The Chronicle Review

The Puzzle of Boys

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

Emma Hardy

November 22, 2009

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.