Friday, March 11, 2016

Boys Vs Books: Beating Back against Busy

Last week, I started a new post series centered around the problems facing boys in regards to literacy. I framed the initial discussion around Disney's Beauty and the Beast and how reading is portrayed within that movie. The movie is famous for its positive portrayal of Belle as a modern, forward thinking princess, and that portrayal is driven home through her love of books. But while Belle is constantly shown reading, the men around her all have problematic relationships with books.

If you're interested in reading the earlier discussion, you can find the previous posts in this series here:

1. Boys vs Books: A Tale as Old as Time

Today, we're looking at one of the three male characters Belle attempts to share her love of books with. We'll start with the first man we see her talk to, the town baker.

Going on Dates with the Baker

When Belle attempts to tell the baker about reading Jack and the Beanstalk, he quickly dismisses her and moves on to his business concerns. The baguettes aren't going to sell themselves, and clearly, he's in a hurry.

As a writer, books come up frequently when I talk to people. It's almost impossible for them NOT to come up, since "what do you do?" is one of the most common questions we ask each other in today's culture. This is especially true on dates. The guys I go out with often feel pressured to fess up to how much they read. And I'll admit, I can understand why. It doesn't help that one of my favorite conversation topics IS books, but I try to make the topic more accessible. I ask them about what they liked to read as kids, especially since children's lit is my area. But invariably, they still tell me how much they currently read, and the conversation typically goes like this:

"I like reading, but it's been forever since I, you know... read a book. I'm just so busy. It takes way too much time."

I'll note that this happens often when I talk to women, too. Busy is one of the great catch phrases of our time. We're all too busy for SOMETHING, it's just a matter of exactly WHAT we're too busy for. But formal studies and my own casual experience reinforce that yes, there are more men who are too busy to read than women.  So why is this?

Mastering the Reading "Economy"

Many of my male friends have pointed out that time is a big stumbling block for them. A few have described to me at length that the reason they like movies so much is because they're self contained and over quickly. A movie costs you 2 hours of your life, whereas a book of 80,000 words is going to take you at least 4 hours. But this still doesn't answer the question of why men read less. Aren't the same time constraints applicable to women? What made men particularly susceptible to cutting books out of their lives based on time?

For an incredibly unscientific perspective on this, I would like to share an anecdote. It comes from ONE man articulating his feelings about reading, but they struck me as rather interesting, and worth restating. Call it my inner anthropologist, but while these first hand accounts don't always have statistics to back them up, I find they can add depth to cultural trends.

We were, at the time, talking about my frustration with the fact that none of my male friends seemed to read books that had come out since the Harry Potter series ended. While I'm now paraphrasing, in effect, he said this:

"Look, books take a long time to read. And men can't help but look at things like books and movies and say to themselves, "what is this going to get me long term?" We're trained to think of practically everything like a business investment. We find ourselves wondering "how much social capital is this going to result in?" So if we are going to read, we read the classics, because we know 40 years from now, there's still going to be people talking about them. They'll have paid off. With things we're less sure on, we're more likely to just see the movie. It makes it so we know what people are talking about, but haven't invested our time in the wrong place. I know for myself, I can't help worrying that if I read a new book, no one is going to know what I'm talking about. I want to read things I KNOW someone else has read and assured me is valuable."

This surprised me a bit. What he was describing wasn't reading for the pleasure of reading, but reading for some other, distant benefit that would result from the experience. Often, when we try to sell people of either gender on the idea of reading, we sell it on the idea of enjoyment. We repost pictures of people curled up in pajamas with a cup of tea and a novel on Facebook. We talk about falling in love with characters and getting the "feels" when tragic things happen to them.

This looks super exciting to me, but is it everyone's week-end fantasy?

The problem with this model is that when we stake reading entirely on enjoyment, it becomes as low priority as everything else we happen to "enjoy," rather than distinctly different and valuable. When we tell people to read more because "reading is fun," the discussion can become us shouting at them "YOU SHOULD LIKE THIS MORE" and them shouting back either, "but I don't..." or "I DO like it! But have you noticed how little time there is for the things I LIKE?"

Both counter arguments are quite strong from this standpoint. You can't force someone to like something and you can't force them to have time for things they like when life is so busy, busy, busy!

But still, why is this happening with men? Is it because of the "business model" mentality my friend described to me? Studies suggest that men show this "investment" thinking in other areas. Women dominate in college majors such as the arts and humanities, whereas men dominate in areas that lead to firm "career paths." And yes, this includes many specifically "business" related programs, like finance. Some estimates place women as only 40% of business majors, despite the fact that women are outstripping men in general college enrollment. Where women do show up in business is in the more people oriented areas like human resources and advertising, which, it's little surprise, are also areas that depend more on reading and literacy skills.

The Unbeatable Value of Reading

Once again, we've got a cultural problem on our hands. There's a lot of buzz about getting more women into STEM fields, and gradually, we're making headway. Girls are catching up in mathematics and other STEM related subjects in schools. But at the same time, boys are falling further and further behind in literacy and reading. And it's getting serious enough, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if studies surface showing that it's leading to decreased opportunities in earning and employment, just as the disconnect between STEM and girls has for women. We already know boys are falling behind in college enrollments, and reading and writing are their roughest subjects.

No amount of movie watching will substitute for the skills developed during reading and writing. Better readers are better writers and reading and writing skills are fundamental in many employment fields. Of my two degrees, it's by far my writing degree that actually gets me jobs. Offices are looking for people who can research, read and write.

On top of that, most employers want people with strong social skills, and some studies have suggested that there is a link between reading literary fiction and the ability to empathize with others. Reading books where the characters showcase complicated emotions has been linked with our ability to deal with these emotions when real people showcase them. While the studies are still early, they are compelling. Also, even if you're someone who works in a contained sphere where social skills aren't paramount, empathy is a highly valuable skill when it comes to things like - oh, I don't know - making friends and dating, perhaps?

At the same time, high levels of watching television (and we can lump movies in here largely too) are associated with higher levels of depression, something that can't be said of reading. In other words, you might THINK you like movies more, but they're not actually making you very happy. At least not in the long term.

Books are all about teaching the value of long term investment and commitment. They require us to visualize what the words say, rather than spoon-feeding the images and experience to us. They take effort and time and, like most things that require effort, make us think harder and deeper and ultimately, make us happier.

All of this is to say that if you are someone who thinks you are too "busy" to read, I hope you'll reconsider what you're investing in. A single book might take more time than a movie, but you will be better for it if you add a couple books to your diet. The benefits are not equal. The long term gains from reading outpace the long term gains from movies and television.

I know I'm coming down hard here, and don't get me wrong, I love a good story told through film. But if the average American spends 4.5 hours watching television, is it really fair to say that none of that time could be spent reading? In an ideal world, I'd love to see people cutting that back so they could fit in 1 hour of reading per day, but if people even tried to read just 2 or 3 new books each year, that would be a huge win.

The Busy Boy

Up until this point, I've spoken largely about how adult men interact with books. But the truth is, men aren't the only one's saying they are "too busy." Studies in Ontario have shown that this is an excuse that school age boys give too, where frankly, it holds less weight. While a grown man might conceivably be busy with a career or caring for children or any number of adult responsibilities, children are not busy in the same way. And yet, I'm guessing that it's pretty frequent that boys who are too "busy" to read as children often grow up to use the same excuse as adults.

I can think of three things that boys might secretly be saying when they claim they're too busy to read.

1) I'm one of those textbook over-scheduled children who literally can't find time to read. I'm so busy!
2) I don't like reading very much and I'm busy doing other things!
3) Some other reason is stopping me from reading, but I'm too embarrassed to talk about it, so I'll just say I'm busy and hopefully, that means you'll leave me alone.

What are the solutions for dealing with these reasons?  Let's give it a shot, shall we? Of course, if you happen to be the parent of a girl who makes these same excuses, the same advice applies.

1) The Over-Scheduled Boy

Of all the potential problems, this is probably the easiest dealt with. Most of the time, these HUGE schedules are determined, at least in part, by parents. Simply ease up the schedule and slip in time for reading! Encourage it as something important and set aside time for it. Read to them. One thing that often helps is giving kids only two options when it's time for bed - turn the light off and fall asleep, or read for half an hour before you have to turn the light off and fall asleep. Most kids find sleeping more boring than reading, and this can become prized time for a child where their only option is to develop a love of reading.

2) The "Busy" boy who can't be Bothered.

Let's talk about the word "busy" again. Up until this point, we've been assuming a certain definition for it. In the earlier discussion, "busy" meant "I have too many things to do and this is not a priority, so I'm not doing it" but when we talk about children - especially very young children - busy often means something else.

My youngest nephew just turned two-years-old and he's at that age where he is curious about everything, into everything, climbing everything, falling off everything and altogether, never seems to stop moving. In an effort not to problematize this behavior, parents and early childhood development specialists often refer to this behavior as "busy." He's a busy little boy. This descriptor is sometimes applied to girls, but more often, it falls to boys. "Busy" ends up a code word for energy and an inability to sit still.

Whether or not boys are innately worse at sitting still or if this is a quality that's culturally determined is HUGELY up for debate and well beyond the scope of this essay. I'm not qualified to comment on whether or not boys are encouraged or allowed to run amok more frequently than girls or if their innate drive to zip around with endless energy is tied into a different genetic make-up. Regardless, our perceptions of their busy wiggles do play into how we parent little boys.

A recent study conducted in Canada, the US and the UK found that subconsciously, parents read more to their girls than their boys. At least one of the reasons why is because it's seen as more difficult to read to boys and get them to sit still for a nice, calm parental reading session. This disparity has been linked to why it is that girls are entering schools already ahead of boys in reading and literacy skills. By the second grade, boys begin describing reading as a "girl" activity, dissociating themselves further from it. But the younger you go, the more interest boys show in books and reading. They just aren't crazy about sitting still for it.

One thing that is worth noting with any of these studies regarding academic achievement is that the ability differences are always greater AMONG boys and AMONG girls than BETWEEN boys and girls. What I take this to mean, in part, is that the disparity BETWEEN genders is not inevitable. With that in mind, perhaps reading needs to be reclaimed as a gender-neutral activity. And perhaps as an activity where snapping to attention isn't a requisite. If a boy is allowed to fall over laughing or jump to his feet and act a passage out, he might be more interested in the whole affair.

Otherwise, as boys age, they become more and more enamored with the "busy" things - the ones that play into their curiosity and need for silliness and exploration. Maybe it's sports, maybe it's video games. Who knows? But if the gap already exists, then what can be done to fix it? What do you do when your boy is old enough to think reading isn't for him?

Perhaps part of the answer is to allow reading to be more about the things they're already busy doing. Are there books out there staring his favorite video game characters or super heroes? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Are there books featuring sports he plays? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Are there books that tell funny jokes he can imagine telling to his friends later? (Answer: Yes. There are.) Remember, if a boy doesn't think he likes reading enough to make time for it, he might need more than "sheer enjoyment" to motivate him. He needs to believe it's relevant to him and not inherently "girly."

By the time they're men, most boys have stopped calling reading "girly" but they also are no longer in the habit of making time for it. If reading were a natural part of what they are interested in, then maybe they won't find themselves struggling to remember the last time they read.

Not all parents are huge fans of the things their children are interested in - the fart jokes, the video game explosions. But a library trip where you focus on your little boy's passions might help bring books back into his life.

3) The Boy who is Claiming "Busy" as a Mask for a Different Problem.

Well, this is a SERIES of posts and in fact, I have not yet covered all my thoughts about boys and reading. We'll save the answer to this for a later post. :)

Rethinking Belle

Let's return to Beauty and the Beast for one quick thought experiment; one where Belle is able to connect with the baker about books. Maybe their conversation would have gone a little like this...

Baker: Where you off to?
Belle: The bookshop! I just finished the most interesting book about the effect of wheat on digestive-
Baker: That's ni- wait! Now, don't get me started on this whole gluten-free nonsense! What book was it?

Of course, it's not Belle's job, per say, to parent the baker's reading choices. But meeting people where their interests are is often a key component of getting them to take the time to read, and for actual parents and educators, that's a pretty big thing to keep in mind.

In fact, it's such a key component, it's going to be the subject of the next post in this series. Time to start rethinking Gaston.

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