Battle of the Sexes

Why Aren’t Boys Appearing On The Honor Roll Any More?

Every child is different. But nurturing a boy in 2018 can feel especially daunting.

Ivy Johnson for Fatherly

Dr. Leonard Sax noticed the honor roll hanging in the hallway. He inspected it, reading the names of 22 exemplary middle school students. He did a quick count — an alarmingly quick count. Only three of the names on the honor roll belonged to boys. He walked into the auditorium, where he took the stage and began to speak. “I just want the boys to answer,” the physician, psychologist, and author told the student assembly. “On the principal’s honor roll I saw 19 girls and three boys. Can any of you explain this to me?”

One boy ventured a guess. “Girls are just smarter.”

Today, women outnumber men in college attendance and in graduation honors. Boys are more likely than girls to drop out of college, less likely to finish high school, and far less likely to be declared valedictorians. And that’s just academia. It’s invariably disillusioned young men — seldom women — who engineer mass shootings and commit other violent crimes. Sure, parents of young girls have their hands full and, yes, every child is different. But nurturing a boy in 2018 can feel especially daunting. It can feel harder. Why?

“I don’t think gender is the biggest difficulty,” clinical psychologist and author Michael Thompson explains. “That said, boys are likely to have certain kinds of troubles.”

Part of the problem, Thompson suggests, is that early academic achievement has a lot to do with sitting down, staying focused, and developing language skills — three areas that young boys may find more challenging than young girls. Boys are five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder two times more likely to be enrolled in a special education program.

“Being an A student once raised a boy’s status in the eyes of his peers,” Sax says. “That was American culture 50 years ago. It’s not the culture of today.”

“Boys are less fit for school,” Thompson says. “By school-age, most boys in the class are more physically active and impulsive. Girls are, on average, more advanced in language development. Boys take on elementary school as a place where you have to sit down and listen to women talk. Girls seem to be better at it.”

Sax agrees and has taken great pains to break down the disconnect In his book Boys Adrift, Sax explores five distinct reasons that boys aren’t thriving in school. He cites changes in education, stimulant medication, and endocrine disruptors. One factor of particular interest is the decline in the social construction of masculinity, which he theatrically dubs “revenge of the fallen gods.” It’s no wonder, Sax says, that an auditorium full of adolescents agreed that girls are over-represented on the honor roll because they’re intrinsically smarter. “They absolutely believe this,” he says. “They’re raised in the era of ‘girls rule, boys drool’, and watch TV shows like The Simpsons in which the girl is clever and insightful and the boy is an idiot. Popular TV shows relentlessly portray a father as an object of derision.”

So young boys flee the classroom, where they feel unwelcome, and focus elsewhere. “They say, ‘We’re not unmotivated. We’re very motivated. We just don’t care about Spanish,'” Sax says. “If you’re spending 20 hours a week playing Grand Theft Auto, and you’re hanging out with other boys who play Grand Theft Auto, getting an A in Spanish doesn’t raise your social status.” And while girls play video games, the fifthof Sax’s reason for the struggles of modern boys, too, but seldom fall into patterns of addiction.

It hasn’t always been this way.

“Being an A student once raised a boy’s status in the eyes of his peers,” Sax says. “That was American culture 50 years ago. It’s not the culture of today.”

Another societal factor plaguing boys is the loss of undirected play, what might be called disorganized sports. Backyard football and pick-up games have largely been supplanted by school and township sports, which may be safer and better planned, but involve constant adult meddling. Thompson says he once overheard a high school hockey coach casually asking one of his rising junior varsity stars to round up a few teammates for a weekend scrimmage. The boy was flummoxed. He didn’t know how to do it. He lacked either the social skill set or the maturity because he had apparently not been forced to develop either.

“You have a 14-year-old boy, who has played hockey since the age of six, but never organized a game…. We’re seeing a higher level of skills, but a lower level of maturity,” Thompson says. “It’s deprived boys of a sense of psychological ownership and leadership skills.”

And the psychological challenges don’t end there. Because boys are not necessarily given the emotional vocabulary to express themselves in productive ways, they tend to internalize and stew or externalize and lash out. Experts generally agree that this is a product of flawed and haphazard socialization.

“Girls are raised to be a little more social and a little more in-touch with their feelings, and their brains are actually wired better for that sort of thing,” psychologist and author Ganz Ferrance told Fatherly. “We need boys to learn how to express their feelings appropriately now, so they don’t overwhelm them when they’re 45.”

That’s tricky. Why? Because the expectation — spoken or not — is that boys will display signs of hostility and anger in the face of setbacks or frustration. This is how many boys believe they are expected to behave and so this is how they behave. It may seem anti-scoial, but its actually copycat behavior.

“Boys are seen as more violent and they tend to live up to expectations,” Ferrance says. “A fair bit of the loneliness and alienation that happens with these young men is because they’re socialized to be more aggressive and to lash out when frustrated. With boys, it’s almost expected for them to be angry.”

“We need boys to learn how to express their feelings appropriately now, so they don’t overwhelm them when they’re 45.”

Boys’ bad behavior is often chalked up to hormones. And that may make sense in the context of a discussion about teenagers, but it really doesn’t in the context of a discussion about young male children, who are also demonstrably struggling. “The testosterone theory is ridiculous,” says Thompson. “The circulating testosterone in the blood of third-grade boys is the same as the circulating blood testosterone in third grade girls. It’s not responsible for dislike of school or aggression.”

As for why young men are engage in violent behavior, Thompson lays the blame at the feet of aggressive male role models. “The vast majority of men don’t end up as criminals,” he says. “But we do understand why men become violent. It’s because they see domestic battery and violence, and they see it raising the status of the men who commit it.”

This is an interesting point given crime rates. Although men still commit the majority of violent crimes, that statistic is plummeting — and being replaced by a stock of violent, criminal women. “The violent teenage girl was unknown 30 years ago. When they got angry they’d slap one another,” Sax says. “Now it’s not unusual for an American girl to slash another with a razor blade.” Similar trends appear in sexual activity — boys are less of a concern than once thought. “The rate of sexual intercourse has declined dramatically among teenagers,” Sax says.

Seemingly, the kids should be alright. But the boys clearly are not.

Part of the reason for this, experts explain, is that boys may be trampled by the march of progress. Experts say young boys are deeply affected by the cultural discourse about men’s crimes against women and that a sort of collective misdirected anger toward fathers and male elders may be warping their worldviews. “Right now there’s a shift in society. Boys are dealing with the fallout of what their fathers and grandfathers did,” Ganz says. “We’re putting all this emphasis on making sure girls have better support, but we haven’t really thought about putting the same supports in place to help the guys transition into their new, healthier role.”

And whereas girls are receiving support in the form of a glot of empowering messages, boys are not. They are supported in the ways that American children have for several generations now, but the script hasn’t changed substantively. We can’t blame this generation for the activities of previous generations, even if they may to some extent share advantage, by the fact that they’re born male, white, or straight,” says Ganz. “When you do that, you breed the very frustration and anger and sense of isolation that you’re trying to change.”

“We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness.”

This all naturally leads to one very big questions: How are parents supposed to support their sons? What can caretakers and family members do to empower boys to succeed in school, express themselves in healthy ways, and grow into men who assume productive roles in society alongside their equally accomplished female peers?

Once the screens are shut off — Sax insists that this is critical — it’s time to explain to young men that it’s healthy for them to feel anger, frustration, and isolation. The trick is handling setbacks like an adult and finding constructive ways to express the feelings that come with them. In other words, experts basically agree that children need to hear more about failure — that they need to be oriented away from success (and the perks that come with it) and towards the process. They need to know how to organize the game before they learn how to win it.

“We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience,” Sax explains. “Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy.”

At an institutional level, schools need to address the fact that boys have been academically flat-lining for decades while women’s groups have focused on helping girls zoom ahead. “If you can put a program in place that inspires young girls and unleashes their full potential, we have to be talking about how to unleash the full potential of boys,” Thompson says. Such initiatives may be out of reach for most parents, but moms and dads can help things along — dads in particular.

“If your father only comes to sports, it’s no mystery what’s important to him. If your mother is the only one interested in schoolwork, you tend to think of it as a girl thing and not necessarily a route to manhood,” Thompson adds. “Boys aren’t stupid — they’re looking for male role models.”

Will boys be more successful if more fathers help with homework? It’s not a given, but it might help significantly — so long as dad is ready to admit what he doesn’t know and work through frustration. It’s getting through that hard stuff with boys that can feel so difficult. Is raising American boys harder than raising American girls? Yes, it’s a reductive question, but researchers do seem to have posited an answer: no, but at this particular moment in history, it may feel a bit more like work.