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Girls do better in school than boys these days — but why? Could the way we approach physically active boys be shortchanging them, and what can we do to better meet their needs?

John, age 11, loved dolls and stuffed animals from when he was tiny. When his friends made fun of him after he showed them his doll collection, he suddenly became unwilling to admit that he liked them, though his mom still occasionally "catches" him playing with his dolls when he thinks nobody is looking. 

Max, age 9, was diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication after he was consistently banned from enjoying recess for failure of sitting still in class. 

Peter, age 6, whose mother says he was the most gentle little boy when he was a toddler, started behaving in more stereotypically macho ways after he got into watching cartoons in which male characters behaved in the same manner. 

Dimitry, age 17, whose father is often on the road, has come to believe that it is his responsibility to discipline his younger brothers when they don't do their homework, their chores, or get bad grades. His mother reports that she's seen him grab them violently and threaten to beat them up if they don't listen. He sees this as his responsibility. Taller and stronger than his mother, she's afraid to intervene. 

Names have been changed to protect the boys' privacy, but the ages haven't and the stories were all shared by people I know personally. These stories highlight just a small portion of the issues facing our sons today. Back in the 1990s, a team of psychologists delved more deeply into the challenges of growing up a boy in the modern world. 

How Our Society Is Shortchanging Boys

Their findings were sad, but not, for those of us raising sons, unexpected. Boys, the team said, face a hostile school environment not designed for them — male kids are often slower to become competent readers, and crave physical activity more. Teachers were found to mete out harsher punishments to boys too. Max's example is a good one: by getting up in class and twitching on his chair, he demonstrated a need for physical activity. Instead of having that need met, it was curtailed even further by removing his access to recess.

Boys are consistently expected, by almost everyone around them, to act "tough". Then, the research team concluded, when they live up to societal expectations, they're criticized for "being insensitive". By looking towards the hyper-masculine "role models" presented in the media, boys are further taught to hide behind a mask of caricatured masculinity. 

In short — boys are confronted with contradictory and confusing ideas of what it means to be male, both expected to be rough and active and then punished for displaying those behaviors. 

This problem has been noticed by enough people that there's a whole genre of books covering it now, books such as Richard Whitmire's Why Boys Fail and Michael Gurian's The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and in Life. Parents of sons turn to such books for a multitude of reasons:

  • In the majority of schools, it's boys who get most of the Ds and Fs. 
  • Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with, and medicated for, ADHD. 
  • Ninety percent of all discipline issues in schools are with boys.
  • Seventy-five percent of those diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys.
  • Boys make up 71 percent of school suspensions.
  • Boys represent 85 percent of high-school drop-outs, and less than 45 percent of college students.

Is there something wrong with boys then? Or is there, perhaps, something wrong with the way in which we are raising and educating them, as a society?  

While we've made huge strides in the fight for gender equality, we have to admit that being equal doesn't necessarily mean being the same. There is evidence, for instance, that boys have less oxytocin and serotonin than girls, something that makes them more physically impulsive on average. The brain activity of boys is more compartmentalized than that of girls, making them more likely to struggle with multitasking and quick transitioning from one activity to another. Their attention spans are less developed during early elementary age, and reading often takes longer to "click" for them.

Research in this area is still very much ongoing, but it's clear that attempting to educate out neurological differences is not the most productive approach — people thrive when their self is nurtured, rather than squashed. 

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