The Trouble With Boys: What Parents Can Do

A new book examines why boys tend to struggle at school.

By SHARE

Is school breaking our boys? Accumulating evidence says yes:

  • Boys are kicked out of preschool at 4.5 times the rate of girls.
  • Boys lag behind girls in reading and writing in elementary school, a lag that gets bigger in middle school and high school.
  • Teenage boys are four times as likely to commit suicide as girls.
  • Girls are doing so much better than boys at academics that by 2016 only 40 percent of college undergraduates are expected to be men.
  • I saw the roots of this miserable trend up close and personal last week when I visited my daughter's elementary school lunchroom. The girls sat quietly talking and eating. The boys were jumping up, poking each other, spilling juice, running around the table, smooshing their pb&js into a ball. The lunchroom ladies' response: Sit down and zip your lip. Yikes! These are 5-year-olds we're talking about here, and this was their first break after a morning of literacy and math lessons. In kindergarten. Is it any wonder boys might conclude that school is not for them?

    So I feel lucky to have come across The Trouble With Boys, a new book by Peg Tyre. Peg's my kinda gal, a former investigative reporter for Newsweek who doesn't take anyone's word for it. She's also the mother of two sons. When she heard that even at fancy New York private schools the struggling students were almost all male, she decided to investigate, looking for solid data as to why. What she found isn't pretty. Among her findings:

    • Teachers and principals know that boys are struggling but feel it's politically incorrect to suggest that the curriculum needs to be changed to help boys.

    • Schools have cut recess and gym and increased classroom time to boost test scores, but the lack of exercise is actually making it harder for boys (and girls) to learn.

    • Most reading curricula are based on narrative fiction that turns off boys. How many boys want to read Little House on the Prairie?

    There's a lot of misinformation out there on how boys learn, Tyre found. She cites the example of Michael Gurian, who tells teachers at his popular workshops that neuroscientists have identified a "boy brain" that is less adept at staying focused than is a "girl brain." At first, Tyre thought this made sense. But then she took the next step and asked the neuroscientists who did the research Gurian cites if this is true. They all said, no way do we know enough about the brain to say there's a "boy brain." "When we talk about gender, we're talking about something that's pretty complicated," Tyre told me. "It's not just nature. It's not just nurture." And there will be no simple solutions. But there are smart parents, smart teachers, and smart principals out there who are trying their own experiments to help boys, and getting good results. Tyre's reporting provides solid information that parents can act on now:

    • Boys do much better at reading and writing when the subject matter matches their interests. Savvy parents offer nonfiction books and stories with action and don't cringe when their darling wants to write about Pokémon or Star Wars. Who cares if the kid's reading Captain Underpants or The Day My Butt Went Psycho, as long as he loves to read?

    • Dads can encourage their sons to read by reading to them on topics they both love. One smart school invited uniformed police officers (macho male ones) to come read to the kids each day.

    • Find out how much PE and movement time your child gets, and advocate for more. Research unequivocally shows that all kids do better in school when they get plenty of time to run, jump, and play, and boys need time for tag and other rambunctious games. When you have your kids at home on the weekend, Tyre notes, you don't keep them locked inside from 8 to 3 because you know they'll turn into screaming meemies if you do.

    All parents want their children to grow up to be happy and successful. Wouldn't it be wonderful if reading The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts helped boys get there?