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August 10, 2018

Boys In School

We have taken a hard look at the bias against boys in schools and how they are often discriminated against sexually. There are other concerns that we must consider now about how boys learn, why too many of them fail, and how their masculine makeup often works to their disadvantage.

Almost every authority on child development recognizes that schools are typically not set up to accommodate the unique needs of boys. Elementary classrooms, especially, are designed primarily by women to fit the temperament and learning styles of girls. However, this disadvantage for boys is largely unintentional. It is simply the way schools have always functioned. Harvard psychologist and author William S. Pollock said it this way: "Girls care more about school. They cope with it. Boys don't. Boys are taught at a tempo that doesn't fit them. They are taught in a way that makes them feel inadequate, and if they speak up, they are sent to the principal."

Psychologist Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, has also expressed alarm about what is happening to very young boys in the classroom. He said, "Boys feel like school is a game rigged against them. The things at which they excel—gross motor skills, visual and spatial skills, their exuberance—do not find as good a reception in school." Children are also being placed in formalized educational settings at younger ages, which is very hard on boys. They tend to be six months behind girls in development at six years of age, which makes it tough for many of them to sit quietly and work with pencils and paper and to cope with the social pressures suddenly thrown at them. Too many of them get off to a bad start and begin feeling "dumb" and inadequate.

A man in his twenties once said to me, "I remember sitting in my chair in first grade and thinking, 'If they would just let me stand up. If only I could stand!' Millions of immature kids are like this. They have powerful afterburners but no rudder. They are in agony when required to endure long periods of relative inactivity, a prohibition on noise, and an environment where everything is nailed down tight. They long to run, jump, wrestle, laugh, and climb, which the system simply can't tolerate. Thompson said, "By fourth grade, [boys are] saying the teachers like girls better." They are probably right.

Let's face it, school can be a rugged place for those who don't "fit in" with the typical classroom program. What do we do with these kids when they fall behind in the basics? We either anesthetize them with medication, or we require them to repeat a grade. That second alternative is becoming politically popular now. Retaining a very immature boy in first or second grade can be a good idea, because it gives him a chance to grow up without a major downside. But by the third grade or after, holding a child back can be disastrous. I can tell you from many years of experience that the only thing we accomplish by "failing" a kid after the primary grades is to humiliate and demoralize him. That leads either to apathy, rebellion, a broken spirit—or all three. Then he lumbers into puberty a year or two before his peers and causes havoc. Retaining those who fail is not the panacea today's hard-liners promise.

I've met thousands of little immature troublemakers through the years who drove teachers crazy. In fact, I used to be one of them. I remember not being able to keep my mouth shut when I was in the third grade. The teacher, Mrs. Hall, finally wrote my name on the board and warned that if I got two more "checks" for talking, there would be big trouble. I honestly tried to be quiet, but I couldn't keep my thoughts to myself. I leaned over and whispered something to someone sitting nearby. I was caught again by the long arm of the law. When this second check went on the board, Mrs. Hall was visibly ticked. She quietly walked over to her desk and began cutting something out of construction paper. I felt as though I was about to be executed. All the other children watched excitedly to see what the teacher was doing. I soon found out. She was making a sort of mask to fit over my mouth and around my neck. She pinned the paper in the back and left it in place until recess time. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. In fact, I thought my life was over. The girls snickered and the guys pointed while I sat there draped in this ridiculous device. It was just awful.

I really don't blame Mrs. Hall for what she did. I was obviously getting on her nerves and she had had enough of it. But Mrs. Hall probably underestimated the humiliation this experience would cause me. Furthermore, she may not have understood that I was not being deliberately disrespectful. I was just an antsy kid who couldn't hold still and keep his mouth shut.

Variations on this theme happen every day at school. Writer Celeste Fremon described one of them in an article entitled "Are Our Schools Failing Our Boys?" She wrote:

When my son first told me he had been punished for running on the playground of his Southern California elementary school, I figured he was exaggerating. What school would forbid running at recess? There had to be more to the story. But I learned that the school had recently instituted a no-running policy because, as the principal informed me in vaguely judgmental tones, "Kids could get hurt"—as if such an explanation should be unnecessary to the truly caring parent.

The No-Running issue followed on the heels of another incident in which my son, whose name is Will, was nearly suspended from school for jumping over a bench. Apparently, this was the second such infraction. "He knows that jumping over benches is against the rules, so this constitutes defiance," the principal said. I will be the first to agree that teachers must keep order, and Will has always been an active kid—a climber of trees, a hopper of benches, a wiggler. When he's sad, he is most likely to comfort himself by banging loudly on his drums or teaching himself a new trick on his skateboard.

However, he's also a kind, extremely bright boy who doesn't get into fights, designs whiz-bang projects for the yearly science fair, and scores in the 97th percentile or above on those standardized tests schools give each spring. Yet throughout much of his academic career (Will is now an 8th grader), I've found myself called in for conferences by frowning teachers and administrators. His handwriting is messy, they say gravely. He fidgets during English, when he should be taking notes. And he put his cap on while still inside the classroom.

In my darker moments, I wonder what's wrong with me as a mother that so many of the educators with whom Will comes in contact fail to perceive the exuberant future inventor I believe him to be and see instead only an annoyingly rowdy boy. Worse, I fear that my smart kid is in danger of turning off to academics altogether—and I'm not sure what to do about it. However, I've learned my son is not alone in his experience.

While I am sympathetic to this mother, I must, to be fair, point out that there is another side to this story, one with which I am very familiar. I taught seventh and eighth-grade science and math when I was in my twenties. I also served as a high school counselor and administrator of psychological services. From this experience, I know very well how disrupting it can be to have a room full of giddy boys like Will who won't cooperate and think everything is hilariously funny. Furthermore, schools are too unstructured, if anything, rather than being too rigid. Discipline is what makes learning possible. Thus, I am not critical of schools for requiring order and deportment, but the fact remains that the way boys are constructed makes it harder for them to conform to school, especially when they are young. At least, we as parents should understand what is going on and try to help them fit in.

From Dr. Dobson's book Bringing Up Boys.

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