What’s happening to boys?

I’m sure everyone and their brother will have something to say about this Washington Post column today entitled “What’s Happening to Boys”, but I’ll go ahead and add my $.02 anyway. Boys aren’t doing well in our society today. 90% of Ritalin prescriptions are given to boys, they are more likely to drop out of school, be suspended or expelled, commit suicide, less likely to go to college, and apparently more likely to pursue serious employment as young men. Leonard Sax, a Maryland physician and psychologist wrote today’s column on the subject and announced the formation of the National Boy’s Project which is aimed at figuring out what’s going wrong and how to fix it. From looking at their website, it looks like they already have some good ideas and probably won’t have to look too hard to figure it out. The problem is probably going to be in implementing the kind of changes which will allow boys to succeed in schools and feel respected and needed in society.
Since I’m a homeschooling mother of 2 boys, it probably isn’t a surprise that I see schools as toxic to the well being and proper development of boys. Any place where 6 year old boys are expected to sit quietly without fidgeting is a place which has essentially declared war on little boys. I have written here before about my son’s struggle with writing which I believe was made much worse (and caused no small amount of discouragement) by a school system unwilling to work with the natural development of boys. It can take 3-4 years for a boy’s fine motor skills to catch up with a girl’s. Educators know this, yet they continue insisting that little boys spend large parts of their day doing handwork. If a boy must deal with this struggle and discouragement everyday of his school life, it’s no wonder that by 4th grade many of them have checked out. Add in the impulse to criminalize and sexualize everything a little boy does in the name of creating a “safe” environment (as if boys are themselves unsafe) and you have a brew custom made to set a boy on a path towards failure.
If a toxic school system was the only problem, it wouldn’t be so bad. However, our society takes a very dim view of men, what drives them and their worth in our lives as well. It’s easier to see how the breakdown of family affects women and children, but I think it has been just as devastating on young men as well. Throughout time men have been driven to succeed, in no small part, in order to care for their families. I have found that men have a very strong need to be responsible, to be living their lives in service to something greater than themselves and to have people trust them. Knowing that they would be expected to provide for a family or that they could go out into the world an accomplish great things kept many a young man on the straight and narrow. Even today, I have been struck by the number of young men who when talking marriage express what their fiance or wife means to them by saying, “this person is entrusting her life to me.” In all honesty, I don’t think many women see marriage in quite this way – it seems to be a particularly male point of view which reflects the importance of being trustworthy and responsible to them. Today, many young women say proudly, “I don’t need a man.” Mothers teach their daughters “never put yourself in a position where you’re dependent on a man.” We have taken the very thing which is likely to bring out the best in men – the need to be trusted, responsible and to care for someone – and declared it not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous to their partners.
On top of that, marriage is seen by many young men as being a very risky proposition. Our family courts are getting better, but for much of the past 30 years, women have been able to unilaterally declare a marriage over, take the kids, keep the family home, half of everything a man owns and then continue to take a large portion of a man’s income for spousal and child support. I think we’ve underestimated the profound effect that this state of affairs has on a young man’s thinking. Men love their children as much as any women, and the very real prospect of an unhappy wife who can make it near impossible to have a relationship with their own children is a major deterrent for a young man thinking about starting a family. I also think that we women tend to misunderstand how and why losing possessions and income is so hurtful to men in these situations. It’s not really the things themselves, but what they mean to a man. Many men get themselves out of bed in the morning and go to work with one thing on their minds: “I have to take care of my family.” They seem to personalize their work and the possessions they provide for their family more than women. When a marriage ends, the loss of possessions can seem like a betrayal of the care and trust that went into providing them. And a man facing going to work to provide child and spousal support to someone who he feels betrayed by is particularly galling to him.
So you take a young man who checked out of education somewhere around 4th grade, who is facing a future where he is unneeded and where the very things he needs – to be responsible and needed – seem terribly risky and it’s no wonder that many young men just don’t have a lot of motivation to do much more than provide themselves with as much pleasure as they can get. After all, we may have taken their most noble drives and trashed them, but our culture’s still perfectly happy to pander to their least noble drives.
Like I said, I don’t think the National Boy Project is going to have to look real hard to figure out why young men aren’t doing well. What I’ve written is just a small sample of the ways in which we set our boys up for failure. I think the real challenge is going to be in implementing the changes in schooling and in societal attitudes which would allow our boys to turn into young men who are driven to act on their best impulses rather than flounder about in their worst.
BTW, the website mentions t-shirts which have been popular among girls which say things like “Girls rule. Boys drool” and “Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them.” I would just like to say in the most judgmental and least tolerant tones I can muster, that if you have ever allowed your daughter to wear such an item, you should be ashamed of yourself as a human being.

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