why boys don’t read

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful.” —C.S. Lewis

I have three sons, all of whom like to read. And a daughter, of course, who loves to read. But the boys are rare in a culture where the reading proficiency gap between males and females is large and getting larger. In a wonderful essay, How to Raise Boys That Read, Thomas Spence says this gender gap is 10% or more across all socioeconomic and ethnic categories.

Photo by Ben Kauffman
In education and publishing, the current efforts to get boys to read more is to “meet them where they are,” providing books about gross topics and bodily functions to elementary and middle school students.

And we are way past Goosebumps and Captain Underpants. Current offerings include Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger, The Day My Butt Went Psycho, Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty, and, number three on Amazon for childrens humor, Richard Bean’s self-published SweetFarts.

Spence is justly concerned. He writes:

One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.

Or, to say it differently, he asks, “Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter’s husband—Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson?”

The solution he proposes is to turn off the video games. Eventually the books will win. He may be right.

But I think it is more complicated than that. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, both as a father and as an editor at a childrens magazine that struggled to get the boys engaged. My favorite thing a boy ever said about Guideposts for Kids, however, was, “I like that magazine. They treat me like a grown up.” And therein lies the solution, in my view. No potty humor necessary for a review like that.

We had two sons who were late readers, and if we had not home schooled them, they would have been turned off before they mastered the skill. Readiness issues, the teasing and competition in schools, all these things would have been against them at the time. We controlled media consumption of course, but even before he could read at 10 our oldest son would pore through encyclopedias, getting his older sister to read the captions on the pictures.

The larger issue, however, is not the competition for their time, represented by video games and other diversions. The real issue is the quality of what they read. Even before they could read for themselves, we read our sons compelling, important and mostly adult books in a variety of genres and styles. On the other hand, if you read one book about flatulence you’ve read them all.

There were no rewards for reading a good book at our house except the book itself. No pizza, no TV, no video games. We shared our passion with ideas and the words that make them.

As Spence notes, Aristotle said we should be raised “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.” Civilizing little savages, as I often put it. The natural man does not seek that which is noble. The natural boy, even less so.

Books are part of this process, and failing to engage ours sons in them is one way we fail to make them into men who understand and care about things that matter.

So find a book and read it to a boy.

And make sure you and the book treat him like a man.

6 thoughts on “why boys don’t read”

  1. Thank you Dad. For these thoughts, and all you did to inspire us to read. My boys already love books, and I hope to continue that, but doing just what you did. Narnia, The Once and Future King, Redwall, and so many others that I know captivated us all. Still do, and I’m making sure they’re in our house.

    I love you Daddy. Thanks for reading to us. =)

  2. This is one parenting thing I did right! Both of my sons have always been avid readers and have surpassed my inclination to read way past light fiction. I’ve always felt encouraging base tendencies in anyone to be a mistake.

  3. Umm. This is awkward.

    I’m maybe sort of indirectly responsible for “SweetFarts” getting where it is.

    As the entry processing department of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards organization, I received that book from Raymond Bean, passed it on to the contest judges, and even stored a few copies of it in my garage for six months or so. It ended up winning in the “Children’s/Juvenile Fiction” category and was a finalist in a few others (http://indiebookawards.com/2009_winners_and_finalists.php), netting the author some cash, some publicity, and a contract with a New York literary agent.


      1. For what it’s worth, I thought it was dumb. And that’s coming from a guy who chuckles a little bit at the name “Captain Underpants.”

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