Do our boys only matter when dollars (or lack of dollars) can be tied to their achievements (or lack of achievements)?
In this country, the answer seems to be yes.
The New York Times made a bit of a splash this week with the article “A Link Between Fidgety Boys and a Sputtering Economy.” The article, by David Leonhardt, points out the behavioral differences between boys & girls (more later) and emphasizes the fact that both schools and the economy are rewarding, well, girls & women.
The article states, “As the economy shifts away from brawn and toward brains, many men have struggled with the transition…Boys are getting the wrong message about what they need to do to be successful…Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys. In today’s economy, being tough and strong are not what leads to success.”
So much, in so few words!
Do strict interpretations of traditional gender roles unfairly and unnecessarily constrain both boys & girls, men & women? Yes. The “man box” is a horribly restrictive place. But you know what I still see and hear in that quote, and in the article as a whole? A general de-valuing of boys and men, of who they are and who they were created to be.
The quote above — “Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys…being tough and strong are not what leads to success.” — almost presents brains and brawn as an either/or proposition. Instead of telling boys that tough and strong are hugely important on the path to success, the quote glosses over the importance of strength and toughness and casts the toughness and strength that have been traditionally considered among male’s greatest assets as not only unnecessary, but as non-essential. It paints toughness and strength as weaknesses, not assets.
This de-valuing of traditional male assets, this tendency to consider male traits as deficiencies rather than assets, is part of why our boys are struggling in school and in life.
Consider: The article highlights the fact that the gap in behavioral skills between young girls and boys is bigger than the gap between rich and poor. “By kindergarten,” the article says, “girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys,” and those behaviorial traits lead girls to academic, career and social success.
But what about risk-taking? What about initiative? What about ability to focus on a problem of their own choosing? What about willingness to engage in competition?
The “gap” between boys & girls says more about what we choose to value than it does about the abilities of boys and girls. Before our kids even enter school, they are told, in a million tiny ways, that traditional “girl” behavior — cooperating, listening quietly, responding sensitively to others — is good, and that traditional “boy” behavior — learning through physical movement, challenging others, taking risks — is bad.
No wonder our boys are mentally checking out of school at increasingly younger ages! No wonder our boys are turning into lackadaisical teens! No wonder so many men feel so out of place and devalued in this world!
Why are we telling our boys, both quietly and overtly, that risk-taking and competition are bad? Why are we equating boys’ need to move and to challenge one another as a threat to be shut down?
What would happen if instead of bemoaning boys’ lack of social skills, we praised and reinforced the skills they have, while encouraging and nurturing the development of empathy, cooperation and sensitivity? What if we gave boys the time and support they need to develop into fully mature human beings, instead of treating them as defective if they don’t behave in a certain way by six years of age? What would happen if we once again valued traditionally “male” traits such as strength and risk-taking and competitiveness?
Please don’t misunderstand me: Women can be strong and take risks, and men can empathize and nurture. I simply think that both sexes — and our society — would be better off if we appreciated the innate gifts of every human being, instead of automatically devaluing the proclivities of half of our population.
The problem is not that our boys are fidgety. The problem is that fidgety is seen as a problem.
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