Are We Making It Too Hard For Boys To Succeed in the World?

When my son was in pre-K, the director came up to me and suggested I attend a lecture on why boys learn differently.  As my son was only four, I didn't think about it too much and I certainly didn't attend the lecture.

But now I am seeing why.  I've been fortunate in that my son, now almost 13, is a good student and we don't have to harangue him (most of the time) about doing his work.  But I am seeing that boys learn differently and an article in today's New York Times puts its finger on that difference.

David Leonhardt writes in, "A Link Between Fidgety Boys and a Sputtering Economy," that the gap in behavioral skills between young girls and boys is even bigger than the gap between rich and poor.

"By kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys, according to a new paper from Third Way, a Washington research group," he reports. By eighth grade, 48 percent of girls receive a mix of A’s and B’s or better. Only 31 percent of boys do.

This doesn't seem quite right to me (most of the boys I know get good grades), but I'm sure there's maybe something to it.

He even links our languishing economy to this.  "If the United States is going to build a better-functioning economy than the one we’ve had over the last 15 years, we’re going to have to solve our boy problems," he writes, positing that we're in this shape because our men today are the ones much more likely to be "idle" -- out of work and not looking for it.

Leonhardt points out that the portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75 percent over the last quarter-century. "Median inflation-adjusted female earnings are up almost 35 percent over the same span, census data show — while male earnings, incredibly, haven’t risen at all," he notes.

“We know we’ve got a crisis, and the crisis is with boys,” he quotes Elaine Kamarck, a resident scholar at Third Way and a former Clinton administration official. “We’re not quite sure why it’s happening.”

Now, if you're like me and grew up in the business world in the '80s and '90s, men occupied all the top posts and there was nary a women to be found among them.  That still seems to hold true today.  It's all the middle-income men who are struggling.

Leonhardt goes on to say that girls enter school with a lead on boys, and schools then fail to close the gaps. The behavioral advantage that girls have over boys in kindergarten, based on teachers’ assessments of their students, are even larger in fifth grade.

By then, the average girl is at the 60th percentile of an index of social and behavioral skills, while the average boy is at only the 40th percentile, according to Claudia Buchmann of Ohio State and Thomas DiPrete of Columbia, the authors of the new paper. 

But is it all about behavior and social skills?  

Leonhardt says that some, like Christina Hoff Sommers, argue that today’s education system fails to acknowledge the profound differences between boys and girls. It asks boys to sit still for hours every day and provides them with few role models in front of the classroom. 

I think he's selling our boys a little too short.  I know plenty of boys who don't fidget in class, and girls who do.  But I believe the point is that the way we teach boys is the problem.  Boys tend to be spatial and visual in their thinking.  But school systems, like most in this test-loving country today, tend to reward those who can spit back facts and figures, and they're usually girls.

So, what's the solution?  Leonhardt suggests improving schools.  But that's pretty pie-in-the-sky.

He quotes Buchmann again, who says, “Boys are getting the wrong message about what you need to do to be successful.  Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys. In today’s economy, being tough and being strong are not what leads to success.”

Which is it?  Boys are too fidgety or too tough?  I suppose, a little of both.  The old ways of the working world have changed, maybe at the expense of men.  I still see quite a few men in top management positions but maybe they're just the cream of the crop.  

I will be interested to see how my son navigates the world when he's a little older.  But I don't believe these dire predictions about him.  He's just going to have to work hard, and hope for a little luck.  Just like the rest of us.


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