giant book of peanuts comics around for several years. he dubbed it "the book of proverbs" in honor of linus.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 29, 2014 at 06:20 PM

parents look at me like i'm turning down money because we don't do the summer library reading program. my son loves the library, and he loves reading. why would i want to make it about earning coupons?

exactly! and lol like you’re turning down money — i know exactly the look you mean.

Comment by Jennifer on August 1, 2014 at 01:51 PM

Our summer reading program has a free dvd rental as the "prize" if you manage to read six books in six weeks. Urgh!

We have done the summer reading program because I'm trying to avoid making it significant in any way. That is, I'm not going to make a production out of it by saying, no, you can't have all the cool coloured stickers and the fancy maze that all the other kids are getting but neither am I promoting it in any way.

She loves the medal at the end (a good prop for many things, it has been a camera and a coin and a necklace and goodness knows what else) and (so far) hasn't realised that it is meant to be a reward, she just thinks the library is kindly handing out fun toys! (She's only 5; we'll see how long I can keep it up!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 1, 2014 at 02:17 PM

 

Our summer reading program has a free dvd rental as the "prize" if you manage to read six books in six weeks. Urgh!

hahahaaaaa that is awful and hilarious. reminds me of our huge billboard in town that tries to encourage kids to go enjoy nature by putting the disney character shrek lurking behind a tree! :/

We have done the summer reading program because I'm trying to avoid making it significant in any way. That is, I'm not going to make a production out of it by saying, no, you can't have all the cool coloured stickers and the fancy maze that all the other kids are getting but neither am I promoting it in any way.

this is basically my beef with reading programs — you can’t really say to your child “no, you can’t have a free pizza or pizza party! no, you can’t have free books or a prize!” why can’t SCHOOLS and LIBRARIES do a better job of sending the right messages about reading? you’d think they’d get it.

 

 

Comment by Melissa Boyer on July 29, 2014 at 04:25 PM

I've felt the same way about reading programs. Reading is awesome and a reward in itself. However, my children heard of a school setting a goal of reading 1,000,000 pages and planning a pizza party to celebrate. They said they would like to read 1,000,000 pages. We talked about the fact that it would take a single family longer to do so than a school with hundreds of students. They decided to set an initial goal of 10,000 pages and that we would celebrate by having pancakes at a restaurant. They keep track of their pages and have now surpassed 20,000. We've been out for pancakes twice. Since it was entirely their idea, I'm just going with it.

Comment by kelly.conley on July 29, 2014 at 05:51 PM

we also aren't doing the summer reading program here. when the boys were little I did it in their name for the free book...

Comment by AndreaL on July 30, 2014 at 10:09 AM

"If you want to suck the fun out of anything that your child enjoys doing, I suggest you force them to do it for 30 minutes every night, fill out a form, and have you initial it. - See more at: http://project-based-homeschooling.com/camp-creek-blog/reading-and-gende..."

Thank you thank you thank you thank you. Reading logs have been the bane of my existence for eight years!! Kid A LOVED reading (and still does). Read non-stop. We had to make him stop reading so he would eat and sleep. And still he had to fill out those &)$*#(*(@ reading logs. It was a Friday morning struggle. What did you read? Which day? How many minutes? He probably read 14 hours a week, but it was the five minutes of faking the reading log that was a nightmare. Half the time we both forgot about it, and then he missed the end-of-year party where all the kids who remembered their &*)*(&*#$# reading logs got to go have fun. Urgh.

With kids B and C, the reading log was helpful for a couple of months, because they were more reluctant readers than their older brother, and, being twins very competitive. So it jump-started their reading a bit, but then the utility was gone and the logs became a dreaded chore again. In their case, I did not stop reading aloud to them in favor of them reading for their logs, as I did with their brother, because I felt like I really missed out not reading to him for those 2nd-grade-on years, when it's such a great bonding experience and the number one way I know of making a kid love to read. I still read to all three of them (when the 13-year-old joins us, which is often).

Comment by Angie909 on July 30, 2014 at 11:25 AM

The gender assumptions drive me crazy. Both boys and girls are getting the bad end of the stick (or it's just rotten all the way through?). Have you seen the Dangerous Book for Boys? My daughter would eat that up if she were a couple of years older but there it is on the cover: girls keep out. Sigh. Luckily at 4 she hasn't yet learned that science is for boys. She doesn't know you can't wear a sparkly pink skirt and John Deere t shirt. When she's older I will explain to her that she is free to follow her dreams, whichever color it comes attached to, and that these things don't matter as an adult but I just hope she listens to me and not marketers and the well meaning people you pass her the Barbie doll rather than the astronaut without even asking.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 30, 2014 at 04:32 PM

i was very offended by that when it came out — SO annoying. why not the dangerous book for kids? well, because we have to say it’s for BOYS to sell to boys. it’s well known (hearsay?) that if you have a boy on the cover, both boys & girls will read it, but if it’s a girl, only girls will read it. is it really true or just assumed to be true? either way, very frustrating.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 31, 2014 at 08:01 AM

Vic said:

Is interesting - so many times I see people asking for books for girls with strong female leads - and websites like The Mighty Girl full of lists of them - but as a child (female) I don't remember ever thinking anything about the gender of the characters in books, or associating particularly with female characters. Do children really think much about gender or is it our adult influence on them?

Is it if you have a boy on the cover that adults will buy for both boys and girls but if you have a girl on the cover then adults will only buy for girls?

Vic, so sorry, I got trigger happy and deleted your comment. (#._.#)

in answer to your question above, i agree! i feel like the gender-fication of *everything* came after my time. when i was a kid, boys and girls dressed alike — everyone was in the same generic shorts and striped t-shirts. twenty years later, wow, what a change.

when i was a girl i identified with the protagonist, whether it was a girl or a boy. i identified with tom sawyer, not becky. when i watched “star wars,” i identified with luke, not leia. and i identified with jo and jane eyre and meg murry. the idea that you only read books with protags of your own gender — bleah!

Comment by Bron on July 30, 2014 at 02:34 PM

Oops...I am guilty of setting 30 minutes of reading time a day. But I have just finished reading Project-based Homeschooling and we are making a lot of changes which my boys are thrilled about and which I know are right but which are a bit harder for me as a trained public school teacher. This post was really thought-provoking to me, but then how do I INSPIRE my boys to read? Especially if they have the option to TV and video games. :). Thank you for starting us on this journey...I think you have completely changed the way we will learn.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 30, 2014 at 04:37 PM

I have just finished reading Project-based Homeschooling and we are making a lot of changes which my boys are thrilled about and which I know are right … Thank you for starting us on this journey...I think you have completely changed the way we will learn.

bron, thank you so much — this is wonderful to hear. :)

do your boys like to read? do you think they would read less if you dropped that 30-minute requirement?

i wrote in my “sliver” post about how we employed generous limits — so for us, one part of the day was screen-free and a lot of reading was done then.

you could also build time into your day when you read aloud to them, of course. (you probably already do that.)

and what about at the end of the day, lights out at X o’clock *or* you can read for 30 minutes before turning out the light? ;o)

offering a separate book-buying allowance is a big enticement, too. regular allowance + X amt each week to spend on books. (we would often stop by the thrift store so the boys could get more for their money!)

Comment by Bron on August 3, 2014 at 12:35 PM

Thank you for your reply Lori! Yes, they don't read at all if I don't have the 30 minute requirement, :( I tried that during our recent holidays!
Will try the idea if bedtime reading that you suggested and I love the idea of a book buying allowance, I know how excited I feel when I know I can buy a new book!
Thank you again!

Comment by MirandaMiranda on August 4, 2014 at 12:15 AM

Thank you for this. I hate the idea that boys and girls like specific types of books purely because of their gender, it is found even in otherwise great resources like the Read-Aloud Handbook. My daughters love books about animals and other little girls, yes. but they also love Captain Underpants, adventure books, dinosaurs, space... Their preferences are determined by their characters, not by their genitalia!

So far my son is only two and his book tastes are mostly toddler subjects like farm animals, babies etc. I really hope as he grows he avoids the idea that he shouldn't like books by women or about girls. What would that teach him about how to relate to real girls, about whose stories and whose voice is important? How can he ever see girls as equals if he believes only boys' stories are worth reading?

With my daughters I have talked explicitly about sexism and the way that impacts on people's expectations of them and other girls. One in particular struggles sometimes with her liking for superhero characters and 'scary' story lines, as she feels it is hard to find other girls to share this with. It breaks my heart to see her so hurt by the things that should bring her most joy.

Assigning books as for one gender only does far more harm than good.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 4, 2014 at 10:22 AM

Their preferences are determined by their characters, not by their genitalia!

ha! :)

I really hope as he grows he avoids the idea that he shouldn't like books by women or about girls. What would that teach him about how to relate to real girls, about whose stories and whose voice is important? How can he ever see girls as equals if he believes only boys' stories are worth reading?

i think about this and i know that my choices for reading aloud probably set the right tone, but i think *so many* messages come from society, friends, reading programs, schools, store displays, and on and on and on, that it’s a very hard battle. perhaps the best defense is a good offense — having a home library loaded with a great mix of books and reading aloud from as many as you can while your child is young.

 

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