Monday, December 29, 2008

The Trouble with Boys

Peg Tyre has written a remarkable book about a problem that many of us have sensed (but failed to articulate and complain about) for years: our young boys are being shortchanged from the first day that they enter a school building. Not too many years ago the concern in public education was how to prepare girls to grow into women able to compete with their male counterparts in the work world. That was a legitimate concern and, much to the credit of this country, a tremendous, and very successful, effort was made to correct the problem. But as always seems to happen, the pendulum continued to swing their way long after females had achieved educational equality. The momentum created to correct the initial problem was so strong that it eventually placed male students at a disadvantage, a new problem just as serious as the one it corrected.

I have personally observed much of what Peg Tyre describes in The Trouble with Boys. For what it is worth, I can offer anecdotal evidence of my own that the problem Tyre describes is a serious one. I am the father of two daughters, both elementary school teachers now, and the grandfather of one granddaughter and two grandsons, all of whom are elementary school students. Because I am convinced that learning to read well, and as soon as possible, is the key to anyone’s future, I encouraged my daughters to become readers and have done the same for their children. It is in observation of their children that I first became aware of just how different so many little boys are from little girls when it comes to their early schooling.

According to Tyre, the problem for little boys begins as early as preschool because they are physically and mentally less mature than little girls their age. Boys at this age are less verbal than girls, a deficit that makes it more difficult for them to learn to read, and they have less well developed fine motor skills, making it more difficult for them to control a pencil or a paintbrush. But their biggest problem is the great difficulty they have in sitting still for long periods of time, a tendency that almost guarantees that they will be disciplined at a much higher rate than girls and that they will learn at a slower pace.

The physical disadvantage faced by young boys has become more and more exaggerated in recent years because of the emphasis on starting our children into preschool programs at younger and younger ages. Little boys find themselves labeled early on as troublemakers and poor students by teachers that simply do not recognize or understand the handicaps the boys are facing in the classroom. As a result, boys are almost five times as likely to be expelled from preschool and are twice as likely to be placed under medication for some type of attention deficit disorder.

And, of course, this makes them much more likely to hate school and learning. Too many of them tune out, barely skating by academically and staying in school mainly because of sports programs and the girls they meet there. These boys have subconsciously assimilated the message they received from preschool through elementary school that they are problem students whose behavior and study habits are not appreciated.

And the result is predictable. Boys and girls enter preschool at about the same level but around the fourth grade girls are noticeably pulling ahead of boys academically, a lead they never relinquish. By middle and high school girls make up a substantial majority of top-ranked students and today they outnumber male university students to such a degree that many schools have created a kind of affirmative action plan for boys in order to create some balance in their student enrollments.

In effect, the American education system has been over-feminized by its tendency to reward the behavior more common to girls and to punish that more likely to be shared by young male students. The Trouble with Boys offers solutions and possible corrective measures that need to be adopted before another generation of men is doomed to second class status.

As Tyre points out, this country simply cannot afford to write off half of the population if it is to successfully compete in the global economy of the future. Advocates of equality for women may be concerned by any new emphasis on the same for men, fearing that the infamous pendulum will once again swing too far before stopping. But, as Tyre emphasizes, that is not what anyone is proposing or expecting; this is simply a matter of true equality for both sexes, a goal that will benefit all of us.

The Trouble with Boys makes a strong case that something must be done quickly in order to correct the biggest problem now facing this country’s school system. It should be read by parents (regardless of whether they have boys or girls), school teachers and administrators, and everyone concerned about the future. It is a good place at which to begin the conversation – read it and pass it on to others before we waste another generation of young men. It is time that we quit treating boys as “defective girls.”

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Great review, Sam. As a soon-to-be grandmother (of a boy) I found this most interesting.

    Did the author find any difference in this inequality in private versus public schools?


  2. JoAnn, she sees a difference in economic status of boys, with those coming from the wealthiest families doing the best job competing with girls of all classes. But middle class boys generally don't compete well against the marks of girls from the poorest families, etc.

    She also argues that "same sex" schools are not really the answer, but she remarks that all boy schools do seem to encourage more boys to pursue the more "feminine studies" such as English, literature and the arts.

    Some great things are being done in certain public school systems and Tyre seems to be encouraged by the enthusiasm of teachers of both sexes to do something about this problem.

    Interestingly enough, she did not find that elementary school boys did all that much better if they had male teachers than female teachers.

  3. As a teacher and mother of a boy myself, this is definitely a book I will be reading. Great review :)

  4. Sam, my daughter is the director of communications at an all-boys school - it is co-ed until 4th grade when the girls division moves to the other side of the 90- acre campus.. I told her to talk to the teachers about this book. Some of the boys who are there are fifth generation, so the parents obviously believe in that kind of education.

    I remember reading that teenage boys think about sex every 5 minutes. EGADS. That is why I thought same-sex schools might be a good idea. Outta sight and all that!

  5. I've read about this book recently and now I want to read the book myself. As a retired teacher, I'm always interested in the process of learning...and I do have a two-year-old grandson.

  6. I'm still bitter at my son's 3rd grade teacher who was so very sure that my son was ADHD. I also still feel rage at the pediatrician who looked at him for 5 seconds and agreed with the teacher (all three of his kids were medicated). When he was on Ritalin, it acted like speed in his system, and he was a worse "behavior problem" than before, and the teacher complained. My husband and I were aghast on many different levels and took him back to the doctor. The doctor wanted to play with different medications until he found the right one. Although this had been his pediatrician all his life, we never took him back there again. I wish we'd moved him out of that woman's class.

  7. Samantha, it all makes a lot of sense to me...and it scares me to death that no one will take the problem seriously until we lose two or three generations of boys. That would be tragic.

  8. JoAnn, I would really like to hear what your daughter and those teachers think of the book if you get any feedback. Thanks.

  9. Jenclair, if you take a look, please give us your thoughts. As a former school teacher you might see some things that I missed in her argument.

  10. Bybee, that's exactly why I think this book could be so important as a first step in getting a square deal for boy students again. Way too many boys are medicated simply for being boys. I'm certain that some benefit but I wonder what long term damage that might do to their personality growth and self-esteem.

    I don't blame you for still being angry at those folks...