• July 28, 2014

The Puzzle of Boys

Scholars and others debate what it means to grow up male in America

The Puzzle of Boys 1

Emma Hardy

My son just turned 3. He loves trains, fire trucks, tools of all kinds, throwing balls, catching balls, spinning until he falls down, chasing cats, tackling dogs, emptying the kitchen drawers of their contents, riding a tricycle, riding a carousel, pretending to be a farmer, pretending to be a cow, dancing, drumming, digging, hiding, seeking, jumping, shouting, and collapsing exhausted into a Thomas the Tank Engine bed wearing Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas after reading a Thomas the Tank Engine book.

That doesn't make him unusual; in fact, in many ways, he couldn't be more typical. Which may be why a relative recently said, "Well, he's definitely all boy." It's a statement that sounds reasonable enough until you think about it. What does "all boy" mean? Masculine? Straight? Something else? Are there partial boys? And is this relative aware of my son's fondness for Hello Kitty and tea sets?

These are the kinds of questions asked by anxious parents and, increasingly, academic researchers. Boyhood studies—virtually unheard of a few years ago—has taken off, with a shelf full of books already published, more on the way, and a new journal devoted to the subject. Much of the focus so far has been on boys falling behind academically, paired with the notion that school is not conducive to the way boys learn. What motivates boys, the argument goes, is different from what motivates girls, and society should adjust accordingly.

Not everyone buys the boy talk. Some critics, in particular the American Association of University Women, contend that much of what passes for research about boyhood only reinforces stereotypes and arrives at simplistic conclusions: Boys are competitive! Boys like action! Boys hate books! They argue that this line of thinking miscasts boys as victims and ignores the very real problems faced by girls.

But while this debate is far from settled, the field has expanded to include how marketers target boys, the nature of boys' friendships, and a host of deeper, more philosophical issues, all of which can be boiled down, more or less, to a single question: Just what are boys, anyway?

One of the first so-called boys' books, Michael Gurian's The Wonder of Boys, was not immediately embraced by publishers. In fact, it was turned down by 25 houses before finally being purchased by Tarcher/Putnam for a modest sum. This was in the mid-1990s, and everyone was concerned about girls. Girls were drowning in the "sea of Western culture," according to Carol Gilligan. In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher bemoaned a "girl-poisoning" culture that emphasized sexiness above all else.

Boys weren't the story. No one wanted to read about them.

Or so publishers thought. The Wonder of Boys has since sold more than a half-million copies, and Gurian, who has a master's degree in writing and has worked as a family counselor, has become a prominent speaker and consultant on boys' issues. He has written two more books about boys, including The Purpose of Boys, published this year, which argues that boys are hard-wired to desire a sense of mission, and that parents and teachers need to understand "boy biology" if they want to help young men succeed.

Drawing on neuroscience research done by others, Gurian argues that boy brains and girl brains are fundamentally dissimilar. In the nature versus nurture debate, Gurian comes down squarely on the side of the former. He catches flak for supposedly overinterpreting neuroscience data to comport with his theories about boys. In The Trouble With Boys, a former Newsweek reporter, Peg Tyre, takes him to task for arguing that female brains are active even when they're bored, while male brains tend to "shut down" (a conclusion that Ruben Gur, director of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Tyre isn't supported by the evidence). Gurian counters that his work has been misrepresented and that the success of his programs backs up his scientific claims.

Close on Gurian's heels was Real Boys, by William Pollack. Pollack, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Centers for Men and Young Men, writes that behind their facade of toughness, boys are vulnerable and desperate for emotional connection. Boys, he says, tend to communicate through action. They are more likely to express empathy and affection through an activity, like playing basketball together, than having a heart-to-heart talk. Pollack's view of what makes boys the way they are is less rooted in biology than Gurian's. "What neuroscientists will tell you is that nature and nurture are bonded," says Pollack. "How we nurture from the beginning has an effect." Real Boys earned a stamp of approval from Mary Pipher, who writes in the foreword that "our culture is doing a bad job raising boys."

Pollack's book, like Gurian's, was an enormous success. It sold more than 750,000 copies and has been published in 13 countries. Even though it came out a decade ago, Pollack says he still receives e-mail every week from readers. "People were hungry for it," he says.

The following year, Raising Cain, by Dan Kindlon, an adjunct lecturer in Harvard's School of Public Health, and Michael Thompson, a psychologist in private practice, was published and was later made into a two-hour PBS documentary. Their book ends with seven recommendations for dealing with boys, including "recognize and accept the high activity level of boys and given them safe boy places to express it." The book is partially about interacting with boys on their own terms, but it also encourages adults to help them develop "emotional literacy" and to counter the "culture of cruelty" among older boys. It goes beyond academic performance, dealing with issues like suicide, bullying, and romance.

Perhaps the most provocative book of the bunch is The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, by Christina Hoff Sommers. As the subtitle suggests, Sommers believes that she's found the villain in this story, making the case that it's boys, not girls, who are being shortchanged and that they need significant help if they're going to close the distance academically. But that does not mean, according to Sommers, that they "need to be rescued from their masculinity."

Those books were best sellers and continue to attract readers and spirited debate. While the authors disagree on the details, they share at least two broad conclusions: 1) Boys are not girls, and 2) Boys are in trouble. Why and how they're different from girls, what's behind their trouble, and what if anything to do about it—all that depends on whom you read.

A backlash was inevitable. In 2008 the American Association of University Women issued a report, "Where the Girls Are: the Facts About Gender Equity in Education," arguing not only that the alleged academic disparity between boys and girls had been exaggerated, but also that the entire crisis was a myth. If anything, the report says, boys are doing better than ever: "The past few decades have seen remarkable gains for girls and boys in education, and no evidence indicates a crisis for boys in particular."

So how could the boys-in-trouble crowd have gotten it so wrong? The report has an answer for that: "Many people remain uncomfortable with the educational and professional advances of girls and women, especially when they threaten to outdistance their peers." In other words, it's not genuine concern for boys that's energizing the movement but rather fear of girls surpassing them.

The dispute is, in part, a dispute over data. And like plenty of such squabbles, the outcome hinges on the numbers you decide to use. Boys outperform girls by more than 30 points on the mathematics section of the SAT and a scant four points on the verbal sections (girls best boys by 13 points on the recently added writing section). But many more girls actually take the test. And while it's a fact that boys and girls are both more likely to attend college than they were a generation ago, girls now make up well over half of the student body, and a projection by the Department of Education indicates that the gap will widen considerably over the next decade.

College isn't the only relevant benchmark. Boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, but girls are more likely to be diagnosed with depression. Girls are more likely to report suicide attempts, but boys are more likely to actually kill themselves (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 83 percent of suicides between the ages of 10 and 24 are male). Ask a representative of the AAUW about a pitfall that appears to disproportionately affect boys, like attention-deficit disorder, and the representative will counter that the disparity is overplayed or that girls deal with equally troubling issues.

But it's not statistics that have persuaded parents and educators that boys are in desperate straits, according to Sara Mead, a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation, a public-policy institute. Mead wrote a paper in 2006 that argued, much like the later AAUW report, that the boys' crisis was bunk. "What seems to most resonate with teachers and parents is not as much the empirical evidence but this sense of boys being unmoored or purposeless in a vaguely defined way," Mead says in an interview. "That's a really difficult thing to validate more beyond anecdote." She also worries that all this worrying—much of it, she says, from middle-class parents—could have a negative effect on boys, marking them as victims when they're nothing of the sort.

Pollack concedes, as Mead and others point out, that poor performance in school is also tied to factors like race and class, but he insists that boys as a group—including white, middle-class boys—are sinking, pointing to studies that suggest they are less likely to do their homework and more likely to drop out of high school. And he has a hunch about why some refuse to acknowledge it: "People look at the adult world and say, 'Men are still in charge.' So they look down at boys and say, 'They are small men, so they must be on the way to success,'" says Pollack. "It's still a man's world. People make the mistake of thinking it's a boy's world."

If the first round of books was focused on the classroom, the second round observes the boy in his natural habitat. The new book Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes offers an analysis of what boys soak in from TV shows, video games, toys, and other facets of boy-directed pop culture. The news isn't good here, either. According to the book, boys are being taught they have to be tough and cool, athletic and stoic. This starts early with toddler T-shirts emblazoned with "Future All-Star" or "Little Champion." Even once-benign toys like Legos and Nerf have assumed a more hostile profile with Lego Exo-Force Assault Tigers and the Nerf N-Strike Raider Rapid Fire CS-35 Dart Blaster. "That kind of surprised us," says one of the book's three authors, Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. "What happened to Nerf? What happened to Lego?"

Brown also co-wrote Packaging Girlhood. In that book, the disease was easier to diagnose, what with the Disney princess phenomenon and sexy clothes being marketed to pre-adolescent girls. Everyone was worried about how girls were being portrayed in the mass media and what that was doing to their self-esteem. The messages about boys, however, were easier to miss, in part because they're so ubiquitous. "We expect a certain amount of teasing, bullying, spoofing about being tough enough, even in animated films for the littlest boys," Brown says.

For Packaging Boyhood, the authors interviewed more than 600 boys and found that models of manhood were turning up in some unexpected places, like the Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild, in which the star is dropped into the harsh wilderness and forced to forage. They're concerned that such programs, in order to compete against all the stimuli vying for boys' attentions, have become more aggressively in-your-face, more fearlessly risk-taking, manlier than thou. Says Brown: "What really got us was the pumping up of the volume."

Brown thinks boys are more complicated, and less single-minded, than adults give them credit for. So does Ken Corbett, whose new book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, steers clear of generalizations and doesn't try to elucidate the ideal boyhood (thus the plural "masculinities"). Corbett, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, wants to remind us not how boys are different from girls but how they're different from one another. His background is in clinical psychoanalysis, feminism, and queer studies—in other words, as he points out in the introduction, "not your father's psychoanalysis."

In a chapter titled "Feminine Boys," he writes of counseling the parents of a boy who liked to wear bracelets and perform a princess dance. The father, especially, wasn't sure how to take this, telling Corbett that he wanted a son, not a daughter.

To show how boys can be difficult to define, Corbett tells the story of Hans, a 5-year-old patient of Sigmund Freud, who had a fear of being castrated by, of all things, a horse. Young Hans also fantasizes about having a "widdler," as the boy puts it, as large as his father's. Freud (typically) reads the kid's issues as primarily sexual, and his desire to be more like his father as Oedipal. Corbett, however, doesn't think Hans's interest in his penis is about sex, but rather about becoming bigger, in developing beyond the half-finished sketch of boyhood. "Wishing to be big is wishing to fill in the drawing," Corbett writes.

Corbett disputes the idea that boys as a group are in peril. They have troubles, sure, but so do other people. Treating boys as problems to be solved, rather than subjects to be studied, is a mistake, he says, and much of the writing on boys "doesn't illuminate the experience of being a boy, but it does illuminate the space between a boy and a parent."

The experience of being a boy is exactly what Miles Groth wants to capture. Groth, a psychology professor at Wagner College, is editor of Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies, founded in 2007. An article he wrote in the inaugural issue of the journal, "Has Anyone Seen the Boy?: the Fate of the Boy in Becoming a Man," is a sort of call to arms for boyhood-studies scholars. For years, Groth says, academics didn't really discuss boys. They might study a certain subset of boys, but boys per se were off the table. "I think there was some hesitancy for scholars to take up the topic, to show that they're paying attention to guys when we should be paying attention to girls," says Groth. "Now I think there's less of that worry. People don't see it as a reactionary movement."

That has opened the door for scholars like Niobe Way. A professor of applied psychology at New York University, Way recently finished a book, scheduled to be published next year by Harvard University Press, on how boys communicate. She's been interviewing teenage boys about their friendships, and what she's found is remarkable. While it's common wisdom that teenage boys either can't express or don't possess strong feelings about their friends, Way has discovered that boys in their early teens can be downright sentimental when discussing their friendships. When asked what they liked about their best friends, boys frequently said: "They won't laugh at me when I talk about serious things." What has emerged from her research is a portrait of emotionally intelligent boys who care about more than sports and cars. Such an observation might not sound revolutionary, but what boys told her and her fellow researchers during lengthy, probing interviews runs counter to the often one-dimensional portrayal of boys in popular culture. "They were resisting norms of masculinity," she says.

Note the past tense. At some point in high school, that expressiveness vanishes, replaced with a more defensive, closed-off posture, perhaps as boys give in to messages about what it means to be a man. Still, her research undermines the stereotype that boys are somehow incapable of discussing their feelings. "And yet," she says, "this notion of this emotionally illiterate, sex-obsessed, sports-playing boy just keeps getting spit out again and again."

Touchy-feely talk about friendships may seem disconnected from boys' academic woes, but Way insists they're pieces of the same puzzle. "If you don't understand the experience of boyhood," she says, "you'll never understand the achievement gaps."


Books Cited in This Article

The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian
(Tarcher/Putnam, 1996)

Real Boys, by William Pollack
(Random House, 1998)

Raising Cain, by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson
(Ballantine Books, 1999)

The War Against Boys, by Christina Hoff Sommers
(Simon & Schuster, 2000)

The Trouble With Boys, by Peg Tyre
(Crown Publishers, 2008)

Packaging Boyhood, by Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb, and Mark Tappan
(St. Martin's Press, 2009)

Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, by Ken Corbett
(Yale University Press, 2009)

Thomas Bartlett is a senior writer for The Chronicle.

Comments

1. 22067030 - November 23, 2009 at 09:05 am

It would probably be more accurate to say that girls and boys have serious problems in the way they're raised. And considering the river of ritalin being poured into boys these days, it is hard to take seriously anyone who denies that boys are in trouble.

2. sstahlman - November 23, 2009 at 09:51 am

It seems to me that the issue isn't "how we raise boys" or "how girls and boys are different" but rather - "we need to re-think gender roles and stereotypes because they are negatively influencing our children." The binary hurts everyone. Boys are less likely to go to college and girls are less likely to like themselves - all because we're socializing them into "boys" and "girls" and what it means to be such. In addition, consider the horror that happens when individuals don't fit into those categories. It hurts when a dad says "I wanted a son" when his biologically male child enjoys bracelets. Perhaps if we could all express ourselves in the way that feels best for us, without feeling restricted by gender norms, some of these disparities might be less of an issue.

3. tmatta - November 23, 2009 at 09:57 am

What is not part of this discussion is how the socialization of boys may contribute to the difficulties. Boys are taught how to go from soft to hard. This process varies in many cultures, but ostensibly, these formal or informal rituals prepare the boy, becoming a man, to withstand the hardships of life. Unfortunately, in many instances, emotional intelligence is compromised for the sake of toughness. Girls are similarly capable, but the nurturing role provides them a pathway back. In my book, "The Voices of Men: The Shaping of Masculinities in Three Subcultural Contexts," interviews with Amish, black working-class and white working-class men revealed much of what Lynn Segal referred to as this "mystery of masculinity." This mystery includes altering how the boy relates to himself and others, disassociating from intrapersonal awareness in exchange for hyper vigilance to potential threats, while objectifying others on an interperosonal level. This sets the stage for insensitivity to self and others and possible bullying and/or violence, especially if the man takes the objectification of others to demonizing them.
This is such an important discussion to have for men and women alike.

4. ksledge - November 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

I agree with sstahlman. One thing that all of the research agrees on is that if there are any gender differences (mental, emotional, personality, etc), the differences within each gender are much, much greater. A plot of any measure reveals much greater overlap of the gender distributions than space between their peaks.

Given that we know the very broad range of behavioral expression within each gender, why must we insist on stereotyping and categorizing so much? Why are clothing options so drastically different for babies and children of each gender when their bodies are essentially identical? Why aren't there more "unisex" toys and why do we even associate some toys with one gender or the other in the first place?

No one wins when little girls are taught to be sex objects and little boys are taught that real men are physically strong and never talk. Yet that's the primary message we're getting across.

5. mottgreene - November 23, 2009 at 10:39 am

I've read most of these books, and they are typically qualitative and anecdotal. What one notices in the 60/40 girl/boy split in higher ed, that the styles of conflict resolution and consensus building in single sex middle class US boy groups and girl groups, work to the disadvantage of boys in classroom co-ed settings. There is a substantial anthropological and sociological literature documenting these contrasting styles of decision making in groups ( I am not an anthropologist or sociologist, but I do read their data driven work.) With a 60% majority, girl style decision making increasingly dominates classroom practices, and pushes boys further out. This is not a crisis but a skilled teacher takes it into account in managing classrooms

6. tislove - November 23, 2009 at 10:39 am

My father often used the phrase -- Once a man; twice a boy. Initially I felt he meant that in the later years of a male's life, he is dependent, needing to be cared for like childhood, including nursing homes or even alzheimer's disease. I wonder if anyone is doing research on the later year experiences of men to see if they coincide with the early years of boys?

7. natemawdur - November 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

I enjoy seeing coverage of these issues, as I'll admit to a bias towards interdisciplinary subjects. Hard scientific data, statistical analysis, public policy and theoretical approaches don't capture the whole argument by themselves, but the scholars described seem to utilize these approaches as though coaching a well-coordinated team. "Reduction" and "abstraction" are able to talk to one another and really demonstrate how difficult it is to quantity "human."

8. johntoradze - November 23, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Anecdotally speaking, several professors of mine told me flat out that if I wasn't a woman I could forget about any professorial position.

9. dnewton137 - November 23, 2009 at 02:10 pm

I'd guess that the socialization and education of both boys and girls varies substantially among different cultures. Most of the studies referenced here appear to apply only to our country. Has anyone done substantial research on the process in other countries and cultures?

10. pcpbob - November 23, 2009 at 02:30 pm

Re: mottgreene, I've often wondered why there is so little written (at least as far as I know) about the effects of growing up as a boy in the female-dominated environments of most grade-school classrooms. Is there a body of literature tht examines the long- and short-term effects of the cross-gender power differential in the classroom?

11. crunchycon - November 23, 2009 at 02:43 pm

Have any of your been hands-on raising a son through the education system in this country (whether public or private)? Schools definitely are geared toward the way the majority of girls learn, literature studied focuses on girl-lit, etc. There is a problem with education being femini-focused to the exclusion of things/literature that interest boys. Would this have anything to do with the fact that the vast majority of k-12 teachers are female?

The differences between boys and girls are not merely or mostly nurture -- whether you want to admit it or not, there are physiological differences between boys and girls, and not just the "obvious".

12. laoshi - November 23, 2009 at 03:13 pm

It was a lot easier when it wasn't politically incorrect to give our boys BB guns and just tell'em to be back by dinnertime. Now we got to have journals on boyhood? Jeezus we are slippin' downhill fast.

13. jabber12 - November 23, 2009 at 03:51 pm

It should be noted -- as I have noted in a Letter to the Editor published on the Chronicle following a similar write-up about "boyhood studies" -- that this piece almost completely ignores studies that explore how the "boy crisis" is primarily only an issue for poor Black and Latino boys. One in four black boys, for example, graduates from high school. And many more Black and Latino female students attends college than their male counterparts. Among wealthier white kids, boys actually are OVERrepresented in comparison to girls. How does this modify the debate?

When will articles about boyhood make explicit these ties about race and class that are often ignored over complaints about marginal discrepancies among privileged students?

14. jabber12 - November 23, 2009 at 04:09 pm

In fact, for an easier read about the numbers, take a look at data Tamar Lewin (NYT) pulled from an American Council on Education report:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/12/education/12gender.html


15. csorkin - November 23, 2009 at 04:09 pm

Turning off the television set is one easy way to cut down on stereotypes and let both boys and girls be themselves, whomever they are.

16. crunchycon - November 23, 2009 at 04:33 pm

Jabber -- wealthy white kids tend to go to expensive private schools. The problems in public schools and less-expensive private schools encompass the middle and lower class white boys, too.

17. paultheexpoet - November 23, 2009 at 05:02 pm

I agree with a lot of the postings here so far. Let me only add that for a woman to be strong and sensitive is easy than for a man, because a woman is only expected to survive, while a man is expected to beat the other guy, and in the normal course of events, such as sports or business, the other guy isn't a black hat villian, but a guy just like him. And I also intend to raise my kids in a TV free environment.

18. jabber12 - November 23, 2009 at 05:16 pm

@cruncycon - But if wealthier white boys are overrepresented in higher education, how can any of this be about "physiological differences between boys and girls"? How can we make such widesweeping generalizations about all boys or all girls when the data shows that class and race matters most? If we were to follow the logic of gendered physicality affecting educational achievement, are people prepared to try and dare state that Black boys are failing more than their white peers because of innate characteristics? Something tells me no.

19. djdjdj - November 23, 2009 at 10:38 pm

In my short teaching experience, I think the problem with boys is that they have been spoiled for so much of their young lives. It is no secret that many mamas tend to coddle their boys for much too long. I know of some mamas who push the fathers away for any necessary discipline these boys may need. As far as the part fathers play in the problems with their sons, these dads are either not present in the home, or if they are in the home, they do not spend quality time with their sons because they are too busy trying to be "boys" themselves.

Now, these same spoiled boys go off to elementary and high school and they get spoiled there as well. Then they come to college expecting the same coddling and spoiling and when they do not get this special treatment, that is when they get angry. I have never seen so many male students run to "tell" the chair on the teacher for requiring them to be responsible in doing their school work.

The majority of the students in my classes who are likely to be failing, disruptive, late, absent, argumentative, arrogant, childish and full of excuses are male. To top it all off, the worst of these "boys" are the older ones.

20. rbrunson56 - November 24, 2009 at 05:54 am

Boys and girls are different, whether the AAUW chooses to acknowledge that or not. Children learn what it means to be a man or woman by modeling those around them, whether parents, TV, or others.

When our culture is confused about the definition and meaning of being man and woman, it is most certain that our children will be confused.

Since we as a society have thrown out the idea of some type of original design for man and woman, this debate, and the books surrounding it, are a very natural outcome.

21. 12039333 - November 24, 2009 at 09:00 am

Speaking unscientifically from my 15+ years of experience raising a daughter and a son, I perceive that while society nowadays tells girls they can be and do anything they want, it tells boys that they can be and do anything they want--as long as it's not what girls are and do. Having to define themselves first and foremost as not-girls drives boys into an ever-narrowing range of choices, even as girls' opportunities widen. And because it is still a man's world, both genders reject what they perceive as "women's work," which perhaps accounts for the relative absence of men from professions such as elementary schoolteaching and nursing, even as women flock to medical schools and Ph.D. programs.

22. drgarysgoodman - November 24, 2009 at 10:44 am

At my daughter's first swimming lesson, the teacher remarked as my baby shed tears, "Well, she's ALL GIRL!"

"How dare you label my girl 'All Girl'!" I thought, bristling at the stereotype.

That struggling squirt went on to become a scholar-athlete, achieving distinction and self-assurance in soccer and WATER POLO!

Biology and culture are not independent.



23. thomaswaite - November 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Stop the make believe drugs and let boys be boys and girls be girls. We have blurred the lines and are rasing a nation of spinless boys. Another victory for political correctness and false diversity.

24. okiephd - November 24, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I am wondering how much of stereotypical adolescent boy behavior--rambunctousness, difficulties in focusing, difficulties communicating--is a result of the standard American diet, which is, as we know, heavy in sugar and starch, and low in water consumption. (And, what about all the chemicals in processed food??) I have a 12 year old son and his ability to focus is much improved when he drinks sufficient water, eats healthily (whole grains, minimal, if any, sugar), gets lots of sleep, and has opportunities to run around. I think--and I believe there may be some evidence to support this--that the more time boys spend sedentary and divorced from a natural environment, the more they exhibit behaviors antithetical to academic progress.

25. apino - November 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Sitting quietly in nice little rows and studying books is a classroom model that long preceded the entrance of women into schools. It may not be the best way, but the notion that this is something new, imposed upon the poor boys by a feminist culture, is absurd. If anything, the classroom model has loosened up a bit in recent decades, allowing more opportunity for students to speak up, ask questions, and move about.

Why do so many boys (and girls) struggle with behavioral issues? It's partly cultural, but it's probably also because kids don't have enough opportunities to get tired. Few children get up before dawn to feed the farm animals any more. They don't walk to school. They often don't even have PE and recess, and when they get home, their parents won't let them back out the door for fear that a kidnapper is lurking behind every bush. All that youthful energy has to go somewhere, and it manifests as fidgeting and frustration in the classroom.

As for the education itself, I can't speak to the actual "femininity" or "masculinity" of any particular curriculum currently in use, but I feel confident that children would do better with a more even ratio of male to female teachers. How do we accomplish that? How do we get men to go into education? A lot of boys don't have good role models at home, so having more male teachers would be of immense value to their overall success in academia and in life.

26. navydad - November 24, 2009 at 01:55 pm

So do we now need "Boy Studies" as a new discipline?

27. jeraldr - November 24, 2009 at 05:23 pm

I've read a lot of peculiar comments on this thread, much of it huffing and puffing by guys with grossly oversimplistic statements about "letting boys be boys" or "letting girls be girls". No one can ever explain what that means, really. As a gay person, I've grown used to a culture where gender norms are questioned constantly. Honestly, in a world where real life drag queens are braver and more ferocious than straight hypermasculine icons like Rambo, and where real life women routinely do everything men do backwards and in high heels, this thread seems a bit unevolved.

28. cwinton - November 24, 2009 at 05:36 pm

Wow, just like economics, lots of wildly varying opinions, and probably all of them wrong.

29. disquod - November 24, 2009 at 11:14 pm

It seems that this is a subject that almost demands to be politicized. Once that happens, then "libbers" can concentrate on this topic and belittle any other simply because it is not THIS TOPIC. This is what I am seeing often in the reactions of readers and many of the "researchers" mentioned in the article itself. Those who are of a more feminist bent cannot recognize that young males are in trouble simply because they are not females and therefore do not matter as much. This is a very unfortunate attitude and will get us nowhere.

I was a high- and middle-school teacher for over 30 years, and I have seen no progress in the psychology of young males. There has been plenty of progress (well, there has been change; I'm not sure it is real progress) with females because the libbers typically overreact and concentrate solely on those who are important to them - females. Boys, on the other hand, are still the same as they were in 1967. They are still taught that males should be strong and silent - John Wayne-Gary Cooper - and that they do not do certain things (cry, exhibit emotion). These are the boys who, despite their intelligence, end up emulating their neanderthal gym teachers who only reaffirm the neanderthal ideas of masculinity. Meanwhile, more and more attention is poured on females as a kind of compensation for a historically male-dominated world. Females progress (or change). Males do not. How can anyone fail to perceive the problem?

Somebody somewhere has to recognize that if one pays attention to a boy, one is not necessarily slighting a girl, and vice versa. We are talking about the future. Parents and educators have to treat youngsters TRULY equally. Libbers don't want equality; they want to change the domination from male to female, which would be as dumb as it already is - no progress, only change to the other side. [My female students used to come into my class and say, "Ms So-and-So says that girls are better than boys, so I'm not going to pay attention to you anymore because you are just a boy". This is education? I only foresee difficulty for these poor kids.

Progress means depoliticization. If we don't depoliticize, we will remain in the same morass we are currently in. Why does no one see this?

30. brettj - November 25, 2009 at 10:32 am

"Corbett, however, doesn't think Hans's interest in his penis is about sex, but rather about becoming bigger, in developing beyond the half-finished sketch of boyhood. "Wishing to be big is wishing to fill in the drawing," Corbett writes."

Surely there's an evolutionary (psychology) /anthropological level to view this through (and other points raised throughout) as well. Associations with the desire to procreate, etc. as core motivators. Also possibly connected is activity level and (in commenter okiephd's words) "divorce from the natural environment" -- surely playing a role in some boys' discomfort with certain learning environments.

31. crunchycon - November 25, 2009 at 11:17 am

jabber -- it is class far more than race that is the indicator. Not to stereotype, but poorer families tend not to value education or promote reading skills in their children -- and they tend to have more children. So in public schools, for a low income kid to get ahead, there must be role models and mentoring. Since most k-12 teachers are women, boys lack role models.

Disquod -- I agree with you. My son encountered much the same attitudes in school. There were all kinds of programs ONLY for girls -- mentoring, "girls in math and science", etc., but nothing specifically for boys. When a seminar was set for parents of boys (okay, it was an honors public h.s.), the parents of girls created a HUGE ruckus on the parents blog and were quite meanspirited until it was found out that a seminar for parents of girls was set for the following month. The h.s. has a policy that AT LEAST half the spaces in each class are set aside for girls. Most of the "problem" students are boys, over 90% of the D and F grades are from boys - yet they wouldn't be there if they were capable of doing the work. More than a third of these very bright boys quit college or fail out in their first year. Yet nothing is being done about it.

32. mikerol - November 25, 2009 at 02:17 pm

The mere idea of being born as boy or girl or neuter into amurrican culture turns me retrospectively into an autist.

33. jmonroe6400 - November 25, 2009 at 02:35 pm

Here's another in that seemingly endless list of issues which have been thoroughly muddled and ideologized by people trying too hard to turn theory into practice.

Nothing should be more humbling to our sense of the importance of "the data" than seeing how much nonsense the data has supported and continues to support -- and not just nonsense: positive damage to our reserves of common sense and "received wisdom" (that hated phrase). Imagine how many people have shot their mouthes off about how girls need this or boys need that, with nothing but piecemeal, decontextualized research to support their claims, never thinking about the potential for harm to real kids, driven by self-importance, and sometimes only thinking about their pathetic political agendas or the public profile of their research program. Prudence, at least, should restrain researchers from excessive confidence in the practical significance of successful peer review.

Honestly, are we really going to say anything beneficial to real kids after refering this to another theoretical perspective (evolutionary psychology?!!!) or another longitudinal survey? A more refined study of boyhood? I would rather have no more studies of boyhood, or girlhood for that matter, than risk another wildly overstated call for reform... and my study's walls can't take too many more journal dents.

The truth is that there is not now and will not be for the foreseeable future any theoretical prism through which we can view boys and girls that will outperform common sense guided by good will towards all. The world is complex, the theories are simple. Research occurs within a domain that does not necessarily include large swathes of the outside world. That is why we have common sense.

34. the_journey - November 25, 2009 at 03:00 pm

Oh good grief...yet another article purporting to summarise an area of interest, but demonstrating only that lots of people have differing views on lots of things. Plus the resulting talkfest...

My own thoughts? Treat with care academic studies: many of this subset are neither very bright nor very worldly. Treat with care female views on this particular subject: while the ladies are as entitled as anyone else, their views on male matters can be so misguided as to be laughable. Give your children unqualified love and approval for who they are. Embrace life as it is.

35. brettj - November 25, 2009 at 03:00 pm

jmonroe - I for one am not calling for a distancing from common-sense (though some do call for an exclusively-theoretical/scientific view of things). Indeed, this should be the starting (and fall-back) point - our mythologies and cultural wisdom (a.k.a. common-sense) speaks to immesurably more than various narrow fields of science can.

That said, the idea of giving up attempts at analysizing a more difficult subject such as this - simply because there isn't "any theoretical prism" (well put) that will grant us give us insight beyond accumulated common-sense - is short-changing our own capablilities as humans. Why call for a shutting down of a means of exploration, if it doesn't necessarily negate the benefits and knowledge of another sphere (common-sense)?

36. jabber12 - November 26, 2009 at 08:34 pm

@crunchycon - I do think class plays a strong role, but I don't think we can look at race and class as separates. We can definitely observe that intersections of low SES with Blacks and Latinos produces some of the most dire statistics for boys from these groups, and it's worth trying to understand why. It's also a -complete- misnomer that people from low-SES backgrounds do not value education or try to promote reading skills (see Anette Lareau's "Unequal Childhoods"). There's a lot of arguments out there that say that schools, predominantely run by middle-class teachers and administrators, teach to middle-class audiences and ignore the issues faced by poor/racial minority students.

37. pooleside - November 27, 2009 at 08:28 pm

Perhaps it isn't that there is something the matter with boys (or with girls). Perhaps it's the soul-destroying world we offer for them to grow into. It's remarkable that most actually "make it".

Of course, they only "make it" by perverting their sense of self and of justice, of value and of what matters. It's how society sustains itself- it eats the young.

If anyone has a sincere desire to improve the lot of boys (and girls), I would recommend that they at least face the reality of this death-dealing system we work for, and speak truth about it.

38. pulseguy - November 27, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I'm a boy. Okay, I was a boy. Now I'm 58. All of my friends have always been able to communicate about emotional issues. From my experience, which might not be universal, I think men are better able to communicate about emotional issues than women. Before anybody goes crazy, that is my experience. I'm not trying to argue it is typical. But, I suspect it is more typical than people realize.

I've had 30 year long conversations about emotional issues with other guys. But, we don't spend hours talking about these things. We might bring it up and speak for 5 minutes, and then a month later, it comes up again. Same thread, same depth. That is the way we do it.

We don't sit and face each other often when we talk. We usually sit at 45 degree angles from each other. I don't know why. But, this doesn't mean we aren't engaging, and it doesn't mean we aren't connecting.

39. amnirov - November 30, 2009 at 05:27 pm

So many posters are chanting let boys and girls be what they want to be, but with one exception. Boys, it seems, are absolutely positively not allowed to want to be boys. I tell you. I'm taking my son hunting and fishing. He's going to learn how to gut a deer, clean a fish, set up a tent, build a fire. He's going to learn how to fix a car, how to throw a punch, how to climb up on a roof and look down smiling, while hiding his fear. Boys need to be proud of masculinity. And you know what? If it sounds cartoonish or stereotyped to you, you simply do not get it.

40. aifos - November 30, 2009 at 10:42 pm

amnirov: will you also teach him how to pick his nose and fart?

Really: seems you have such an agenda.

I will let me son do what ever he wants. I will hold him, and kiss him and tell him I love him. And when he does things, I will do them with him (as long as I can). I will teach him to be a man by being a man: not by gutting a deear, climbing a roof, picking my nose, fixing a car or farting. Just by being the man who loves his son.

41. thegrammardoc - December 10, 2009 at 02:10 pm

This was a fascinating article, especially since I am raising a three-year-old son as a single mother. I allow my son to be the caring, independent, shy, outgoing, loving, brave boy he is. It changes on a daily basis, and I support and respect each part of him. As parents or those who deal with children daily, we have to allow our children the opportunity to "be" while guiding them - not according to male / female stereotypes, but with love and respect.

42. boyscouncil - December 16, 2009 at 12:20 am

The Council for Boys and Young Men is a model that promotes healthy male development throughout adolescence by incorporating a balanced set of strategies that pair action with teamwork and empathic experiences to promote and enhance boys' growth. The model recognizes boys' inherent strengths as well as vulnerabilities to excessive notions of masculinity (i.e. don't cry, be tough, act cool) at all costs. With culturally responsive approaches, The Council allows boys and young men to show heart while standing up for respect for each other, rather than having fun or seeking respect at the expense of others. We welcome your interest in this approach: www.boyscouncil.com

43. post_functional - December 28, 2009 at 08:07 am

Gosh, laoshi, I bet I know what movie you watched more than once this week.

44. amnirov - December 28, 2009 at 12:32 pm

My son somehow figured out nose picking and farting all on his own. There is nothing wrong with masculinity.

45. post_functional - December 28, 2009 at 06:49 pm

There is something wrong with a narrow, inflexible definition of masculinity.

46. amnirov - December 30, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Actually, problems start when someone tries to define masculinity as being anything except a certain set of interests and activities. Liking cars and beer and baseball and not caring about fake holidays or the color of one's shirts... good, honest masculine values.

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