The recent news about boys has not been good.
A tsunami of research studies, magazine articles and op eds earmarked boys as neglected, put upon and underserved. In The New York Times, David Brooks said we should consider revamping school curricula, attend to the benefits of single sex education, and allow more time for recess because boys aren't reading enough. Newsweek magazine's Peg Tyre affirmed that current educational strategies disenfranchise boys from academic success. Also in the Times, Marianne Legato, director of the Partnership for Women's Health at Columbia, kicked it up a notch, reminding us that both genetically and socially, boys are strongly disadvantaged from birth. In Esquire, Tom Chiarella, a professor at a large public university, wrote about the achievement gap from first-hand experience. He pointed to Joel Klein, NY city's school chancellor, as someone who is encouraging fellow men to take on the heavy lifting of bringing up boys by their perpetually untied bootstraps.
Increased attention to the needs of boys generally follows a period when girls are perceived to have had more than their share. Following the sixties (girls can be soldiers too), the seventies (girls can be athletes too), the eighties (girls are misunderstood), the nineties (girls are losing what makes them special) and a most recently (girls are mean, nasty and hierarchical), we have arrived at a place where everyone thinks girls are doing so fine that maybe we need to slow things down a bit.
Is this another case of what Susan Faludi identified as "Backlash"? My bulging files and library on the subject point to 1994 and 1999 as the last time the big guys -- the feds, the major magazines, the university-based researchers -- came down from the mountain and huffed and puffed without actually blowing our schools and houses down. But there has been a continuous, if less dramatic, trickle of documentaries and books on the "trouble" with boys since then.
The current round of thinking from public health officials and educators posits that boys have little chance for excellence without enormous remediation. What they are really talking about is affirmative action for boys. A No Boy Left Behind movement that compensates for their shorter attention spans, restless energy, less sophisticated brain function and differing interests.
On an institutional level, my own volunteer work over the last decade with inner-city high school seniors mirrors what educators and psychologists are finding: there are more girls who "get it" earlier on, both socially and academically and that girls, deservedly, are on the fast track to success in college in greater numbers than boys.
On a more selfish, personal level, I'm hopeful every time a round of new data and articles comes out that it will give me the keys to the kingdom of boys and men that I've been seeking my entire life.
But I question how much difference we can, or indeed should, make. Like our well-intentioned but misguided efforts to give boys, dolls and girls, trucks in the sixties, this round of "nurture"-based amelioration relies on once again putting blinders on to basic gender differences. Though boys may be "slower" through middle school, high school and university, afterwards, they more than catch up.
Please don't misunderstand. I embrace these personal reveilles from men to other men and national calls to arms, though I hope you won't get cranky with me for putting it into that kind of formerly mostly male gender militaristic doublespeak.
And I find it interesting that some of the same men who stack up on the side of giving boys an affirmative institutional advantage because of the way they were born find it morally wrong to accord the same privileges to people of color because of the circumstances around their birth.
Before I go further, a word about my credentials as a "sexpert." They are purely empirical: I have two sons, two stepsons, a husband, a brother and a male dog. I have roughly calculated this to be 236 linear years of primary care of boys, men and their furry brethren. This does not even include my 35 years with my father before he died or my experiences with male friends and lovers in a previous life.
So I more than agree with this latest buzz which only confirms what I've been seeing in my own home. Though I've read much of the literature, consulted psychologists and doctors, relentlessly polled women who have brought up sons before me, I often still feel out of my depth when it comes to being able to understand boys and help them along their way. Yet I never wanted to do a "Larry Summers" and get outed by all those smart feminists and competent mothers who have always managed to handle pods of alien males better than I have.
For indeed, on a non-institutional basis, women and mothers have been grappling with these "differences" in boys and men forever. We could have told you that boys (and men) are needy, antsy, risk-taking, attention-deficited beings independent of any health department initiatives or belated wake ups by fathers and school chancellors. The truth is, for every study that shows how underserved boys are in the classroom or by their very own arteries and brains, there is a legion of women who are attempting to countervail these pernicious influences on the domestic front by cooking healthy meals, reading to them about trucks and space ships, giving them lessons in rock climbing and frantically studying up on how to make them feel better, look fabulous and inherit the earth.
That doesn't mean we always succeed. (Me, for example.) Or, that it doesn't exact a very high price on some of us (me, for example) who find dealing with an energy so different from our own day in and day out overwhelming despite our best intentions.
Though they say boys are more vulnerable from birth, I've always had trouble keeping up with mine. Biologists have told us that it's the Dax 1, Gata 4, Mis, Sfl, Sox 9, Wntl and Wtl genes that make boys. (If that doesn't sound like a bunch of aliens, I don't know what does.) The thing is, you need them all, plus another "switcher" called SRY to turn the whole lot on before you even get to the testosterone part. And the main thing they're all trying to do is fight off the female hormones that threaten them in utero. So that dodgy, I-hate-reading, commitment-phobic, risk-taking, won't-ask-directions, leave-it-to-the-last-minute profile is there from DAY ONE.
I have no scientific data to support my claims or, rather, there is ample data that could support just about any claim since there is profound disagreement on whether men inherit a propensity for throwing phones at desk clerks or for declaring true love on top of couches on national television.
Though I hate being reductive, for example, until very recently, none of my sons would have been caught sitting still reading. They come from a home that is filled with books of every genre, a grandfather and other family members who were in the publishing business, a grandmother who was editor of her high school newspaper, never mind a mother who consumes books for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They were read to day and night, taken to the library multiple times a week, given the opportunity to choose and purchase their own books as soon as they were able to point. They all attended small schools where no one fell between the cracks, had extra help as needed and were also given the chance to attend single sex schools (and chose not to). They had the nature and the nurture: none of it made any difference.
Ok, you're saying, she didn't meet them halfway, where they lived not where she lived. How wrong you are. Even though I was more at home with a book or a ballet barre, I gave them lessons in rockclimbing, ice climbing, black diamond skiing, peak ascent, flyfishing, white water kayaking, and flying. They were point guards, quarterbacks, goalies, pitchers, tennis aces, left inside in soccer, lacrosse and rugby.
After I dropped them off at the mountain, I would go on solitary hikes and bang on a can, more to scare away thoughts of plunges into icy crevasses than to keep away the bears. Though I went to every game possible, when I arrived, I mostly hid out under the stands.
So I couldn't be happier that David and Tom and Joel are going to push men towards nurturing their own and educators to be sensitive to their different learning styles because I, quite frankly, am exhausted from what has often felt like a frustrating battle with the "Other."
But I don't believe it's as bleak as they've painted it.
Two salutary influences help boys with little effort from all of us. One is aging. Boys seem to reach their mid-twenties, and all of a sudden, the light bulb goes on and they are able to focus and it's warp speed to the goal. The frustrating hours we, educators and mothers alike, have spent, suddenly pay off. If thirty is the new twenty for guys then maybe twenty is the new... ten?
The other, not-so-secret ingredient to leveling the gender playing field is the eventual influence of the very women they are being compared to. Their maturing male brains point them to ambitious, brilliant, nurturing wives, girlfriends and female colleagues who make them feel and look great. And just as the boys blossom, these girls are beginning to have their own hard-wired biology catch up with them and the whole thing evens out in the quest for: babies.
Look around. It's still mostly men who are running the world. One reason might be that boys and men are smart and canny in their own "different voice", and certainly smarter than tests may give them credit for. If we are throwing out the curriculum, maybe we should start by throwing out the tests that measure them according to an impossible standard they cannot meet when they are young.
Either that, or make sure they stay tethered to a female. Don't worry guys, we've got your backs.