Why Treating Boys Like Girls Won’t Close the Gender Gap in Education

Photo by Marco Antonio Torres via Flickr
Photo by Marco Antonio Torres via Flickr

The headline — Boys should be treated “more like girls” to stop them falling behind at school — was enough to make me scream. The thinking behind it moved me to action and inspired me to write this post.

If you’ve followed BuildingBoys for awhile, you know that I’ve long been concerned about boys’ lackluster achievement in education. I’ve written about boys’ “failure” in school here, here, here and here. I’m well-aware of the stats that show boys lagging behind girls in both reading and writing, from the earliest grades all the way through high school, and the stats that show more girls are now attending and graduating from college than boys. I hear, nearly every day, from parents who are concerned about their sons’ performance in school.

The struggle, as they say, is real, and I respect anyone who acknowledges that struggle and is working to improve education for boys.

That was the goal of the study referenced in the scream-inducing headline. The Lost Boys, a study by Save the Children, looked at the gender gap in education in the UK and discovered that the gap is apparent even at age 5, when most UK children enter school. According to the study, “in the last decade, nearly a million boys were not achieving the level expected at age five, often struggling to follow simple instructions or speak a full sentence.”

Researchers attempted to figure out why boys lag behind girls in communication and literacy skills — and (perhaps not surprisingly), their conclusions were not nearly as clear cut as some news reports seemed to suggest. The scream-inducing article, for instance, suggests that boys struggle because their parents don’t sing to them or play word and letter games with them as often as they do with girls.

The actual study, however, says, “We cannot tell from the available data whether early gender gaps are the result of biological or social processes.” It even says (in bolded letters!): “the measurable differences in parental interaction with boys and girls at the age of three can account for only 10% of the gender gap in language at the start of primary school.

Yet the headline. The troublesome headline, which will be read by thousands of parents around the world, who will likely blame themselves for their boys’ poor achievement in schools. The headline, which countless teachers will likely use as evidence that families don’t support or care about boys’ academic development as much as girls. The headline and articles, which implies the overwhelmingly insulting, sexist and flat-out wrong idea that reading to, singing to and drawing and painting with children are”girly” activities, and that boyish boys have absolutely no hope of succeeding in school.

That’s hogwash.

It may well be true that parents of young boys sing or read to their boys less than parents of young girls. But that fact does not necessarily contribute to boys’ poor performance in education. (As the saying goes, “correlation does not equal causation.” In other words, the fact that two things are related does not mean that one caused the other.) It may be, instead, that parents are reading to their young boys less because the boys are less interested in looking at or listening to the story.

Think back to your child’s earliest days. When your baby smiled at you, you smiled back (even when you were pretty sure it was just a gassy smile). When your baby tried to roll over, you cheered him on, and may have even helped him. When he started pulling up on furniture, you cleared a path, and offered your little one your fingers for support when he was ready to toddle away from the safety of the couch.

As parents, we naturally respond to and assist our children. The best parents (and educators) carefully watch the children in their charge, respond to their cues and provide just-enough support to help children develop their burgeoning skills.

So it’s entirely possible that parents of 3-year-old boys are spending more time kicking balls with their sons, and less time reading aloud. And it’s also possible that’s entirely appropriate.

You see, forcibly restraining a child in your lap so you can read a book, when the child would rather explore the room, isn’t likely to lead to a lifelong love of reading. Putting paintbrushes in the hands of boys who aren’t interested in painting won’t lead to greater academic achievement; instead, it’s likely to create a distaste of painting. And playing letter games with a child who’d rather play with cars isn’t going to help the child learn his letters any faster; instead, it’ll create feelings of frustration.

Want to close the gender gap in education? Respect boys’ development, interest and needs. Boys might not be as communicative or verbal as girls at age 5 — and that might be OK. (Did you know that the part of the brain that handles language matures years later in males than in females?) Young boys might not learn best by writing and reading — and that’s OK. If we focused on helping boys, as they are, instead of putting our energy into pathologizing boys’ development, boys might do better in school.

Instead of blaming parents of boys, we need to support them. Parents, you are not wrong if you’ve spent more time playing ball or chase with your young sons than you did reading. Is it a good idea to read to boys, to sing to them, to paint and draw with them? Absolutely! But ignoring boys’ natural inclinations is not the way to foster academic achievement. Treating boys “like girls” will not close the gender gap and is not a good idea.

Instead, let’s treat our children as individuals. Let’s support their learning and development. Let’s work together to support families, quality childcare and quality education. And please — let’s stop the ridiculous, inaccurate and sexist headlines. After all, the concluding recommendation of The Lost Boys was “We must invest in the best early years provision, led by early years teachers and supported by skilled staff at all levels, particularly in the most deprived areas,” not “treat boys more like girls.”

This post contains affiliate links

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:

The Building Boys Bulletin is funded by direct subscriptions from readers like you. If you’d like the full experience, please consider becoming a paying subscriber.

“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

You May Also Enjoy

Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males

Building Boys

You can purchase the newest book from Building Boys at the following websites: