Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Boys will be Boys

The first thing you need to know is that I probably have no clue what I'm talking about.  I have no scientific basis for anything I'm about to say.  It's all anecdotal or gained from my own unique perspective.  I'm totally open to contrary perspectives.

That said:  I don't think boys are the problem in today's society, I think we are.

I started thinking about this yesterday after I read an article in Slate that implied that in this decade, a boy like Tom Sawyer, whose exploits most of us grew up reading and loving, would have been punished, medicated, and possibly jailed.  I followed the article up by reading the comments, most of which were surprisingly cogent.  There seemed to be two distinct arguments:

1.  Boys should conform to the standards of society and good behavior.
2.  Boys are fundamentally different than their female counterparts and are misunderstood by the primarily female educational system, and thus should be cut some slack.

I've read a lot of articles that argue that boys and girls aren't really wired differently and that any differences are nurture rather than nature.  I've read even more articles that argue that boys and girls are completely different and respond to different teaching strategies.  I'm not sure we'll ever know who's right, but I'm betting the answer is somewhere in the middle.  My own experience is that I'm an intelligent, rational, well-educated man who, as a boy, couldn't sit still, hated to learn, and was somewhat aggressive.  I learned best in a competitive, hands-on environment, which is simply not the type of environment fostered in most classrooms.  Most classes are lecture format, and I found myself bored to tears.  I don't know if that has anything to do with me being me or with me being a boy, but despite being an intellectual, I was fidgety and had difficulty paying attention in the traditional classroom setting.

Part of what struck me in the Slate article was that it wasn't trying to excuse the bad behavior of some boys, but instead pointing out that boys like Tom Sawyer used to have an out.  The boys who would now be labeled aggressive or ADDHD didn't have to sit in classrooms or force themselves to conform to standard norms.  They could blaze their own trails, set off for sights unseen.  In short, they had options that boys in this generation don't necessarily have.  They're labeled "bad" and given a handful of pills to take.  Boys today can't really leave home at 14 and head west to make a living up in the mountains.  The societal standard for success if fairly narrow and extremely isolating.  School, college, job, family, death. It leaves very little room for outside the box movement.

Boys are falling behind at alarming rates.  Our educational system is failing them by failing to understand them.  Yes, it's easier to drug them up and get them to sit up straight, but it's hardly doing them any good.  Again, I'm not trying excuse bad behavior, but I think that by forcing boys to tamp down on their natural tendencies and conform to ways of learning that aren't right, is stunting their growth.  Instead of forcing these square pegs into round holes, more effort needs to be taken by parents and peers and educators to find alternative ways of reaching these "bad" boys.  What would the world be like without Tom Sawyer?  It would be a boring place indeed.

PS:  Before I'm lambasted for leaving girls out of this equation, please, please don't take it to mean that I don't care.  It's just that they have their own unique set of problems that I feel completely unable to tackle.  I don't think the education of girls should be sacrificed for the sake of boys.  Quite the contrary.  I think that single-sex classrooms would probably benefit both genders.  But my point is that girls do matter, I simply don't feel in any way qualified to speak about the problems that they face.


  1. Some girls can't sit still either, for similar reasons. Other than that, I agree. Asking kids to sit still for long periods when they could be climbing trees or playing hide and seek or whatever is really very hard on them.

    I have friends whose kids became disaffected around age 14 because they weren't into book learning, but they were willing to work hard at a job. Why not let them?

  2. I have a boy and a girl. My kids, while they have some similarities because they are raised in the same family, there are some differences. My son is the younger of the two, and he's independent as hell. He's the one that people look at, shake their head, and say, "He's all boy, isn't he?"

    With both my kids, I'm worried that their schools won't know what to do with them. My daughter's very bright and has trouble concentrating...does that mean she's going to have a hard time conforming? My son's rebellious and shy...what will his teachers do when he enters school? It's up to parents to be advocates for their kids, to listen to advice and counsel, but to ultimately do what's best for them.

  3. Fairyhedgehog: Agreed. At 14, I knew I was never going to be a mathlete. Yet I was forced to sit through SIX more years of math (four in high school and two in college).

    Sarah: It's tough, right? I think any child that doesn't fit the neat model is considered a problem child, when the reality is that they're not. And unfortunately, not every parent is as involved as they should be. Some are only too happy to give their kid some pills and send them along.

  4. I think society wants everyone to conform, regardless of gender.


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