Boys & School

My 6-year-old son, a passionate, self-motivated learner got in trouble early in first grade. Why? Because he was squirmy and talkative and social. You can read more about it over at Boys and Young Men: Attention Must Be Paid.

Here’s an excerpt:

Not even one month into the school year, my son got in trouble – major, Red-level trouble – for moving, talking and socializing. The school gets into no trouble whatsoever for failing to provide my son with a learning environment that engages him, that takes into account his needs and knowledge and learning style.

Not long after the red incident, my son came home with what looked like a massive black-and-yellow bruise on his lower abdomen at belt level. After some talking, I learned that my son found an unopened black walnut outside at recess. (Never seen one? They look like this:

My nature-loving son wanted to play with them. But the bell was ringing, so he jammed one into the waistband of his underwear. His belt and jeans held the black walnut firmly in place, through at least half of gym class. And — as you may have guessed by now — stained his skin.

Later, I asked what he wanted to do with the black walnut.

“Throw it,” he said.

Such a simple request. But he’s in an environment that a) only offers limited time outside, b) provides very little time for free play and c) frowns upon the throwing of objects. One month into the school year, my son has internalized those facts. And resorted to smuggling black walnuts in his shorts.

How School Squelches Boys & Men

I tell myself he will be fine, and for the most part, he will. Fortunately, he still has two loving parents who read to him, who take him interesting places and who make sure he gets plenty of time in the woods and in fields. But I can’t help but wonder how much more interesting (and joyous) his learning path would be if he was allowed to follow his own interests, instead of squashing them in the service of organized, institutional learning. And I can’t help but feel sad inside for all the boys who know nothing more than school. In every school, there are boys, like my son, who are squashing their natural desires and curiosity to pursue educational goals that seem meaningless to them.

That’s not to say that education, or even institutional education, is worthless. It is to say that learning, real learning, works best when coupled with real life.

Some will say that little boys (such as my son) need to learn how to sit down, be quiet and follow directions. And I agree: they do. But I’d argue that the pace matters. I’d argue that there’s no harm whatsoever — and many benefits — to letting young boys (such as my son) learn through movement and active play and exploration. No harm at all in letting young boys gradually grow into self-control.

It will happen. I have seen countless, homeschooled boys grown into polite, well-mannered, socially-adjusted young men — without ever sitting in a circle on a rug, filling out countless worksheets or losing recess.

What are your thoughts regarding boys and school? 

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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11 Responses

  1. My son (age 4, PreK) also came home with his first Red card today. He was instructed to walk through another room into the bathroom to wash marker off his hands, and them come back. Instead, he saw another kid in the room and decided to chase him and try to tickle him (the letter didn’t say whether this boy was enjoying the attention or not). He received the Red card for “not listening to instructions” and for “not keeping his hands to himself”. Apparently he was already on “yellow” for talking out of turn.

    My son told me about it before I even retrieved the sheet from his backpack. My response was “Oh, ok. Thank you for telling me. Would you like a picnic lunch?” I figured the teacher handled it in school, and I really didn’t want to make a big deal about it. Any disappointment I may have felt over him getting in trouble at school was completed squashed by my joy that he told me about it without prompting.

    And honestly, talking in turn, keeping his hands to himself, and listening to directions have never been skills which come to my kid naturally. He’s doing is best, and that’s all I can ask of him.

  2. I kinda agree. I don’t think school is taking the life out of my four boys, but I do agree that it is holding them back. My strategy is to skip them up as quickly as possible ( because I think most kids can use their time a lot better that school work most of the time. But that’s not specific to boys. That’s why I only kinda agree. My boys and I met this great little 5 year old girl at the park the other day and she could outrun, outclimb and outsmart my boys in a game of prison tag. She and her brother and my youngest took on the rest of us and it was a super game. I think girls should play in the sand and the forests too!

  3. i agree with you completely. at my small private school, children were allowed to walk around the classroom at will and move between the classroom and the art studio. they could get up to cross the room for a book or materials; they could stand at work at their table. they could talk to other children while they worked. they had two recesses a day, and they could talk loudly and happily at lunch.

    parents who had transitioned their kids to public school would come to me in distress asking if their sons had disobeyed for us, if they had been incorrigible for us, if they had caused trouble for us. no, not a bit. well, they’re getting into trouble now, at the public school. why? because they had to sit still and be quiet all day long, because they couldn’t talk to anyone (sometimes even at lunch!), because there were only a few minutes of recess and it just wasn’t enough. and the more pent-up their energy was, the worse it got.

    these same boys thrived in a situation where they were allowed to physically move around and work cooperatively. it’s not the *boys* at fault. it’s the school.

  4. My sons (all 4) need to learn to sit down and be quiet. Sometimes. And they need to learn to stand up and shout sometimes too. In this season of politics, in a world of political unrest, I think the latter is often more important than the former.

  5. I struggle with a son with ADHA, Apraxia of speach and motor and Bi-polar disorder. That being said, he is a JOY to have around. Fun and full of life. He is loving and active and curious. He has a terrible time at school and we fight the system constantly. Last year he was suspended so many times it was crazy, and even had the poliece called to the school. We had to go to juvenille court to discuss what we are doing as parents for all of this. Let me make it clear, my son is NINE YEARS OLD. His infracations at school??? Same as your son, talkitive, not sitting still, busy and social. They try to hold him back, making it worse, they punish him, he doesn’t see what he’s done wrong, he gets upset and seeks to be alone, they follow him…he runs,…and I mean RUNS. DOwn the highway, headed home, where ever to get away. How sad it is that they know all of this about him and still have not made any adjustments to accomodate. I am supposed to drug him to fit in. I dont see anything wrong with my son that can not be cured with activity, patiece, love and time.

  6. I know that this is an older post, but it resonated with me for a couple reasons. 1) I have a son going into Kindergarten and I am terrified that he will constantly be in time-out for exactly the reasons you stated above: exploring his interests, being creative, and attempting to investigate the world around him. In short, for “just wanting to throw” something! 2) As a Special Education teacher that works with students that struggle to be ok in typical educational settings, I am tired of the punitive system of behavior management that only takes away until there is nothing left to take. I shudder everytime I hear about red cards and timeouts in the classroom because I can almost be sure that they aren’t be used correctly or in conjunction with any type of reinforcement for appropriate behavior. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m anxious to read more about building boys!

    1. Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for reading and responding. The key to helping boys survive in school, I think, is three-fold: 1) knowing your son, 2) respecting the teacher and 3) advocating for your son.

      Through communication (with both my son, me and his Dad) and observation, my son’s teacher realized that taking away recess time was not helpful for my active son. Instead, she asked if it would be to keep him after school for those few minutes, if he did something that warranted “time.” Given that we live a few blocks from school, he walks home and he loves going home more than anything, it was good alternative.

      She also realized that he LOVED the Titanic, and was passionate about sharing info. So she created a behavior reward system — if he met the expectations for so many days, he got so many minutes to teach/talk to/share information about the Titanic with his classmates.

      Good luck with your son! I hope you’ll check back in and share some updates with us as the year progresses. How is your son feeling about going into kindergarten?

  7. I couldn’t agree more. I feel that Elementary, in particular, is geared toward girl and girl-behavior. Little boys are expected to fit into a very feminine routine, and it sets them up to fail.

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