The past, in some ways, was a boy’s paradise. Boys had the lion’s share of opportunities in academics, athletics, and ultimately, careers. My own very bright mother was directed into secretarial courses in high school, then worked for years as my father’s legal secretary. In the next generation, she might have been his law-school classmate and then a partner in his firm.
“Let’s face it, that old attitude of ‘Boys will be boys’ was partly a way of saying that boys would get chance after chance,” says William H. Gray, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund and the father of three boys. “But in today’s society, if a boy acts like a jerk, there’s a girl ready to pass him by.”
The perception that boys thrive on competition and that girls shy away from it is being replaced by a new reality. In many of the most important academic ways, boys are getting outperformed and left behind.
“The decline of boys has not been some sudden sea change,” says Tom Mortenson, senior scholar at The Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, US. “Boys have been gradually losing ground for a couple of decades.” What’s new is that even experts who wholeheartedly applaud the efforts that have been made on behalf of girls conclude that it’s time for the same kind of attention to be focused on boys.
And it should happen well before they reach high school age. “Somewhere in the middle school years, too many boys lose their way,” says Harry Dawe, an associate director of admissions at Oberlin College, in Ohio, who has led efforts to study the problem. “They get off track academically or socially, and we never get them back.”
Boys are consistently at the top of the list in negative categories. In the United States, they account for the majority of school suspensions and expulsions. They use alcohol and illegal drugs in greater percentages than girls. Boys still do better than girls in upper-level math and science, but girls maintain a distinct advantage in reading and writing.
“Early on, boys see that girls adjust more easily to school,” says William S. Pollack, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at US’s Harvard Medical School and the author of Real Boys and Real Boys Workbook. “So boys compete to be the biggest cutup, the one with the most bravado, the biggest bully.”
“When the playing field got leveled, girls’ natural superiority in certain things came to the fore,” Dawe says. The challenge now is to help boys succeed without unfairly tilting the playing field back in their favor.
In American society, many changes are subtly working against boys. One is the movement from small towns and rural areas to sprawling metropolitan regions, giving kids less space and freedom to move and explore.
It happens here too. “I grew up in Nueva Ecija,” says Robert Ledesma, the father of a 12-year-old boy. “By the time I was seven, I was riding my bike all over town. I had to know how to get back home, and how to find my way out of the woods. That gives you a sense of accomplishment. Where we live now in Pasig, my son does not have that opportunity. It’s a loss.”
With the advent of cable television and home computers—and neighborhoods that seem less safe—a boy’s life increasingly takes place indoors. “My son and his friends gravitate to all the electronic stuff, more so than the girls,” says John Diaz, of Makati, the father of a 16-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter. “With my son, it’s constant: the radio in the morning, the headset on the way to school, the TV and the computer after school.”
In fact, a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services concluded that boys in all age groups watch more TV than girls. Twenty percent of nine-year-old boys watched six or more hours per day—compared to 15 percent of girls. TV leaves less time for reading and exercising and is not known for engaging young minds.
There is now increased pressure on kids to achieve certain academic goals in early grades. But, in fact, many boys may not make their mark until college. “We look at college applications, and so often there is a pattern with the boys,” Dawe says. “They seem distracted. There are low grades in the early high school years. Then there’s some sign of a spark. I say to my colleagues, ‘This kid’s a late bloomer. We have to give him a chance.’ Boys normally do not mature as quickly as girls. We can write them off, or we can wait for them.”
What is the difference between boys and girls? I ask 11-yearl-old Michael Palma, of Mandaluyong. He pauses a moment. He is a bright, thoughtful child. “I think guys are better at sports, especially basketball,” he tells me. And in school? “Girls are better at writing, especially poetry, and boys are better at math.” Boys could excel at writing, he says, but it’s not what they like or choose to do. I ask him what would happen if he composed verse celebrating heavenly bodies or his conquests on the field of play. Michael scrunches up his face. “My friends would think it was weird,” he says. “They’d want me to go back to the way I was, ‘cause kids want their friends to be just like them.”
Michael is unknowingly describing what Harvard’s Pollack calls the Boy Code. It holds boys to a narrow range of interests and emotions: They must be stoic. They cannot show vulnerability and must cover up self-doubt with bluster. Interests such as sports and computers are safe; revealing a creative side is risky. It’s a code that leads to isolation. When a boy struggles, he has nowhere to turn because he’s afraid to reveal weaknesses.
Boys would undoubtedly be happier and more successful if they could behave in ways that are less stereotypical. Yet they shouldn’t feel “wrong” when they act as if testosterone were surging through their veins. “Many boys like physical competition, rough-and-tumble play. But that is all under a cloud,” says Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys. “Some people talk like maleness is a condition that you need to recover from. But gender differences are hardwired.”
What are Sommer’s prescriptions? Give boys back their traditional heroes. Engage them with stories that hold their interest so they will read, which is vitally important for their academic progress. “Bring back adventure stories,” Sommers says. “Let boys read poetry about war, about conquerors. Sure, there’s aggression in them, but most boys like that. They need to feel heroic and boy-like but still connected.”
Our job as parents of sons is to steer them along socially acceptable paths and to support them as they discover what kind of men they will grow into. “Boys need to have a wide range of experiences that reinforce masculinity but do not straitjacket them,” Pollack says. “There has to be more than one way to be a boy.”