Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The problem with boys?

I just finished reading the cover story on Newsweek for the week of January 30, 2006 on "The Trouble with Boys." The usual caveats about how long the link may last apply. From reading the article, you would think that boys are dumb as bricks and pretty much messed up by their genes. We are just outmanned (pardon the pun) and outgunned. The story is not as simple as the article makes it sound. The article places a very strong emphasis brain research and biology, and while those may be important, other factors come into play. However, the author of the article does not acknowledge these other factors until the very end of the article. In the meantime, the article pretty much reads like a tale of woe about how boys' brains are different; how they mature slower than girls; how their primate minds are wired differently due to the testosterone; on and on. The numbers certainly don't favor boys. For instance, "at many state universities the gender balance is already tilting 60-40 toward women." There are many other factors. The article cites how feminism may have gone overboard by favoring girls more and leaving boys on the wayside. It cites tools like Title IX, but again, things are not as simple as that. Overall, this has been brewing for years, and now society is reaping the results of policies and practices that have neglected boys.

I was fortunate. My father was at home, and our family was together. My mother raised three boys, and as rambunctions as we could be, none of us dropped out of school, and we turned out ok. I think a lot of that had to do with having a father who was a good role model of what being a man and a father was all about. But in addition to that, I had extended family as well. My uncles, especially my godfather, were good role models as well. Unfortunately, this is not found in today's society due to family break-ups, single family households and so on. I am not saying that a single woman, or a lesbian couple, or any other arrangement, cannot raise a decent boy, but it certainly takes something away from that boy if he does not get any exposure to other males, especially older guys who can model good behaviors. The article mentions some of this and about mentoring, but it is done very briefly. I think a lot of what I disliked about the article was its alarmist tone. Do we need to do better by our boys? Yes we do. Do we need to get hysterical over it and portray them as primal neanderthals who can't help themselves? No. Learning discipline and restraint are part of what growing up to be a man is about. These things are learned, and society has to face the fact that for the most part it has done a lousy job in providing such opportunities for learning.

There is plenty of blame to spread around. The educational system that simply does not know or refuses to teach to different learning styles. This is not just gender based. Both genders have people with different learning styles, and this needs to be addressed. Why is this not being addressed? I would say the over-compulsive obssessive drive to use standardized tests has a lot to do with it. Then again, let me use this an illustration:

"For Nikolas Arnold, 15, a sophomore at a public high school in Santa Monica, Calif., college is a distant dream. Nikolas is smart: he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of weaponry and war. When he was in first grade, his principal told his mother he was too immature and needed ADHD drugs. His mother balked. "Too immature?" says Diane Arnold, a widow. "He was six and a half!" He's always been an advanced reader, but his grades are erratic. Last semester, when his English teacher assigned two girls' favorites—"Memoirs of a Geisha" and "The Secret Life of Bees" Nikolas got a D. But lately, he has a math teacher he likes and is getting excited about numbers."

For one, assigning two female favorites in one class does not exactly sound like the teacher is addressing multiple learning styles let alone different reading tastes. If I would have been assigned Memoirs of a Geisha in school, I would probably would have balked too. I know my brothers would have hated it, and we all come from a home where reading was always valued. I can only imagine homes where that is not the case. In that case, it sounds like some teacher needs to do a little reading on literature groups, on offering choices in reading, and on teaching to all the class. His situation also illustrates another problem: easy medication. It is so easy to take a restless boy and medicate him. In my time, if you were overactive, your parents disciplined you and got you to settle down. That was all there was to it. I am not saying there were no kids with actual psychological health problems, but these were rare when compared to today. A lot of parents today actually pray the kid is diagnosed as ADHD so they can stick a pill or two on them. As a teacher, I have seen what some of those pills can do. I have kids in my classroom who were literally zombies as a result of such medications. Has society really fallen so low that rather than work to raise a child they would prefer to drug the child? Additionally, from the illustration above, we see the boy has found a teacher and a topic he likes. The fact he is succeeding means he can actually do the work. Will school always be pleasant? No. I certainly could have done without chemistry for instance, but overall, boys can learn when given an even playing field and are treated decently, which seems to be lacking these days.

It was easy to get to the state we are in today. While many efforts were done to get girls to advance, and those efforts were certainly necessary, everyone assumed boys would just cope fine. After all, they are boys; they are tough; they can take it. But boys also need to learn how to grow, how to be productive, how to learn, and how to be good men. And society needs to step up to this responsibility. Every time a man is left off the hook by abandoning their sons (and daughters), the children suffer. And these men get left off the hook very often by women who either decide not to pursue child support or make the man take responsibility, but they are also left off the hook when they hear women simply decide to raise the kids on their own. Those guys simply say, "fine by me." We could go into a whole philosophical debate about how society emasculates males these days, but that is only part of it. There is some of that, but very often it is a lot of simply women telling men, "don't worry about it. I'll do it." Who knew the guys would actually say, "go right ahead?" And thus another reason why boys have the problems they have: there are no good men to look up to. Note that we can cite a good number of not so good men boys often look up to, but that would be another essay.

The point is there are a lot of factors involved in this, and those factors will have to be addressed if we want a solution to the problem. Nature is not everything. There is nurture and environment. Now some will say, what about a bad environment? That can be overcome, but it seems it easier to blame that bad environment than to actually move to do something about it. You have to address the environment. You have to address the lack of good role models. You have to address the fact of different learning styles and needs. There is a lot of stuff for parents, teachers, and society at large to work on in order not to fail our boys. There are solutions: mentoring programs, schools willing to take risks and try new things, dedicated parents and teachers, but these solutions seem in small supply. We need more and soon. In the end, this is not about whether colleges now have more girls than boys. It is about whether we can afford to lose so many boys because of neglect and false assumptions or overgeneralizations. It's going to take work.

I am raising a daughter now; one of my brothers is raising a son, with another boy on the way. Things like this make me think. For one, what kind of things am I teaching my daughter? What will she learn about men in what she sees from me, from the way I treat her mother, and from the way I interact with others? And what will she learn from other boys her age? She is quite the tomboy, so I know she has a lot of friends in school who are boys. And what about her male teachers? There is the gym teacher and her science teacher. As for my brother, I am sure he wonders about the same things with his boy. I know one thing: being a parent has likely gotten him to settle down a bit. Because in the end it is a great responsibility. It can take a male to make a child, but it takes a man to raise that child, boy or girl. And I think that was the lesson, one of many, my father tried to instill in his boys. I would like to think he succeeded. It's not that boys are a problem. It's that they have needs, and girls have needs as well, and as a society, we have to meet those needs. It's not a matter of using feel-good philosophy. It will take work, and it will take discipline. Shortcuts won't cut it here. Lessons like the ones my brothers and me learned are lessons we should be passing along. Can our society afford to continue the neglect and justify it by saying "oh, boys will be boys?"

On an additional note, the Salt Lake Tribune for January 17, 2006 also had a story on boys and learning. The article discusses issues such as the fact drop out more than girls and face more disciplinary actions. It also goes over the brain differences and ways to solve the problem. I think this article is an example of a small trend. The question is will the reporting lead to some action, or will it become another issue swept under the carpet after a while?


Mark said...

Excellent post Angel--well argued.

Although, I would like to comment that the drugging of children has been going on for a long time, although it is epidemic today. I was drugged close to 40 years ago, in the Midwest of all places.

I went through batteries of tests and pretty much scored off their stupid charts. Once in a great while, they'd get the school to make some small concession. One year I didn't have to show my work in math (3rd grade maybe) because I got 100% of the answers right but they were giving me 0 credit because I didn't show how. But those concessions were small and rare. It was far easier to drug me, although I wonder how effective it really was.

Kids get unmotivated and/or bored in school for so many reasons--the material is above them, the material is below them, it is not relevant to them, they are hungry, they get beat every night,....

As hard as it is for me to believe, schools are still clueless about how to engage children. Ok, that is unfair. The real problem is that society is too cheap to fund public education in the way that it should be done. 'Efficiency' is the operative word as it is in most everything in our culture. 'Efficiency' can mean several different things, but usually it means the fastest, easiest and cheapest, as it does in the case of education. Witness the reliance on standardized testing.

How anyone believes that method can be successful in reaching students is completely beyond me. An even further shame is that so many can't even be rescued once they get to college, or even grad school. But that is a whole 'nuther essay.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mark: Thanks for stopping by. Indeed it has been going on. I always have this memory of the one kid I was thinking about when I was typing the post. He was so calm when he had his meds, but just something about the eyes. Of course, the one day he did not take them (I don't recall why), he was a completely different kid, and not for the better.

Unfortunately, that is the reality of our schools these days. They are just not real places of learning, but rather storehouses for a future workforce (what kind of a workforce is the topic of another essay). But you know what I mean: it's the old industrial model, now reinforced by all the testing. So many good kids just slip through the cracks. My father, who would have been probably classified as "gifted" today, tells stories that the only reason he got in trouble in school is because he was bored with the material (as in it was too slow for him), so he went out and did what boys do so well when bored. Needless to say, no one thought of drugging him, and he has turned out to be a good man. Now, I am not saying there are not authentic cases of kids who do need some medication, but the overmedication is just obscene to put it mildly.

As for funding, it is like you say. People refuse to put their money where their mouths are. Jonathan Kozol, in his new book, makes this point when he is talking to a parent who sends his kid to private school. The parent is the one saying about how schools need to be funded and so on, but he is the first who sends his kid to a prep school. When Kozol pointed out how much money he spent on that prep school, in contrast, the parent just smiled. I read the passage in a segment from the book in a magazine, but if the book is like his others, which I have read, it will be worth it. I love teaching, and I liked the idea of working with young minds. I still do, but the politics and parents, if you can call the irresponsible ones that, are just not worth it. I am just waiting for the day when enough teachers decide to walk out and say to the system educrats, "you deal with it." Maybe then people will finally put the money that should go there. But that, is another essay.

In the meantime, best and keep on blogging.

Anonymous said...

You made some good points about home life and other circumstances but what about the boys (or girls for that matter) who come from very stable homes with good father figures or role models and extended family. I have 3 sons, 14, 12 and 6. I have a very close nit extended family and my mother is a teacher who raised 6 children, 5 are boys. My two older sons started struggling in school as soon as they started Kindergarten. To make a long story short, the coed school they were at had do idea nor desire to teach children who didn't fit in the norm and unfortunately that meant more boys than girls. They were different, never a discipline problem, but really struggled in school, and I and my mother got them through by constantly working with them and staying on top of things and I want to tell you its the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. My whole life revolved around their schooling. Talking to administrator at their school was like talking to the wall. When my oldest was in 6th grade I switched him to a private all boys school and it was like night and day. Suddenly he liked school. He didn't feel so different. School is still tough for him but he is so much more confident and happy its amazing and worth every penny and I thank God that I'm lucky enough to afford to do this. What would my options have been otherwise? Not much! My second is on medication because he can't focus at all without it. He had to start taking the middle of 3rd grade because he was getting a lot of homework and falling behind. I absolutely hate the fact that he has to take medicine for school but its night and day when he's not on it and he even knows it now. The fact is school is much more demanding then it was 25-30 years ago and they get so much homework everynight. No one has commented on that fact. Why? I have had to cut out some of their sports and playtime and that is just not good for young boys who've already been in school for 8-9 hours. This needs to be addressed as well. If Teachers can't teach these children enough in the 8 hours at school and they still have to give them 2-4 hours of homework (what takes one child 45 minutes might take another 3 hours) then its just too much information or they are not teaching age appropriate lessons. We have got to stop going by numbers. Just because one child can coop with this doesn't mean that every other child should or can. We have got to start teaching to the child not the class. Yes it takes more time but not that much more. YOu go on alot about the medications and how not as many boys were on it when you grew up. I disagree, I think there were just as many kids who needed it back then but could get away without it because school was not as demanding and kids could be kids. Why are we putting so much pressure on our kids. its the parents as much as the teachers and administrations. Everyone wants their kid to be the best. I don't, I just want my kids to be happy and that's alot harder to do than you think. Its a tough balancing act and I am so glad that finally people are seeing this and it really is a problem. I think its a child problem not a gender problem but it does affect boys more than girls because, lets face it, girls are generally easier to teach than boys and most people want to take the easy way out. The hard way is always more rewarding, don't they know that?

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Anonymous: Thank you for stopping by. I could not agree more that indeed the hard way is a rewarding way. What was that line about the straight path versus the crooked path? Anyways, I think mention of the stable families is very rare these days, mostly because they seem to be an endangered species. I had the good luck I was in a stable home, and that my parents chose private schools, but they had to work very hard at it.

As for homework, I wonder if a lot of it just has to do with the over-compulsive, obsessive testing craze sweeping education these days. I have some mixed feelings on that. On the other hand, yes, I think they do give them too much homework. On the other hand, I often hear that the parents doing the complaining are the ones that want their kid to be doing more extracurricular stuff or want to vacation in Aspen. I know, it sounds a bit simplistic, but in my days as a teacher, I actually got the too much homework complaint once or twice because little Mary needed to be in band or such. I would like to think those are exceptions and not the rule, just loud exceptions.

Having said all this, yes, some parents put a lot of pressure on their kids. Add to that the schools, mostly worried over testing rather than actually teaching, and you get, well, the problems we get. Anxious kids, tension, no real time to be kids. When I was a kid, I was just using crayons and making Play-Doh figures in Kindergarten. I even had naptime. Do they even do that anymore? It becomes a matter of balance. Kids should have their time to play and be kids. Time to relax, decompress, so on. Not many people talk about this.

So many things we should be thinking about, and yet seems they get lost. You keep on that hard path, and best.