The news that almost 10 percent of kids show symptoms of addiction to video games makes this a great time for Michael Gurian’s new book. He has made a crusade and a career out of advocating for boys, who he feels have been neglected by schools and society in an effort to give girls long-denied opportunities. Boys without purpose are boys who spend the day racking up high scores on Grand Theft Auto IV. This might not be the best preparation for manhood.
I talked with Michael about The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives (Jossey-Bass, $26.96), which aims to answer that question. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
How has the situation changed for boys since you first started writing about them 20 years ago?
I’m going to give two answers that sound contradictory, but they’re not. Definitely, the grass roots have awakened–first the moms of sons, then that fans out to the dads and the schools, which are gradually shifting over to take care of both girls and boys. But at the highest public-policy levels, there isn’t awareness. This president has started a council on girls and women, but there is no council of boys and men. At the high policy levels, there is still a national blindness. What is it about boys that has you worried?
Boys are playing hours of video games. They’re not working; they’re not doing their homework. They’re just listless. Boys keep asking every day, what’s the purpose of boys? Our culture seems to be saying, I’m not sure. OK, I’ll bite. What is the purpose of boys?
It’s to serve your future family, to serve your community, and to serve the world. It’s all going to be about service. But to get them there, first you have to decide it’s important. And to not get there is dangerous: We’ve got lots of teenage boys in prison, lots of boys getting killed, lots of boys getting into trouble. You come down pretty hard on video games, but they’re not evil–are they?
Boys are getting a false reward from playing video games. They think they’re getting something done. You can see that boys are wired to accomplish something; they go grab the video games, they get a high score or get up to the next level, and they feel like they’ve accomplished something. Parents always ask me: Could my boys be spending too much time with video games? Probably yes. Three or four hours a day is definitely affecting the brain, and not in a good way. So if you’re taking away the PlayStation, what should teenagers be doing instead?
Work. People will say, well, my son is doing soccer or lacrosse, so he can’t have a job. You can imagine my response: What about the weekends? If he’s not at a meet, he ought to have a job. The interesting thing is that most of us had jobs when we were kids. My first job was cleaning toilets at the Continental Trailways bus station in Durango, Colo.; it only gets better from that. What’s the best way to find a job for a kid with no work experience?
The first thing is to look in your extended family. One of my best friend’s sons is really good at computers. When he turned 16, I paid him to do research. I mentored him by providing a job for someone in the extended family. Or just go out and apply. Both of my daughters ended up working as servers in a restaurant at a nursing home. They’re constantly taking care of old people; they have to adjust to old people. There are a lot of jobs out there for 16-year-olds. How can school help give teenage boys a purpose?
We’re calling on academics to become relevant. As boys enter puberty, they’re really looking for work that’s relevant to their future. When our ancestors hit puberty and had all that energy and all that drive, they were put into arts and crafts and work, something that had immediate results. We’re not going back to blacksmithing, but we have to find some middle ground. Service projects help, either through the high school or faith-based communities. Nursing homes are perfect; the older people need help and want the young people around. And by 16, a lot of these young guys want to go vocational. It’s very clear they’re not going to go to college. So we have to really revitalize vocational ed. Right now it’s mainly tech, but when the recession’s over, manufacturing could be back, too. Helping guys get their GED and allowing them to move into vo-tech will be a way of not having all these dropouts at age 16 and 17.
Want to meet some teenagers with purpose? Check out Alex and Brett Harris. Their blog and their book, Do Hard Things, challenge their fellow teens to get off the couch and make the world a better place. For more on why boys struggle in school and what parents can do to help, check out my conversation with Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble With Boys. Want to know why teenagers act they way they do? Here’s my report on what science can tell us about the teenage brain. And here’s yesterday’s take on the video-game-addiction study, with advice for parents from a pediatrician on how to get kids off video games.