National Post

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Wednesday, July 07, 1999

Let boys be boys

Neil Seeman
National Post

An illustration of a little boy in a cowboy suit holding a gun.
"Too many boys don't seem to be trying. They have retired to a leisured existence of watching televised sport and playing electronic games. They have been anaesthetized by a 'boy culture' that celebrates bravado, lassitude and stupidity."

These inflammatory words belong to Pat Clarke, a B.C. Teachers Federation vice-president (and father of girls) who has spent the last year lecturing to packed audiences of apprehensive Canadian parents and teachers about the educational "crisis" gripping boys.

The image of a boy crisis -- a canvas of Ritalin-popping young miscreants clad in black trenchcoats and swaying to Goth music as they play Quake on their PCs -- has transfixed culture critics on both the left and right in the aftermath of the high-school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Taber, Alta.

Wes Imms, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, says society should invest more time and effort into exploring why Canadian boys, on average, are scoring lower marks than girls in most subject areas, are more likely to drop out of school, are much less involved in student councils than girls, and comprise 75% of all cases of learning and behavioural disorders. The Fraser Institute, a conservative thinktank usually suspicious of charges of "systemic discrimination," argued recently that Canadian public school classrooms and tests contain a hidden "structural bias in favour of girls."

Other "boy advocates" point out that boys are four times more likely than girls to commit suicide, and 10 times more likely to commit murder, with the overwhelming majority of their victims being other boys.

Perhaps the most cited statistic of all: Boys are five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and to be prescribed Ritalin, a drug that reduces restlessness and irritability by regulating the amount of dopamine released inside the brain. The medication statistic is also attributable to the fact that 6%-16% of boys under the age of 18, compared to 2%-9% of girls, are diagnosed with "conduct disorder" -- a catch-all term that characterizes behaviour such as fighting, stealing, vandalism, and general mayhem.

Childhood problems in boys do not end when childhood ends, say the boy advocates. Currently, 60% of the entering class at most Canadian universities is female, which represents a reversal from 25 years ago. Young women now outnumber men in every undergraduate discipline in Canada, except computer science and engineering. U.S. studies indicate high school girls are at least twice as likely as boys to aspire to a career in management, the professions, or business.

These observations have served as the grist for several influential new books from leading boy advocates, notably William Pollack (Real Boys), Michael Thompson (Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys), and Michael Gurian (The Wonder of Boys and A Fine Young Man). To their credit, these books put paid to the brand of 1970s feminism that claimed little girls are victimized in our society while little boys get off scot-free. Nevertheless, the authors' underlying contention that we are in the midst of something new, a boy crisis of epidemic proportions, rests on thin scientific grounds. And the solutions they propose are of questionable value.

Although it is correct that young males are predominantly to blame for criminal activity and social aggression, this has always been the case. Aggression in young males is hardly a new phenomenon. It is true for essentially all animal species. Thus, as Gwen Broude, a professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Vassar College, argues in the current issue of The Public Interest, "if boys are in trouble because they are aggressive, they have always been, by definition, in trouble." And it is misleading to extrapolate from the suicide statistics to conclude that boys are unhappier than girls. Though boys are more likely to die following a suicide attempt, 80%-90% of such attempts are, in fact, made by girls. The differential "success" rates of suicide result from the different methods employed by boys and girls. Boys use more lethal means.

In fact, there is no evidence of an emotional or behavioural "crisis" for either sex. Although adolescence brings such problems to the foreground, only 1%-4% of children display behavioural and emotional difficulties above the norm. This prevalence has remained the same over many decades. More to the point, the overwhelming majority of boys and girls are generally content with their lives. Attitudinal studies by Ed Diener of the University of Illinois have shown that gender differences only account for one percent in the variation of young children's sense of well-being.

Rates of depression are on the rise, but this may be attributable to better diagnosis. While increased, depression in adolescence is not as rampant a problem as it is in adulthood. And, once past the early teens, it is markedly more common in women than in men. To the extent that there does exist an epidemic of male anomie, it seems to occur in association with specific family rearing patterns. Gerald Patterson of the Oregon Social Learning Center has studied boyhood aggression for more than 40 years and finds that parents of aggressive boys tend to use half-hearted and ineffectual disciplinary techniques.

A parental emphasis on rules and structure can, in his experience, minimize disruptive aggression in boys, especially if implemented at an early age. Significantly, however, the disciplinarian approach is considered sacrilegious by the boy advocates.

According to Pollack, boys "feel a sadness and disconnection they cannot even name." We do not encourage boys to express their feelings, argues Gurian, robbing them of the necessary tools for emotional growth. In extreme cases, according to these claims, boys' suppressed anger may lead to violence like that seen in Littleton and Taber.

Carol Gilligan, the Harvard education professor who used to obsess over the plight facing girls, now insists society emotionally undernourishes boys by cutting off the "apron strings" -- their connection to the "feminine" traits of co-operation, caring and sensitivity -- at too early an age.

Their solution? "You can't love a boy too much, and you can't give him too much self-esteem," counsels Pollack. Elementary school teachers throughout North America have translated this advice into a mandate for "feel good/play house" recreation that banishes toy guns and trucks, and replaces them with dolls and dress-up. There is no evidence per se that this is bad for boys, but it must be confusing. It is not what they are taught in the hockey arena or on the basketball court. It is not what their parents expect of them; nor is it what life will demand of them.

However socially egalitarian the feminized approach might sound in theory, it simply does not serve the needs of boys. Traditionally masculine traits, such as independence, assertiveness, stoicism and task accomplishment, are what studies show predict good mental health in male adolescence and young adulthood.

In fact, overloading on indiscriminate doses of self-esteem, as the boy advocates preach, may be especially harmful for boys. So argues Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child, who points out that when boys, in particular, receive unconditional positive feedback, they do not learn from their mistakes and do not recognize when they truly have achieved something worthwhile. They fare better with limits and accountability. Indeed, the latter philosophy undergirds the approach to youth crime undertaken by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, whose crackdown on petty boyhood crimes such as graffiti-spraying and hooliganism has been widely credited with the massive overall reductions in that city's crime rate during the past five years.

Today's boys are the first generation to grow up amid the new confusion about male aggressivity coming, as it does, on the heels of a three-decades long tornado of anti-male sentiment. Boys struggle, as their predecessors always have, with innate aggressive impulses which they must learn to curb. Clear limits and an emphasis on personal responsibility help with this inevitable maturational task. Gender re-education does not. Ritalin may help a small minority of boys to control their restlessness, but its over-prescription sends out the wrong message -- that behaviour is not one's own responsibility. Indiscriminate praise in order to boost a faux self-esteem, however well-intentioned, is counter-productive. Feeling good needs to be based on one's own hard fought-for achievement. Alas, this is as true for girls as it is for boys.

Copyright Southam Inc.