5 year old boys and "A Well Trained Mind"

Earlier today I was reading the very good “Crunch Cons” blog over at beliefnet and the author, Rod Dreher was responding to a reader question about preparing to homeschool his daughter in a few years (the child in question was under 1 year). Mr. Dreher responded first by explaining that he and his wife were no longer homeschooling their son who is now six. Then he offered his wife’s advice on what to do if you’re planning on homeschooling. Now, before I get myself in trouble, I just want to say that I do not want to claim that I know what is best for the Dreher family or that they have made an error by putting their son in school. I am not privy to their lives and am willing to accept that this was the very best decision for them and their son. However, there were two red flags which I wanted to address, not in order to critique this family’s actions, but because they remind me of problems I have seen played out in other families and a general error in our thinking about kids and education which is pretty prevalent. So, I am writing this not to address the Dreher’s specific situation, but in order to make a couple of more generalized points.
The two red flags I saw were these: By way of brief (and I’m sure in no way complete) explanation Mr. Dreher says of putting his son in a private school: “we’d had so much trouble getting him to focus on his work at home“. Further down in her recommendations, his wife says “If you really want to read something I’d take a look at Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s books, which I found inspiring (and depressing because they made me more aware of the massive holes in my own education). She outlines a kindergarten curriculum that involves about 15 minutes of actual study per day.”
(For those of you who don’t know, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer are authors of A Well Trained Mind which is a guide to using a classical approach to education at home.)
Here’s the problem: a 5 year old who refuses to focus or co-operate with attempts to educate him/her is a perfectly normal child who will probably do very well with homeschooling. Too often we view a young kid who is not co-operative with learning as a sign that homeschooling isn’t working. I think nothing is further from the truth and know many kids (including my younger son) who did pretty much nothing for kindergarten (or longer) yet did just fine as they got older. The idea that a 5 year old should be doing anything more rigorous than singing silly songs, reciting the alphabet and learning to count to 100 is actually pretty recent and often developmentally inappropriate. If a young child simply refuses to cooperate or focus, more than anything I think that means wither they aren’t ready or the approach being used doesn’t work for him/her. Yet I have known several families who have abandoned homeschooling after just a year or two because they thought the fact that their kid wasn’t cooperating with attempts to educate him/her showed that they weren’t cut out for homeschooling.
I think part of the problem is that while we may see that socially schools are unhealthy places for our kids and that the results are mediocre, we often accept the way and rate at which they do things as correct. We assume that homeschooling’s magic isn’t in using a completely different approach to learning and education but in the fact that we teach our kids one-on-one. So, we worry if our 5 year old won’t sit still while we read a book or that our 6 year old won’t work on phonetic lessons because everyone knows that this is how children learn to read. And heaven forbid if our 4th grader doesn’t have their times tables down cold. However, none of these practices or time tables are based on any actual evidence that they are the “right” approach. It’s probably the main reason schools don’t work for so many kids – they insist on doing everything on some predetermined schedule in some predetermined way without regard to where the child is developmentally. Some 5 year olds will sit quietly while being read to, others will be practicing their cartwheels and not listen to a word you say. Allowed to learn on their own schedules, both will probably be independent readers by about age 8. Forced to work on someone else’s time schedule one of them will probably struggle with reading disorders created by being forced to do something they weren’t developmentally ready to do.
Which brings me to Jesse Wise and Susan Bauer Wise’s books. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Well Trained Mind is a great book in a lot of ways and the classical approach to education definitely has many appealing aspects to it. I actually use some of their ideas with my 11 year old. However, it is a very structured approach and I have never seen it work with a kid under the age of 9 or 10. I have, however, seen families become overwhemed, frustrated and demoralized trying to do it with their younger kids. What the Wise’s do not say is that although their approach is in many ways very traditional, it is an approach which in the past did not start until age 8, 9 or later. Their book takes an approach meant for older kids, reduxes it and attempts to apply it to younger kids without regard to their developmental needs and abilities aside from using less time. Not only that, but at the younger ages, they rely heavily on usborne books, which in my experience, are too simplistic and only mildly engaging. I have never gotten one that my kids did anything other than glance at briefly. I can see how any parent who is uncomfortable not having much or any structure for their young child and then tries to use methods like the ones outline in the Wise’s books will not succeed.
Which brings me back to why I wanted to post on this here, despite running the risk that it would look like I was trying to judge the Dreher family’s particular situation: we have been so indoctrinated by many generations of institutionalized schooling that it takes an enormous amount of self-confidence and self-assurance to stand your ground when it’s your kid who isn’t fitting into the accepted framework. Even more so when everyone around you responds to every challenge you face by offering the structure of school as the solution. I want to challenge people to think differently about how we educate our kids (especially young boys) and offer re-assurance to those who are struggling to stand against the current. The magic of homeschooling is so much more than just one-on-one instruction or even a more demanding curriculum. The magic of homeschooling is really in freeing ourselves and our kids to learn in an entirely different way. I would go so far as to say that when we educate our kids according to their particular temperament and developmental readiness, even when it means letting a young child do little or no structured work, we are coming as close as we are able to helping them learn the way God designed them to learn. And despite what Sec. of Education Spellings might have us believe, God doesn’t seem to intend for 5 year old boys to learn by sitting down and focusing on the work adults give them all that often.

I wonder if spinning so hard makes them dizzy

We’ve heard a lot lately about boy’s lack of success in our education system. However, in today’s Washington Post, writers Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett say, “hey, don’t worry – the boys are fine.” According to them, we shouldn’t worry because the only boys who aren’t doing well are the poor, minority, rural and urban boys. The boys who really matter, you know, white suburban boys, are doing just fine. Since it’s just the insignificants whose boys are struggling, there’s really no need to introduce dangerous notions about the inherent differences between boys and girls into our educational system. Uh huh.
Too bad even this isn’t true. At the bottom of this page, you can see a table listing the percentage of undergraduates who are male broken out by race and income group. When one looks at the data, the only way to make Rivers and Barnett’s proposition fit is if one assumes that all white, suburban males come from families with incomes of $70,000 or more. (They claim that among white, middle class boys, the gap between college attendance is very slight – 49% male vs 51% female – a statistic which is only true in the above $70,000 income bracket.) Since approximately 85% of white households earn less than $70,000, this seems highly unlikely. Basically what they are arguing is that the boy crisis is a myth because the approximately 12% of the United States population which is white and has a household income of more than $70,000 a year isn’t seeing this so-called boy’s achievement gap. Gee and to think we were all so worried! Of course white males from homes making less than $30,000 are outpaced 42% vs 58%. Those from homes making between $30,000 and $70,000 are outstripped by their female counter-parts 43% to 57%. I dunno, it sounds to me like this “boys in crisis myth” has some substance to it.
While the authors would have us believe that all of the gaps we are seeing are simply the result of race and income, what is striking about the actual data is that the gap in gender achievement for middle and upper income blacks and hispanics is nearly identical to that for whites. It is only low income blacks (and to a lesser extant hispanics) who show a significantly greater gender gap than their white peers. Of course, Madams Rivers and Barnett have made it clear that such people don’t count, so let us not dwell upon unpleasant facts now.
Of course, the source of the author’s incredible spinning of statistics isn’t hard to figure out when you look at the rest of the column. The authors insist that there is more difference between individual boys than there is between boys and girls. (Try telling this to a classroom teacher.) They dismiss all of the brain research which has documented differences between boys and girls by comparing it to theories from the 1800’s that men were smarter because their brains are bigger. They completely ignore the astonishing facts that boys account for 90% of all ritalin prescriptions and that 1 in 10 ten-year old boys is on medication for ADD. Then there’s the fact that boys are stuck in special education classes at much higher rates than girls, are responsible for most disciplinary problems and on and on. Basically, since the boys who really matter (rich, white, suburban) are doing just fine, we should continue to mindlessly accept the outdated, disproven notion that differences between boys and girls will never be anything other than manufactured societal constraints.
Don’t they have fact checkers at the Washington Post? This sort of amateur statistic spinning really doesn’t deserve a prominent spot in a prominent newspaper.

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.