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The Problem With Boys

By Marty Nemko

What changes would you recommend if I told you that African-American children were:

four to eight times as likely to be drugged with Ritalin and other stimulants, which pediatrician Leonard Sax, calls “academic steroids.”

reading much more poorly than are other students.

five times more likely to commit suicide.

two and a half times as likely to drop out of high school.

severely underrepresented in college and even more so among college graduates, thereby locking them out of today’s, let alone tomorrow’s, knowledge economy.

You’d likely invoke such words as “institutional racism” to justify major efforts to improve African-Americans’ numbers.

All of the above statements are true except for one thing: I’m not talking about African-American children. I’m talking about children of all races, indeed half of all children, half of our next generation: boys.

When a disparity hurts females or minorities, major efforts are implemented to redress the situation. Why not with boys? In our politically correct world, if you point to an inequity against women or a minority, you’re considered heroic, but dare you point out a deficit suffered by men, you’re demonized as a whiner or anti-female. Today’s media leaders, when in college, were relentlessly told how oppressive men are, so now, these media gatekeepers usually refuse to publish male-positive pieces. So, except for a few minimally influential books and articles, all we continue to hear is an endless, often unfair drumbeat about how girls and women continue to be shortchanged. (For example, there’s that ubiquitous bogus statistic that women earn 79 cents on the dollar compared with men when, in fact, according to the definitive book, Why Men Earn More, for the same work, women earn at least as much as men.) Meanwhile, the media, when it mentions boys at all, insist that boys are doing just fine. For example, a recent Time magazine cover story, The Myth About Boys, declared “Boys are all right,” implying that those horrifying statistics cited above are somehow outweighed by tiny recent gains in test scores (which, by the way, are dwarfed by girls’ gains.)

And our schools continue to get ever more feminized. Competition, one of boys’ favorite motivators, has largely been excised in favor of “cooperative learning,” (which, in the real world, usually means that the bright do the dull’s work.) Stories of heroism and bravery are replaced with tomes about relationships and female heroes. Recess is increasingly being replaced by yet another round of phonics. Girls are told they can accomplish anything while boys are taught that masculinity is an anti-social trait that must be extinguished. It’s no surprise that the number of boys who said they didn't like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001.

The percentage of female elementary school teachers has risen from 82% in 1980 to 91% today, a record high. The main role model boys see in school is the custodian. And when boys get home from school, the male role models get worse. Whether watching a sitcom, movie, cartoon, or commercial, the odds are good that the male is a buffoon or sleazebag while the female is savvy and confident. Males are primarily responsible for creating the cars we drive, the buildings we live in, the computers we use, and the medical discoveries that save our lives, yet if a Martian descended upon earth and watched TV, he’d conclude that men are disposable. If role models matter, how do you imagine boys are affected by all this?

What to do? Children’s mindmolders are the media, schools, and family. Each has a role:

The media now takes inordinate care to ensure that women, minorities, and gays are not disproportionately portrayed negatively. Equal care must now be given to boys and men.

Schools claim to celebrate diversity yet insist on providing one-size-fits-all education. Whether in co-ed or single-sex classes, boys need boy-friendly instruction: more non-feminized male teachers, more competition, praise for boldness, more active learning (for example, drama and simulation) and less seatwork, less relationship-centric fiction and more how-to books, teachers’ simply accepting that boys will, on average, wiggle more than girls--and that does not require ongoing criticism, which, not surprisingly, leads to more oppositional behavior, to the school psychologist, to the little yellow bus of special education, and even more often to Ritalin. The number of boys drugged with stimulants to control “hyperactivity” has, in the past 20 years, risen 3000%!

Ironically, educated parents often do particularly badly by boys. The college curriculum and the media consumed by the intelligentsia stresses the accomplishments of women and the evils of men. So, these parents too often feel justified in emasculating, squeezing the maleness out of boys: aggressiveness, competition, physicality, dislike of long seatwork. Of course, I’m not advocating that parents allow Junior to become a savage, but the above qualities, channeled wisely, can be the stuff of which greatness is made. We can refine but rarely remold so we must honor males’ ways of being, just as we’ve been urged now for decades to honor females’.

Boys represent half our future, so a problem with boys is a major problem for society. In addition, having so many children unnecessarily unhappy and underperforming is, in itself, most sad. Over the past 20 years, I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in the boys I’ve counseled. Twenty years ago, most boys were confident and ambitious. Now, disproportionately, they’re despondent or angry, while the girls much more often feel the world is their oyster. And they’re right, but it should be both genders’ oyster.

Boys advocate Joe Manthey reminds us that "When girls were behind in math and science, we said, 'We want to help these girls; there's something wrong with the schools.’ But when boys don't do well in school, we say there's something wrong with the boy."

Let’s stop blaming the boy and start fixing our schools and media.

Nemko is co-president of the National Organization for Men: He holds a Ph.D. in education from the University of California, Berkeley and subsquently taught in Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. He is also a Contributing Editor at U.S. News & World Report.

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