Let’s Start Listening to Boys

Photo by Marcus Arthur via Flickr
Photo by Marcus Arthur via Flickr

Two years ago, my boys started a petition, asking for outdoor recess.

We live in Wisconsin, where outdoor recess is cancelled in the event of inclement weather, including low temps. And at the time my boys started that petition, outdoor recess had been canceled again, restricting students’ access to the outdoors and active play, because kids are asked to sit quietly in the auditorium during indoor recess time.

Nothing has changed since then. The principal at the time had a conversation with the boys, but recess policies and procedures have not changed, despite the boys’ petition and despite my 2012 meetings with the then-principal and continued conversations with the current principal and superintendent.

My boys and their friends expressed their needs strongly, clearly and politely.

They were ignored. Those in power did not hear and respond to the boys’ needs.

Is it any wonder our boys feel frustrated in school? Two years later, my youngest son, hates school. Last week, he was in tears because he hadn’t been allowed outside at school all week. Instead, he was asked to sit quietly in the auditorium or library.

Boys now lag behind girls on nearly every academic measure. Generally speaking, they do worse on math and reading tests. They are suspended and expelled far more than girls. They’re less likely to attend college, and more likely to struggle after high school and college.

Few educators and schools, though, are soliciting boys’ input as to what would improve their school experience. Instead of asking boys what they need and LISTENING to the answers, we tell boys to sit down and shut up. Is it any wonder so many give up on school?

My nearly nine-year-old told me that school is boring, that if you want excitement, you have to create it yourself. But if you do that, he said, you get in trouble. To which he says, screw it!

My nine-year-old is developing a “screw it” attitude toward school because he knows and senses that the school is not responsive to his needs. He knows that no one is listening. More and more boys are saying “screw it” to school, and we’re still not listening.

In fact, boys’ — kids’ — voices are so systematically devalued and ignored in most school settings that children are afraid to bring up their concerns. Cases in point: My youngest was afraid to tell his teacher why was was struggling in class last week; he talked to me and asked me to email her instead. He was afraid to share his concerns about recess with the principal, even though he knows the principal is a good guy, because he was afraid he might get in trouble. My oldest son, meanwhile, discovered a fact yesterday that seems to contradict something his teacher said. He too was afraid to bring up the discrepancy, for fear of…retaliation?

I understand that educators are under a tremendous amount of strain and pressure. They must conform to academic standards and juggle the needs of a diverse student body and community. As our school’s principal told me, for every parent like me, there’s another who’s asking for more structure and discipline. At the same time I’m wishing my kids would have the chance to go outside — in spite of below zero wind chills — other parents posting online that the school obviously doesn’t care about kids’ safety because they didn’t cancel school in response to the low temps.

Maybe it’s time to stop listening to the parents for a bit. Maybe it’s time that we all — parents and educators alike — opened our hearts, minds and ears to our boys. Believe it or not, most boys’ have pretty good insight into their needs, and if they feel safe, they’re willing to share their thoughts and concerns.

I challenge educators to establish listening sessions. Invite the boys of your school to gather in a group. It will take time to convince them that you truly care about what they have to say, and perhaps more time yet to convince them that it’s truly OK to share their thoughts, concerns and ideas. But I challenge you to listen to what they have to say about school — to listen to their thoughts, perceptions, experiences and ideas. Earn their trust by implementing some of their suggestions, and involve boys in the process. Help boys become part of the solution, instead of simply part of the problem.

Parents, I challenge you to do the same thing: Listen to your boys. Pay attention to what they tell you they need, and work to create a culture that allows and encourages boys’ contributions.

Our boys know what they need. It’s time to start listening to them.

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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One Response

  1. I grew up in Wisconsin and have strong memories of going outside to play no matter what the weather. The only time school was cancelled was if there was a blizzard or it was significantly below zero. With the advancement in warmer clothing, there’s no excuse for not going outside. It makes me sad to hear your story. This situation will only make angry men. Plus it builds character and imagination to play when there’s snow and cold. I had a tree in my yard that I was convinced gave off heat for me while I waited for the bus.

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