What About Our Boys?

With the release of an alarming new book and a spate of articles (both in New York Times and Huffington Post), attention has once again become focused on why boys are not doing as well as girls in school. This is a question worth asking. I am the mother of three boys – ages 8, 5, and nearly 2 – and therefore am intensely interested in why boys are lagging behind girls. I look at my young sons and squint my eyes: I try to envision them in the future, ten years from now, and wonder if they, too, will lose their motivation to do well, to shrug off school, to be one of the Boys Adrift talked about in Dr. Leonard Sax’s heralded and now-classic book about the five factors he believes are doing serious harm to our boys.

It’s hard to argue with data that suggests that boys are having problems: fewer boys are enrolling in college, and even fewer find the will to graduate. More boys are disciplined for behavioral issues at school, and more boys are diagnosed, and medicated, for ADD and ADHD. More boys are in prison, more boys drop out of high school, and more boys end up living at home with their parents into adulthood.

I don’t have any answers, but instead feel the need to ask questions. Why? Why boys, why now? According to Lisa Bloom, the author of Swagger, the forces could be cultural – many men are portrayed in the popular media either as sophomoric and clueless (Homer Simpson, Two and a Half Men, any beer ad) or rebellious and violent (Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, much of hip-hop culture). Should we parents of boys be concerned with how men are represented, and represent themselves, culturally?

It’s no news to me that our modern schools are engineered toward ideals that are more feminine than masculine – nearly 98% of elementary school teachers and administration are women. This is certainly not their fault. But as I have had to learn how to mother boys, and realized our differences, I can speak to how different it is to relate to them than to another female. I’ve had to shun the way I usually speak – “Um, guys, could you come here for a minute?” and learn instead to use my lower, stronger “dad voice,” just to get their attention. I have also had to reengineer what I thought was fun – sitting and reading, doing crafts, and playing relaxing, sit-down games – and instead opt for fun that features strong activity, competition, and a direct sense of accomplishment (my boys also enjoy reading and crafts, and they play the violin, too —  but these activities are only enjoyed in companion with strong physical activity, preferably outdoors). Couple this female-led education system with the lack of physical activity and exercise most children – not just boys – are faced with every day (at home, too, not just at school), and boys have two strong disincentives to be interested in school – no one in charge is like them, and there’s barely a moment to run around and blow off steam.

What about the pressure to read and calculate that begins in kindergarten – and sometimes, even before? Does this pressure affect boys differently than girls? Are boys really slower to mature, slower to learn – or could they be learning in a different way, one that requires more activity, imagination, and play? Could these qualities be good for all students, not just the boys? We might also look to the popular zero-tolerance policies that advocate for boys to be strongly punished by law enforcement instead of traditional school-discipline measures.

Yet Dr. Sax suggests there is more to it than school. In Boys Adrift, Sax argues that environmental toxins – most prominently Bisphenol-A, or BPA, found in plastic water bottles and sippy cups – are disrupting boys’ hormones and changing how their brains operate.

From looking at all the alarms, and certainly we hear the bells, parents know there is a problem with boys. But now comes the hard part – what to do about it?

In order to serve boys properly, what has to change? For my own family of boys, we have had to make some changes. We enrolled them in a Waldorf school, where the curriculum is rigorous but moves more slowly in the elementary grades, and instead of pushing math and reading at age 5 they focus on art, music, literature, and lots and lots of play, both outdoor play and imagination play. They also provide children with physical activity every day, even in the rain and the snow. These two choices, at least for our children, have made a significant difference in how they view school. In their new environment, my boys feel school is a place for them, filled with things that they *like* to do. For us, taking off the pressure while they are very young means that they have a chance to learn to be curious and adventurous first. In our minds, there will be plenty of time later on for academic pressure, when they are more ready for it.

What about you? How are your boys, and what do you see at your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts.