Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What to make of Newsweek's "Boy Crisis?"

Mojo Mom Podcast co-host Sheryl Grant eagerly referred me to read Newsweek's January 30th cover story, The Boy Crisis. I've just read the article, and I'm still digesting my response, but I wanted to share my initial impressions of the issue and the anatomy of a trend story.

*I definitely resonate with the idea that normal boy behavior is often red-flagged as indicating a possible problem or developmental delay. Teachers' concern is one thing, but our society's insistence on Lake Wobegon kids who are all above average has really gotten out of hand. I believe we all need to get more patient with the range of development that truly is normal at various age ranges, and also provide a variety of classroom activities and settings.

*At the same time, I don't think the article did an adequate job of establishing the most important elements of the boy "problem," or definitively linking the problem to underlying causes. It is honestly a bit hard for me to regard males as a persecuted underclass. Fourth grade reading scores are one thing, but in the workplace, politics, just about every station of American power, men still rule. Colleges may be almost 60% female at the undergraduate level but this doesn't hold at the faculty level by any means. What about the persistent wage gap between men's and women's salaries or the tenous unpaid status of stay-at-home parents (98% stay-at-home Moms vs. 2% stay-at-home Dads), or the financial squeeze on working mothers? Motherhood is the single largest risk factor for poverty in old age. Hearing that boys are being systematically neglected is a bit like hearing white American Christians complain that they are an oppressed minority.

*The Newsweek article throws around statistics fast and loose without explaining the significance of the numbers. What exactly does it mean if "eighth-grade girls score an average of 11 points higher than eighth-grade boys on standardized reading tests?" I have no idea how to interpret whether that is a meaningful difference. What about the fact that there is a gender gap in test scores, but both boys and girls have improved over the past few years? Which of these measurements, if any, are meaningful, accurate, or important?

*Newsweek throws in the inevitable criticism that asserts that feminism may be somehow responsible for this, because "some scholars, notably Christina Hoff Sommers...charge that miguided feminism is what's been hurting boys." Nice to know that one conservative think tank member can throw the f-bomb criticism and get it printed in Newsweek, bestowing upon it an air of truthiness.

*Feminism does get a chance to defend itself, in the form of a solid essay by Carol Gilligan. She suggests that "an effective strategy for preventing boys' psychological difficulties and educational problems would involve recognizing thier sensitivities, building honest relationships, and strengthening a healthy capacity for resistance." Sounds like a good start to me.

*Absent male role models are mentioned 17 paragraphs in. "In every kind of neighborhood....a startling 40 percent (of boys) are being raised without their biological dads." This point deserved more prominence in this story. Single Moms are left holding the bag and the blame when men are absent.

*In my view, the most disturbing statistics mentioned by Newsweek are the higher incidences of violence, drug use, and risk taking. These seem to be issues we really aren't ready to deal with as a society.

*One of the most disturbing parts of this and so many other dilemmas is is the serious disconnect we have between social problems and our avenues for potential reform. We constantly turn to one of a few "levers" in society that we can push to enact reform--usually the educational system. Teachers end up bearing the brunt of pressure for all kinds of reform. I was a teacher for three years, and while I loved my job, I am absolutely frightened to think that with the little time we spend with our kids (50 minutes a day per teacher in high school), teachers are expected to cure all of the ills of society in addition to teaching our subject. What if boys aren't succeeding because they coming to school under the influence of drugs, malnourished, sleep deprived, or depressed? What if the problem is that boys are immersed in a culture of violence or online porn addiction? What if the absence of 40% of biological dads is the primary cause? What if the problems with boys are due to the fact that we have few authentic outlets for honest male expression, a narrow definition of masculinity, and an undercurrent of homophobia in our socialization that affects all boys (if you doubt this exists, go into a middle-grade classroom at 9 am and ask to see a show of hands of how many kids have heard someone called "fag" that morning)? How can we as a society make sure we are addressing the true causes of our problem, and act to make things better? We need to look beyond test scores to measure our problems, and beyond teachers to deliver the solutions.

*Of course I truly care about the challenges that boys face. I also hope that we can engage in a national conversation that lasts longer than one trendy news cycle. But I can't help but think pessimisticaly that in a society that does so little to support families, unless more of us speak up, we'll just keep blaming feminists and adding one more mandate onto teachers' overburdened loads.


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