A dozen years ago, the hue and cry was about girls: girls were “silenced” at school, girls were tragic mini-Ophelias, in need of reviving. As it turned out, whatever other problems girls had, being “silenced” and “disadvantaged at school” were decidedly not among them. In fact, on most academic measures, girls outperform boys.
Hence, the new buzz: there’s a crisis among boys. Like many proponents of this viewpoint, Leonard Sax argues that boys are less resilient and more prone to school failure than ever before. Sax, a family physician and research psychologist in Maryland, believes a combination of social and biological factors has created a toxic environment for boys. The result, he argues in Boys Adrift, is a generation of slackers and underachievers, so lacking in motivation that they barely notice, much less care about, their own failure to launch. Sax, who has been visiting schools in Ontario this week to speak to parents and faculty about gender differences in learning, spoke to Maclean’s about the trouble with boys.
Q: So how do we know for sure there really is a problem with boys?
A: You can certainly go to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and find people who will vigorously contest the assertion that there’s any problem at all with boys. But there are fewer boys who care about school at all, and a smaller proportion of men going on to postgraduate work. A helpful question to ask is, “What hard data do we have?” Almost exactly 50 per cent of applicants to Canadian medical schools are women, but nationally, 58 per cent of students actually attending medical school are women. Why is that? Well, because Canadian medical schools generally admit people without regard to gender, which is not the case in the U.S., and women have better grades and test scores at university than the men have, so they’re better qualified. Likewise, about 60 per cent of undergraduates are women. This is a stunning reversal, according not to me but to a Statistics Canada report published in September.
Q: Why has this happened?
A: Their explanation doesn’t dig very deep, but I think it’s accurate. They say it can be explained on the basis of characteristics that are apparent much earlier in education. Kids who care about getting good grades in secondary school are much more likely to go on to university, and girls are much more likely to care about grades than boys are.
Q: But why do girls care more?
A: It’s linked to a profound change in the way we educate kids, beginning in kindergarten, with an acceleration of the early elementary curriculum. Thirty years ago, if you walked into just about any kindergarten in North America, you would’ve seen kids doing lots of different activities: singing, playing, dancing, fingerpainting. There was some didactic education, but it was a very small part of the day. Today, in just about any kindergarten, public or private, the primary activity is formal didactic education, with the kids sitting still and the teacher instructing. It’s all about learning to read and write. That acceleration of the curriculum took place without any awareness of the hard-wired sex differences in the trajectories of brain development. People had no understanding of this because it only became known in the past five years.
Q: What are the differences, exactly?
A: The largest study of brain development of children, conducted by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and published just a few months ago, shows very dramatically that the brain of the five-year-old boy—in terms of maturity, particularly in the language area—is at about the same place as the brain of a 3 1/2-year-old girl. If you talk to the folks at OISE they will say, “Oh, there’s lots of variation and lots of overlap between the sexes,” and that’s true on some parameters, but not this one. There’s no overlap. Twenty years ago there was the idea that adult men and women were gendered, but six-year-olds were very much neuter. It’s an old idea that goes back at least to Freud, who wrote of what he called the latency period; he thought that from about age five to the onset of puberty, gender didn’t matter. It turns out the reality is just the opposite. The six-year-old boy and the six-year-old girl differ from each other much more than an adult man and adult woman do. We all wind up in the same place: there’s very little difference in terms of adult men’s and women’s maturity, ability to sit still, how they learn. But there are huge differences in the ability of the average six-year-old girl and boy to sit still and be quiet.
Q : And you say this plays out quite dramatically in kindergarten, where it first becomes evident that girls have a significant academic advantage.
A: Walk into a kindergarten—I’ve visited more than 200 schools around North America over the past seven years—and you hear the teacher saying, “Jared, honey, why are you standing? Please sit down. Damian, are you making a buzzing noise? Please stop that. Look at Kate, she’s sitting still and being quiet and being good. Can’t you boys just sit still and be quiet?” The teacher doesn’t mean to send this message, but she is: pleasing the teacher is something the girls do. The boys develop a notion, which they would not have developed in a kindergarten 30 years ago, that doing what the teacher wants and being good is un-masculine. That’s their first impression of school. And research shows that these attitudes, that kids form very early, are very stable: once a boy decides that school is stupid and the teacher hates him and trying to please the teacher is something girls do, four years later he still has the same beliefs. They’re set, like concrete.
Q: So when do you think boys should start kindergarten, if the focus remains on learning to read and write?
A: Seven years ago I wrote an article for the American Psychological Association saying the default age of entry should be five for girls, six for boys. That created quite a stir. I have since abandoned that assertion, though I still think it’s a good idea, because parents generally don’t understand it. They say, “Oh, you think my son’s dumb?”
Q: Obviously there’s going to be individual variation. How many boys are ready at age five to start kindergarten?
A: On the order of 12 per cent; 88 per cent would do better if they started at age six. The key to success in early elementary education is doing the right thing at the right time. Farmers understand this. You can have the best farmland in the world and the best feed corn in the world, but if you try to plant your crop in the middle of a January snowstorm, you will not be successful. Likewise, you may have a very bright boy, but if you’re asking him to do things that are not developmentally appropriate, he won’t be successful. And the danger is that he will develop negative attitudes toward school, and it will be very difficult to change them.
Q: You’re a strong advocate for single-sex public education. You say boys are more successful in single-sex classrooms, but how do you quantify that?
A: In the U.S., you find that boys in all-boy classrooms get much better test scores in second or fourth grade than boys in coed classrooms do. I’ll give you one example. At Woodward Avenue Elementary School in DeLand, Fla., they essentially randomly assigned kids to coed or single-sex classrooms, then adjusted for socio-economic variables, to make sure they didn’t have all the low-income kids in one class and the high income kids in another. On the standardized state test, 37 per cent of the boys in coed classrooms scored proficient, compared to 59 per cent of the girls; in the all-girls classrooms, 75 per cent scored proficient, and in the all-boys classroom, 86 per cent scored proficient. Same class size, same demographics, same teachers, same curriculum, but the boys in single-sex classes did tremendously better than their peers in coed classrooms. I want to stress that simply putting boys in one room and girls in another accomplishes nothing. If the teacher is still saying, “Justin, sit down and be quiet!” you will accomplish nothing. But if the teachers have had the appropriate training, they understand, okay, sitting is optional—you should never ask a five-year-old, especially not a boy, to sit down and stay quiet. Many find that very difficult, and it’s not essential to learning. On the contrary, for many boys, the best classroom is one where they’re jumping up and down.
Q: Who’s more resistant to the idea of sitting at a desk being optional: teachers or parents?
A: Teachers are very resistant until they see the results we’ve achieved at schools that adopt this format. They say, “Look, I’ve had 20 years of experience, and kids have to sit still and be quiet, otherwise it’s very distracting.” That’s generally true—for girls. For example, C. Elliott, who was a researcher in Toronto about 30 years ago, was the first to look at sex differences in the effect of extraneous noise, such as tapping or buzzing. He found that girls and women were bothered at sound levels 10 to 40 times lower than would bother boys and young men. So if you say kids can tap their pencils as much as they want, Melissa is going to say, “But that really distracts me, it’s annoying.” But ask Matthew if he’s bothered by the noise, and he’ll say, “What noise?” Girls are aware of what’s going on around them, but boys are oblivious. One reason is hard-wired differences in the auditory system itself.
Q: What about the argument that it’s a coed world, so dividing kids by gender doesn’t prepare them for it?
A: The fact is, the coed school does not reflect the real world. It’s a very peculiar environment where what really counts is who’s cute, who likes whom, and who’s wearing nice clothes. The focus is relentlessly on how you look and who likes you, which is very different from the real world. An interesting study conducted by two American researchers looked at a cohort of girls, all from the same neighbourhood in Belfast who’d been randomly assigned to single-sex or coed schools. For those at coed schools, you only needed to ask one question to know a girl’s self-esteem: “Are you pretty?” If a girl was pretty, her self-esteem was very high, even if she had terrible grades or was bad at sports. At a coed school, if you’re pretty, you’re royalty: everyone’s fascinated by you, it doesn’t matter if you’re flunking all your classes. The dark side of that is that if you walk down the hall and some boy says, “There goes the whale! Her face looks like a pizza,” it lowers your status in front of the other girls, even if you loathe and detest that boy. At coed schools, it doesn’t matter if you’re a straight-A student or good at sports, only being pretty matters. At girls’ schools, the researchers found this was not the case. Self-esteem was a complex product of many factors: grades, getting along with parents, being good at sports, and yes, being pretty, but that wasn’t even in the top three. I think single-sex education may in fact be much better preparation for the real world than the coed school is.
Q: Is there any kind of boy who won’t do well in a single-sex school? It’s hard to imagine an effeminate boy thriving.
A: There’s some very interesting research conducted by a team at the University of Washington, every one of whom was vehemently opposed to single-sex education. They studied an all-boys Catholic school as it underwent a transition to a coed school, which they thought was a wonderful thing, because the school got much more quiet and orderly. But they did find one group of boys who were disadvantaged: the scholars, the geeks. When the school was all-boys, the geeks had a certain niche in the popularity rankings, about halfway up. The two main determinants of popularity for boys across North America are athletic prowess and sense of humour; the most popular boy is generally going to be the skilled athlete who’s very relaxed and can make people laugh. Those boys do great in any setting. The scholar, the geek, he does okay at the boys’ school, he helps people with their physics homework, but when the school in this study went through the transition to coed, those boys lost their status. They were the ones who really suffered and became withdrawn and depressed, loners. I’m not saying that every all-boys school is a haven for boys. They’re not. I always tell parents that a good coed school is a much better choice than a bad boys’ school.
Q: How can you tell whether a boys’ school is any good?
A: Go in during lunchtime. If the teachers are sitting with the boys, that’s a very good sign. Do the boys look up to the teachers, respect them, is there a sense of order? If there is not, you get a Lord of the Flies situation very quickly, where the strong prey on the weak.
Q: A lot of schools ban any kind of pretend gun play, sword fighting and so on. Is this bad for boys?
A: Policies which ban children from playing with pretend swords or toy guns are not grounded in any research findings demonstrating that those policies accomplish anything good. Prohibiting children from playing with toy swords or guns does not decrease the likelihood of any bad outcome, indeed it accomplishes no useful end. The school could have taken the opportunity to build imaginative play around concepts like teamwork and heroism. Instead, schools too often simply endorse traditional girls’ activities while condemning traditional boys’ activities.
Q: Is it correct to assume that you are opposed to zero-tolerance policies?
A: I often refer to these as “zero intelligence” policies. They accomplish very little, and they have many unintended negative consequences. For example, many public schools in Ontario ban the throwing of snowballs on school grounds. It doesn’t stop boys throwing snowballs. It simply moves the activity of throwing snowballs off school grounds, in effect saying to the boys, “Go do your ‘boy stuff’ somewhere else.” No wonder then that so many boys now regard school as a place designed for girls and geeks. Boys understand the concept of “in bounds” and “out of bounds.” That’s the informed approach to take to the important and substantive question of what’s appropriate in the school. So, it’s reasonable to implement a rule like “It’s okay to throw snowballs on the football field, but not elsewhere.” Likewise: it’s okay to write a violent story about Roman gladiators— indeed a story about Roman gladiators without violence doesn’t really make much sense. But it’s not okay for Jason to write a violent story in which a boy named Jason comes to school and shoots the pretty girl who sits behind Jason and often makes fun of him. That’s threatening; that’s personal; that’s out of bounds. The schools I advise, both coed and single-sex, have found that it’s very easy to implement these sensible policies, drawing a bright line between “in bounds” and “out of bounds.” Zero-tolerance policies essentially say the entire school is out of bounds for anything that smells of boys. The result, too often, is boys who find a vent for those impulses by spending hours sitting in front of their video-game consoles, banging away on the game controller.
Q: How big a problem are video games?
A: We’re not talking about all boys; as with any epidemic, this doesn’t affect 100 per cent of the population. But there’s a group of boys who are motivated by what I call the will to power, which psychologists might call learned mastery, the satisfaction of being in charge. Now, we all value being in charge, but I’m talking about a boy who values that more than friendship or camaraderie or pleasing his teacher or parents. If you have such a son, who is very much engaged by competition and mastery, these games may pose a particular risk. They can be addictive, and I use that term speaking as a medical doctor: literally addictive. They engage the same centres of the brain that light up when you shoot amphetamines, there’s actually a study demonstrating the same pattern of brain activity when someone’s playing these games that you see when someone’s just used amphetamines. The problem is that they’re so well-constructed. The worlds they create are so realistic and the challenges are so exciting. There’s a real generational divide: people over 35 tend to assume accomplishment in the real world counts for more than accomplishment in the virtual world, but the boys I’m talking about don’t think getting a good grade on a French exam is more important than getting to the Kilimanjaro round in Halo.
Q: You say a lot of boys lack motivation. But aren’t they at least motivated by sex?
A: The most startling change between teenage culture today and 30 years ago is the way more and more teenage boys have moved away from the courtship of girls. Online pornography has displaced the pursuit of real girls for a significant number of boys.
Q: Okay, where’s the hard data?
A: About one-third of college men today describe difficulty achieving and maintaining erections, which is a stunning figure. Thirty years ago it would’ve been way less, more like five per cent. I think a major reason is that if a boy’s primary sexual activity has been masturbating to pornography, he’s going to find it harder to achieve an erection with an actual girl who’s not wearing lingerie, who’s talking...
Q: Boys have been using porn in some form for more than 30 years.
A: The pornography of 30 years ago was Playboy and Penthouse. Boys today can watch a pornographic video on a 50-inch flat screen in high definition, which will engage him in an entirely different way. Certainly, 30 years ago boys would have been unlikely to say they prefer pornography to the real thing, and today that’s common. “Girls are too demanding, they want you to do stuff, it costs a lot of money—a porn site is $12.95 a month and the girls are much prettier!”
Q: Like many people, you believe ADHD is over-diagnosed. But what’s the danger of over prescribing stimulants like Ritalin if they actually help boys succeed in school?
A: That’s the scary thing: these medications really work, they really do improve school performance. Last year at Harvard’s annual Learning and the Brain conference, the buzz of the conference was a presentation by neuroscientist John Gabrieli. He somehow got permission to give Adderall, the medication most prescribed in North America for the treatment of ADHD, to normal kids. At the same time, he withheld medication from kids with severe ADHD. He found that Adderall improved the performance, the ability to focus and concentrate and learn, of normal kids as much or more than medication improved the performance of kids with severe ADHD. That’s a tremendously important finding.
Q: So what’s wrong with taking it?
A: Some very scary research, from Harvard and elsewhere, suggests that when you give these medications to juvenile laboratory animals, you damage an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is responsible for translating motivation into action. It plays no role in cognition, the animal looks fine and feels fine, but it’s lazy, it’s unmotivated.
Q: What about the kid who has had a thorough neuro-developmental workup and an accurate diagnosis of ADHD and has been prescribed stimulants? When he’s an adult, will his motivation be affected?
A: Good question. We don’t know. One of my concerns about these medications is that the manufacturers promote them so relentlessly with no answers to questions like that one. But I hasten to add that I prescribe these medications myself, for the child you describe, who’s been evaluated very thoroughly and clearly has the real thing. The benefits of these medications, in my opinion, clearly outweigh the risks. My concern is in many communities, where the boy doesn’t fit the school, the recommendation is to drug the boy to fit the school, rather than thinking about changing the school to fit the boy.
Q: By almost any measure, the average father, at least in a two-parent family, spends a lot more time with his kids than his own dad did with him. Modern fathers generally are much more hands-on. Are they not providing what boys need?
A: There’s no enduring culture, by which I mean a culture that has lasted a thousand years or longer, where dad does it all. Dad has an important role to play, but boys have to see a lot of different men to have a healthy sense of what it means to be a man. They need a community of men, and we don’t provide that. The result is that the marketplace fills the vacuum, and tells boys that being a real man means driving a car way over the speed limit, or getting a girl pregnant, or getting drunk. These are all unhelpful and ultimately untrue messages. The core message that you find in enduring cultures is that being a man means using your strength in the service of others. Forty or 50 years ago, we had many mechanisms to deliver that message. They just don’t exist today. M