You may be hearing some anti-girl grumblings around your daughter’s school or in your community, prompted by recent media accounts charging that it’s boys, not girls, who are the new “second sex.” Boys, some critics say, are overshadowed by super-achieving female peers, who ace them out in grades, honors, and ambitions.
Headlines blame “special” treatment for girls, including a USA Today editorial which read, “Girls get extra school help while boys get Ritalin,” and a Business Week cover last spring in which a huge, smug girl was shown towering over a cowed boy which warned of future repercussions such as young men who, spurned by overeducated potential wives, end up moving back in with Mama.
The thing is, along with some hyperbolic reporting, they’ve got a point. Many boys are clearly losing out in school and beyond (and many reports fail to note that more often these are low-income and minority males, not across the board boys).
Boys are likelier than girls to be placed in special education classes, issued Ritalin and other psychotropic drugs, and commit suicide. Girls now outnumber boys in honors courses as well as in college and graduate school graduation rates.
So do girls’ successes hurt boys? An informed look at the situation makes clear that the source of boys’ problems is certainly not girls. Instead, boys’ problems, say experts, are largely a result of trends such as increased standardized testing, too-early academics, and reliance on behavior-modifying drugs in schools; a continued emphasis on sports over academics; cultural attitudes that belittle bookish boys; and economic decisions that have shrunk domestic blue-collar jobs.
In fact, some boys’ advocates are inspired by the hard work of girls’ advocates who have brought about needed changes for girls in schools and society. “We’re looking at the successes brought about for girls to help change the environment so that boys can succeed and become whole,” says Karen Sipprell, executive director of Supporting Our Sons. “Girls can’t obtain their full potential until they have full partners,” she notes, “including classmates, coworkers, friends, or future partners.”
When schools and parents adopt SOS’s educational techniques, such as accommodations for boys’ generally more active learning styles along with methods for boys to increase social and emotional skills, “both boys and girls will benefit,” Sipprell says.
But teacher-training programs and parent outreach take time, and in the meanwhile, girls may be seeing rules change in schools. In recent years parents of a boy at a Milwaukee area high school filed a complaint because girls predominated among valedictorian candidates, National Honor Society members, and the school’s honor roll. Another Midwestern high school has mandated that awards and student government positions be divided equally between boys and girls.
With a growing sentiment that accomplished girls are getting too big a piece of the pie, there may be more pressure for girls to downplay talents. “Being a smart girl at school is really hard,” notes a suburban Maryland eighth grader. “You have to put up with a lot of people calling you names, and it makes you feel like the only thing to do is be like everybody else. So the next test or paper you do, you fail, just to fit in.”
Some girls are puzzled at the notion that schools are awash in special treatment programs for girls. “I have never noticed or heard anything about classrooms being ‘girl-oriented,’” wrote 11-year-old Hannah Landsberger to Business Week. What she has noticed is that “a lot of boys in my grade care more about being the class clown or a sports superstar than being a star student.”
How should a concerned girl or her parents respond to discussions that blame girls for boys’ problems? Here are a few pointers.
Focus on the real problems, primarily academic, experienced by many boys. Direct discussion toward one major solution: restructuring, in small and large ways, aspects of how schools educate now. For example, many teachers, parents, and experts increasingly believe that the trend toward earlier academics and testing is stressing out lots of boys as well as many girls.
Boys, who typically master the symbol interpretation skills inherent in reading and math later than girls, are scoring lower on tests and skill measures. “Boys are being asked to read and write before they are neurologically ready,” notes Sipprell. Plus, the shrinking recess time allotted kids makes “desk learning” even more frustrating for wiggly children, both boys and girls.
Instead of upping medications that may make classroom order easier, teachers could try the “action classroom” modifications that one SOS-trained teacher incorporated. Kids work at long tables, with academic activity centers and comfy reading nooks situated at different areas so that children can walk about the classroom more instead of being deskbound. SOS curriculum spells out how teachers and parents can model behavior and language that boys can use to handle conflicts and disruptive urges, resulting in calmer classrooms and less punishment.
Such techniques result in higher grades as well, notes Sipprell. “When kids are more relaxed and confident in the classroom, they score better,” she says. Studies also document that the trend to earlier academics can sour kids, particularly boys, on learning. Research by Rebecca A. Marcon, a developmental psychology professor at the University of North Florida, shows that children who got their school start with a “child-led” curriculum, featuring lots of free play and hands-on activities, earned higher grades six years later, compared with children whose schools emphasized the three R’s.
Know that parents have the power to change schools. The testing trend has some heavy momentum, given that it has been the backbone of the federal No Child Left Behind educational plan. But testing is being successfully challenged in several states by parents who have seen firsthand the effects on their children, and by teachers angry at having to teach to the test.
Boys are likely to benefit most from parents who rally and advocate for more varied learning approaches and more recess time, but girls are certain to benefit as well from efforts to keep a love of learning alive.
Challenge stereotypical media messages to both boys and girls. Parents can discuss media and advertising messages with sons, and provide alternative messages and activities. Gary Wilson has watched generations of boys in his 26 years of teaching in Maryland middle and high schools. He observed that, “We have boys being told they can be powerful and have lots of sex if they buy fill-in-the-blank,” a message hard to resist without strong backup and interesting alternatives to consumption.
Girls get plenty of bad messages, too, adds Wilson. “I’ve witnessed the cultural pressures on both boys and girls,” he says. “I see boys bowing to the pop culture of violence and apathy, and I see girls adversely affected by the same culture: obsessed with looks, dependent on boys, and afraid to be smart.” Just as girls continue to need our help to stay strong, so do boys.
Brainstorm over how boys and girls really succeed. It is true that schools are structured in ways in which girls can more often succeed, if they possess verbal and reading skills, an ability to focus, and the “emotional intelligence” that can facilitate better teacher and peer responses. Certainly, classrooms should be revamped to accommodate all learning styles, but in addition, efforts to help boys master these skills can only benefit them.
Unfortunately, sometimes these efforts are targeted as “trying to make boys like girls.”
But those critics should be challenged about what they would do to guide boys toward a happy and productive adulthood. Sustained focus and the willingness to tough it out during learning is key to reaching any goal, and sons as well as daughters need parents who encourage them to achieve and then celebrate the self-esteem and confidence boosts that come with mastering such behavior.
Also, it’s important to remember that emotional intelligence is a quality that all people should seek. It not only helps boys and girls get along better with peers and adults, it’s a skill that will someday pay off in the workplace.
With a little patience, potentially acrimonious conversations about boys versus girls can achieve some consensus. And boy-friendly efforts are not just advantageous for many girls, they highlight the need to continue girl-friendly measures at home, school, and in the culture.
“Our efforts are completely complementary to work going on for girls,” says Sipprell. “Our society will be healthiest and happiest when it is full of people—boys and girls—who get to live out a life defined by and supportive of whom they are instead of limited by gender restrictions.”
About the author: Helen Cordes is the former editor of Daughters and author of Girl Power in the Mirror and Girl Power in the Classroom (Lerner Publications, 2000).