Save our boys
CHICAGO — I just finished reading “Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men,” written by Dr. Leonard Sax after years of seeing sullen boys in his medical practice fail to thrive.
“From kindergarten to college, [boys are] less resilient and less ambitious than they were a mere 20 years ago. In fact, a third of men ages 22-34 are still living at home with their parents — about a 100 percent increase in the past 20 twenty years,” Sax wrote. His book came out in 2007, when my own two sons were far from adolescence and hadn’t yet developed a visceral hatred of school. The numbers are even higher today.
In “Boys Adrift,” Sax identified several factors creating a toxic environment for boys that is driving their decline: a misguided overemphasis on reading and math as early as kindergarten, too much time playing hyper-real video games, an overreliance on medication for attention deficit disorders and a popular-culture devaluation of masculinity.
Sax also shared his suggestions for solving these problems such as considering starting boys in kindergarten a year later than usual, limiting screen time, drinking from glass rather than plastic and looking for all-boys educational environments. After being invited to many speaking engagements to share his research, Sax took a sabbatical from practicing medicine to find more solutions.
What happened next will astound no one who has stuck up for boys and been shouted down by an unruly crowd assuming that to be “pro-boy” is synonymous with being “anti-girl.”
During his talks, Sax attempted to educate school administrators, teachers, school board members and college faculty on methods for taking gender into account in the classroom. He was roundly dismissed.
“As a physician seeing patients 60 hours a week, I didn’t have an appreciation for the degree to which this topic is political,” Sax told me. “The assumption is that if you advocate for boys, you are right-of-center, and if you advocate for girls you are left-of center. And you must work very hard to make people understand that not only are the politics not the most important issue, but that if you’re seeing boys as the ‘losers’ of good education and work opportunities, girls are not the ‘winners,’ either. But when you start talking about offering boy-friendly instructional strategies, then you must be against girls.”
In 2010, Sax wrote a follow-up book, “Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls — Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins,” and continued to advocate for gender-aware instructional strategies that could help boys with their abysmal reading and writing skills and boost more girls into the math and sciences. All to no avail.
“Ignoring gender differences in education disadvantages both boys and girls,” Sax said. “We live in a sexist culture where boys think it’s uncool to write about their feelings, but though there are many good strategies to get boys to write about feelings, much to my surprise, there is very little interest and, in fact, outright hostility about addressing gender differences among everyone from school board members to university professors.”
“To many, talking about boys accommodates heterosexism and is discriminatory and bigoted to boys, girls and the transgendered,” Sax said. “At that point, when I realized I was simply spinning my wheels trying to create a movement for more gender-aware classroom strategies and tactics, I just went back to full-time medical practice.”
Yet Sax is extremely passionate about the topic, speaking to me at length about how simple things such as changing how writing prompts are phrased for boys or how science units are sequenced for girls can ignite interest in very different ways for different types of learners.
“With just a little bit of training and permission, administrators and teachers can greatly boost achievement for boys without drowning out girls,” Sax said. “It is not a zero-sum game. Gender-aware instructional strategies don’t cost much money and have the potential to get boys excited about writing and girls excited about computer coding. But the notion that boys and girls need something different to love writing or computers is deeply offensive to scholars.”
Perhaps these “scholars” need to spend some time with real boys who cry themselves to sleep on Sunday nights dreading school. These “experts” can come to my house for a primer on how kids end up underserved in an American educational system that pretends boys are doing just fine.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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