Rescuing Boys Adrift: A Conversation with Dr. Leonard Sax

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boys_adrift_coverWhere are the boys? Sadly, they are disappearing from the nation’s colleges and universities. A smaller and smaller proportion of boys are going to college. Currently, the student body at most universities in the United States is 58% female and just 42% male. Male students attending four-year colleges and universities today are now significantly less likely than their female peers to earn high honor or even to graduate. Just thirty years ago, the opposite was true. And the numbers are not getting any better! Over the next ten years we can expect to see a 2-1 ratio in college degrees awarded to women verse men. Boys continue to be absent from the top ten percent of graduating high school classes and are over-represented in special education programs across racial and social economic lines.

From Alaska to Florida, in cities, suburbs and rural areas, within every racial and social economic structure; parents are baffled by the apparent malaise exhibited by their boys. Dr. Leonard Sax, family physician, research psychologist and founding executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), has been paying close attention to school-aged boys and offers solutions to address a very troubling trend.

Dr. Sax, author of the critically acclaimed Why Gender Matters, addresses this controversial issue in his book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. The book hypothesizes four key points:

  1. The brains of girls and boys develop at a different pace
  2. The brains of girls and boys are wired differently
  3. Girls and boys respond differently to stress
  4. Girls hear better than boys.

The NASSPE  advocates single-sex education as a method of addressing these differences and ensuring that boys are not left behind in the educational process.

Listen to what Dr. Sax has to say about boys, education and video games:

How do teachers unintentionally create the impression for small boys that doing well in school is not masculine?

I have been to numerous schools and there is a lack of diversity in many kindergarten classes. Kindergarten has become highly structured with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Boys are constantly being told by teachers to sit still and be quiet. They are discouraged from engaging in play. Girls are different from boys. They generally desire to please their teachers.  Boys, therefore, equate performing well in school as something girls do.

All children should have a rich, interactive sensory environment – touching, smelling, seeing, and hearing the world – in order for the child’s brain and mind to develop properly. Without such real-world experiences, the child’s development will be impaired. Many of today’s learning environments have upset the balance equation by overemphasizing books and computers, resulting in restlessness, inattentiveness and depression among boys.

What is the driving force behind teaching reading and math in kindergarten?

I believe that the curriculum change derives from the administration of standardized tests given in second grade.  Teachers start preparing children for these tests in kindergarten. Currently, the lion’s share of kindergarten classes stress reading and math skills, as compared to earlier generations when playing, drawing, painting, singing and interacting with nature were more the norm.  Reading and math exercises, once upon a time, primarily had been first grade activities. Children should be taught when they are “developmentally ripe” for learning, wherein introducing reading and writing to boys who would rather be playing or drawing may sour their overall attitudes toward school. Forcing them to sit down and be quiet instead of following their natural inclinations to stand, move around and make noise may lead them to think that performing well in school is not masculine.

Girls, conversely, adapt better to accelerated learning environments due to differences in brain development combined with a greater motivation to please teachers. parents faced with accelerated kindergarten situations may consider delaying boy’s entry into kindergarten by a year. This option reportedly is becoming more common place, particularly in affluent neighborhoods where parents have more options.

What are your thoughts on establishing intramural competition in schools to increase the possibilities for all interested boys to participate in sports?

The varsity sports team model is antiquated. Thirty years ago schools were smaller and many of the boys who tried out for team sports were selected. Today’s schools have much larger populations; therefore, the percentage of boys who do not make the team and do not get the opportunity to participate is significantly greater.  In Australian schools there are ten football teams across many leagues.

Some school districts have mistakenly eliminated certain sports and physical activities on the belief that they reward violence. Some districts have gone further by eliminating competition altogether, claiming that competition alienates some boys (and girls) from participating in sports. These changes in schools continue to negatively imact boys.

Could Zero-Tolerance Programs preclude the development of the next Quentin Tarantino?

Zero-Tolerance programs should be called Zero-Intelligence Programs! There is no research supporting the premise that prohibiting violent expression will prevent tragedies from occurring.   Schools should develop in-bounds and out-of-bounds expression. A boy writing about a war in graphic detail would be in bounds whereas a boy expressing that he will bring a gun to school to shoot a specific classmate is out of bounds.

What role does gaming lay in the malaise exhibited by boys?

Boys spend an inordinate amount of time playing these games.  My research shows that video games are addictive and affect the same portion of the brain as cocaine. The usage consequences – reduced interest in the opposite sex, a loss of drive and disengagement from the real world – are likewise similar to cocaine. parents should prohibit boys from playing the particularly violent and sadistic games. Real-world activities, such as sports and physical play are far better alternatives.

Are we over medicating our boys?

Prescription drugs are often used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Research tells us that common ADHD mediations Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta, may cause irreversible damage to the Nucleus Accumbens – the area of the brain responsible for translating motivation into action. Desyrel is a safer drug alternative. Most pediatricians and family physicians have inadequate training to perform the necessary neuro-developmental assessment to determine if a boy’s learning difficulties are caused by ADHD or some other factor.

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