How to Raise Boys Who Read

Raising Boys Who Love to Read

An interesting rebuttal to today’s WSJ post on How to Raise Boys Who Read from Rob Doughtery:

There is an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning about getting boys to read, which is an important issue because in most cases, boys are lagging seriously behind girls by their teenage years. The only way, of course, to improve reading skills is to actually do it and the author of this article, Thomas Spence, tries to make a connection between bribery with video games and reluctant readers. I think it’s a very valid point, overall, but misses the mark in a few rather significant ways. I do agree with the general premise, however, that if you want a kid to read, then bribing him with a video game is at best merely a distraction and at worst completely counterproductive.

About a month ago there was an article that came across the Associated Press in which librarians maintained that parents should worry first that kids are reading at all and worry about what they’re reading later. Hence, you have Captain Underpants and Sir Fartsalot. I’ve got to admit, I’m with Mr. Spence on this for three reasons: First, I think they’re gross myself and I don’t want to see them; Second, I don’t think every boy is really intrigued by boogers and farts that much anyway-at least not enough to read books about it; Third, I think the idea simply throws all boys into the same mold without any sense of individuality.

My daughter has only recently really caught on to reading and what did it was not the American Girl series. It was Zombiekins. She found a couple semi-scary books that catered to her interest. She also read the first couple Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. She now says she loves reading and reads everything in sight. So, it may be pandering to their interests, but I’m not sure that’s ultimately a bad thing. What isn’t usual is that you can’t assume that all girls will read X and all boys will read Y. That equation just doesn’t work out and reinforces stupid stereotypes (which is one of the things we’re trying to overcome anyway, right?) Let’s instead treat boys and girls as individuals, shall we?

I’d agree with the author that video games need to be kept under watch, but there’s no need to be a prude, either. Video games were no more and no less available to my daughter once reading caught on with her. What happened was she just matured to a point where reading was attractive, available, interesting and always encouraged. I think the key is not to go all crazy on TV and video games. Think, after all, of all the things you might’ve been denied in your life. Have you ever wanted anything more than the forbidden fruit? Yeah, me neither, so let’s not create an artificial lack thinking we’ll change kids’ ideas about games. This is the part of the argument where I think Mr. Spence gets off track. If you create a video game free environment, you don’t needCaptain Underpants anymore. Your 13 year old son will read Robinson Crusoe instead, just like magic. I don’t think that’s surprising. I’m pretty sure I could get a 7 year old to take Sartre out for a spin if I locked him in a room with no other stimulation. We could withhold food and get them to dive into Wittgenstein even, maybe. I can guarantee one thing by that approach: You might get them reading, but they’re going to resent it. And, despite what Mr. Spense says, I’m not sure anyone could devise an adequate torture device to get a pre-teen boy to read Jane Austen. It won’t be happening.

I’d argue if boys aren’t reading as much as girls, it’s because they’re encouraged more to engage in different pursuits than girls that exclude reading (and sitting still for that matter). Before we had my son, I thought my daughter was active. They’re not even close. So, yes, I can understand that most boys are very different than most girls and getting them to stop moving long enough to look at a book is a challenge unto itself, not to mention that we parents want them to burn some of that excess energy off. That’s just something we have to overcome.

Instead, here’s what I’d propose: Throw books at your kids every chance you get. Not literally, but if it works, go for it. Take them to the library once a week. Talk about books. Read in front of them. Read to them. Buy them books. Let them pick out books they want and if they judge it just by the cover, so be it. Don’t judge too harshly what they choose. Try to expose them to other things, but don’t take it too hard when they balk at it. Just keep trying until something sticks. Insist on at least 20 minutes of reading a day as soon as they can manage it and scale that up as they improve and age.

Follow PragmaticMom’s board Reluctant Readers on Pinterest.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. A few good points, but basically a weak rebuttal. If it’s true that “if boys don’t read well, it’s because they don’t read enough,” as Spence asserts, then what IS taking up their time instead? Yes, we are all ridiculously busy and over-scheduled in our culture, but girls are just as busy as boys and they’re still reading; so it can’t be that.

    For Spence, it’s the large amount of time boys spend in front of some sort of screen. While this can be an issue with girls, it’s a bigger issue with boys. There are true gender differences, however they manifest themselves individually, as you yourself say when you write that you “can understand that most boys are very different than most girls,” which is not a “stupid stereotype” but reality. And for many people, it’s easier to flop down in front of the tube than it is to pick up a book. My kids are strong readers, often reading more than one book at a time, but even they would rather flip on the TV if it’s an unmanaged option.

    You also write (and I’d say that this is another stereotype), “I’d argue if boys aren’t reading as much as girls, it’s because they’re encouraged more to engage in different pursuits than girls that exclude reading (and sitting still for that matter).” But hasn’t that always been the case historically? It’s really nothing new. The gender literacy gap that Spence addresses, however, is a relatively recent development — 1992, to be precise, according to the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. Your point, then, is not relevant to this particular issue.

    Moreover, I disagree with the notion that if a kid is encouraged to read indiscriminately, he or she will naturally gravitate to higher quality books at a later date. If you’re raised on Twinkies, it doesn’t follow that you will automatically develop a taste for (broccoli? squash? green beans? potatoes presented in a form other than fries?) later on.

    And you fail to even address Spence’s pertinent point on what kind of impact this kind of reading (SweetFarts) is having on the minds of its audience.

    Finally: “I don’t think every boy is really intrigued by boogers and farts that much anyway-at least not enough to read books about it.” Really? Have you been to a Cub Scout pack meeting lately? Humor regarding bodily functions still reigns supreme.

    • It’s clear that Ellen is a parent who has successfully gotten her children to read. She makes great points about the importance of monitoring screen time (and none is not a realistic option as the rebuttal article points out) but also the importance of quality books. I think that is the hardest part when your kids are picky about their entertainment but particularly their reading material. Endlessly sourcing a stream of good books that engage them IS HARD WORK! There are lots of great blogs on this for particular genres; please check out my blog roll on Children’s Lit. I try to earmark any great children’s lit blog I come across. Librarians and teachers are also wonderful resources … and try to ask your school librarian for help though I understand she or he is not around at drop off or pick up but try emailing for ideas. Ask peers of your child, especially the ones who like to read. Often a peer suggestion is spot on and more powerful because it’s from a kid! What I like to do is ask the kid (and can be older) to recommend books for my kid and let them have a conversation. That kid will “sell” the book to your kid! And often you can ever borrow it!

      And realize that you don’t have to work this hard forever. You just need to get your kids over the tipping point where reading becomes pleasurable. It’s different for every child but once they hit that point, they can take it from there (more or less on their own).

    • Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. You bring up excellent points. What is the root cause for this difference? I’m sure that screen time and the variety of ubiquitous screens help to increase screen time for boys (I’ve witnessed this in my own house) because boys are more interested in competitive video games than girls. There is so much research that all points to limiting screen time but it is quite a feat to actually pull off. As for reading junk versus quality, ah… that is a slippery slope. Does reading junk slide the reader onto more reading and higher quality stuff versus no reading? For some kids, probably yes. OR, does reading junk keep that kid on a junky diet whereas they’d have eaten more healthfully if offered better stuff? That I don’t know. What to do? Keep a wide range of books accessible and rotate, rotate, rotate them out. Maybe it likes getting someone off an addictive substance? Little by little do a switch out??? But I supposed an addition to reading junky stuff is better than not reading at all.

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