What Today's Boys Really Need to Thrive

What's Up with Boys?

By Georgia Orcutt

BoysIf there's a boy in your world, you know that he's made of much more than snips and snails and puppy-dogs' tails. But what's really going on beneath the impish grin or the messy hair can often be a mystery.

Researchers have been zeroing in on boys for the last decade, examining what makes them tick and how we all can better understand them and meet their needs. In 1997, family therapist Michael Gurian's book The Wonder of Boys urged us to examine how we manage and respond to boy culture. William Pollock's 1998 book Real Boys used groundbreaking research from Harvard Medical School to examine why so many boys were sad, confused, even violent, and called for an understanding of what boys experience. Two years later, Michael Thompson co-authored Raising Cain, urging us to broaden our definition of masculinity and to save boys from the tyranny of toughness.

But as these watchdog professionals and others tune in to boys in America today, they've found more troubling trends. Boys as a group are not thriving in school. Many are addicted to video games, losing touch with the happenings of the real world. Our culture doesn't offer up positive role models for boys, and father-son time seems to be on the wane. A divide is opening between accomplished, motivated girls and drifting, disdainful boys.

What can we do? Here's a look at emerging thoughts about boys from the authors of four new books, along with some positive, practical ways for parents to provide the nurturing that boys need.

Peg Tyre

Author of The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do (Crown Publishers, 2008)

While covering the education beat at Newsweek, Tyre pored over data, visited scores of schools and talked with nearly 200 teachers nationwide, asking how boys are doing and what may be affecting their performance in school. Among her findings:

Elementary school boys are diagnosed with attention problems or learning disorders four times as often as girls and are twice as likely to get held back.

Boys are expelled from preschool at nearly five times the rate of girls.

By high school, girls rule. They take harder classes, do better in them, and dominate many extracurricular activities.

More than 57 percent of all college undergrads are female – and this disparity is expected to keep growing.

Tyre jumps into this "new gender gap" to sensitize parents about how boys run into academic trouble and to call for schools, communities and elected leaders to take notice. Our culture, she says, perpetuates three myths about boys: that achievement in school doesn't matter; that boys who struggle early on will eventually catch up; and that schools have always done things a certain way.

"The pipeline that carries girls from kindergarten to college graduation is full of bright, vibrant and ambitious young women. The pipeline that carries boys is badly leaking," she writes.

Tyre questions the wisdom of sending young boys to today's academically-driven preschools, where finger paints and blocks have been pushed aside to make room for reading and writing. "When you send your son off to preschool, he may repeatedly experience things that he finds frustrating, uncomfortable or alienating," Tyre notes. "He may encounter expectations that are so at odds with his natural development that they leave him bewildered and angry."

Tyre also points out that only about 9 percent of elementary school teachers are male. What happens, she asks, when boys are educated almost exclusively by women, who may favor a feminized curriculum and may not be trained to understand boys' needs?

To help counteract boys' spiraling academic achievement, she urges fathers to play a much bigger role in reading to their young sons.

Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

Author of It's A Boy! Understanding Your Son's Development from Birth to Age 18 (Ballantine Books, 2008)

Michael Thompson, a psychologist who has worked with school-age boys in the Boston area for 30 years, has co-authored a number of books about boys. His latest covers a boy's development from in the womb to age 18, focusing on psychological issues, developmental milestones and advice for helping boys at each age.

Encouraging parents to have faith in their son's biology and psychology, Thompson reminds us that our ideas about boys are rooted in our own childhoods and culture. He, too, expresses concerns about how boys fare in school today. Boy-friendly early education, he says, is crucial.

"The age at which a boy starts kindergarten, his developmental readiness, and the experiences he has there will affect him for the rest of his school career, and perhaps the rest of his life," Thompson writes. "In his first three years of formal schooling – kindergarten through second grade – he forms a view of himself as a successful boy or a failure.

"The only way we're going to help boys as a group to achieve more in school – to reach their full potential – is to think out loud about the problem, get discussions going in PTA groups, have teachers address the gaps, and try new techniques for engaging boys."

He also warns that labeling a boy an "underachiever" doesn't say much about him. "Instead of defining him by what he isn't, it's more helpful to look at what he is and then identify what he needs in order to do his best and get the most out of school."

Michael Gurian

Author of The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Family therapist Michael Gurian, the author of several books about boys, has written an eight-chapter tool kit to guide parents in helping their sons become emotionally intelligent men of character.

Gurian believes that boys today have lost their sense of purpose for several reasons, including the fact that media images show few strong role models. He worries that men in families don't understand their important role in bringing purpose to their sons' lives, and he sees the relationships between boys and their fathers deteriorating. He recommends that boys be exposed to a wide circle of influential men – "many parents, many ‘leaders,' many ‘elders' who will value, admire and guide them."

Gurian concurs with Tyre and Thompson that most schools aren't set up to motivate boys or deal with boy energy; boys will turn away from school if they don't feel respected there, he believes. He agrees that not every boy needs to read or master a computer by age 5, and says boys who are falling behind may need to spend more time with their parents and mentors.

"As we save our sons one boy at a time by advocating for schooling that is purposeful and relevant to young males, we will not only create a more successful generation of male learners, but we will also create a happier, more successful, and more purposeful generation of men," he writes.

Citing a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report that adolescent boys spend more than 44 hours per week using electronic media, Gurian offers parents a 10-point checklist to set priorities and rules that will give boys a more balanced life. Specifically, look at how much time your son spends with each of his parents, his friends, doing chores and homework, and reading for pleasure.

Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

Author of Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men (Basic Books, 2009)

In his 17 years as a family physician and psychologist, Leonard Sax has seen hundreds of families where the girls are driven and the boys are unmotivated. Also the author of Why Gender Matters, he finds it troubling that so many boys he encounters don't care about any real-world activity, and he observes worrisome new trends: "For many boys, not caring about anything has become the mark of true guy-dom," he writes. And the hostility he's seeing toward school includes black, Latino, white and Asian boys, and boys from both low-income neighborhoods and affluent suburbs.

He warns readers who may have successful boys around them that it's easy to overlook the reality that "more young men than ever before are falling by the wayside on the road to the American dream."

Why, he asks, does one boy succeed while another just drifts along? Sax looks at social, cultural and biological factors. He also theorizes that young boys may not benefit from early exposure to academics.

"It now appears that the language areas of the brain in many 5-year-old boys look like the language areas of the brain in the average 3-and-a-half year-old girl," he writes. "Waiting until 7 years of age to begin the formal, ‘rigorous' reading and writing curriculum of today's kindergarten might reduce or ameliorate a significant fraction of the problems we see with boys and school." He adds that while the pace of education has accelerated, "boys brains don't grow any faster now than they did 30 years ago."

To help boys, Sax advocates directing them to alternatives to video games, and moving computers and TV sets out of their bedrooms. He also recommends exposing boys to a community with strong male role models, and telling boys stories that affirm the values of masculinity without disrespecting or devaluing women.

Read More: 10 Ways that Parents Can Help Their Sons