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.