Globe and Mail

What are little boys made of?

The Globe and Mail
Friday, April 6, 2001

EDUCATION REPORTER -- For years the "emotional life of boys" was a phrase calculated to draw guffaws. What else but sex, sports and alcohol was on their poor tortured minds?

But yesterday, 600 educators from around Ontario listened to a day-long lecture on the subject of how boys are hurting and can't talk about it, by U.S. psychologist and author Dan Kindlon. The event was organized by the Peel District School Board, the country's third-largest, with 111,000 students.

It was a sign of a sea change in education circles.

For a generation, equity in schools has meant addressing girls' perceived lack of self-confidence, body-image problems and tendency to avoid careers in science and engineering.

Not any more. School boards are increasingly turning their attention to why boys are underachieving, particularly in reading and writing, and why they are winding up in behaviour programs in disproportionate numbers.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, for instance, is asking parents if they would support the creation of two separate-gender high schools. And the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is considering boys-only classes in the language arts, in middle school and high school.

"What the feminist movement did for women, I'd like to see happen for men," Mr. Kindlon, the co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, told the audience in Mississauga yesterday. "The best parts of the feminist movement have given women choices. A woman can be a tough lawyer during the day and come home and do stereotypical things like baking cookies.

"Unfortunately for men and boys, the definition of masculinity is narrower than for femininity," and requires toughness, drinking, and denial of feelings.

Some authors, notably Christina Hoff Sommers, who wrote The War Against Boys,have accused the schools of trying to "feminize" boys. Mr. Kindlon said the so-called men's movement of a decade ago tried that, and it was a mistake. "It meant you couldn't watch football or play poker. The idea was to be more like a woman. But why do you have to give these other things up? Why can't you watch football on TV and be stoic if you need to be stoic at some times?"

His message fell on receptive ears in a province where boys trail girls by significant margins on some measures. On Grade 6 reading scores, for instance, 58 per cent of girls reached the provincial standard, compared to just 39 per cent of boys.

"I'd like to coin a phrase: we need 'masculinism,' " said Rita Zanatta, a consultant with the York Catholic District School Board.

In an interview, she explained that her work has focused on sexism, which mostly meant girls' lack of power. "But now we're really concerned about our boys and what's happening to them."

Psychologists who deal with boys' aggressive behaviour have much to learn, said Howell Gotlieb, a Peel board consultant and the event's organizer.

"Often we miss out on the emotions. Often we miss out on the sadness, the feelings of despair, and just think about how we can get a behavioural-modification program set up."

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.