As we send our young sons back to school, millions of parents of boys are apprehensive, dreading the pain of the "boy parent dilemma."
Modern schools are not suited to boys' personalities and learning styles. This can be seen from the time boys enter school, when many of them are immediately branded as behavior problems. The line of 10 kids who had to gather every day after school in my son's first grade class for their behavior reports--all boys. The names of kids on the side of the chalkboard who misbehaved and would lose recess--all boys. The kids as young as five or six who must be drugged so they will sit still and "behave"--almost all boys.
By any measure, our schools are failing our sons. Boys at all levels are far more likely than girls to be disciplined, suspended, held back, or expelled. By high school the typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing, and is less likely to graduate high school, go to college, or graduate college than a typical girl.
Success in school is tightly correlated with the ability to sit still, be quiet, and complete work which is presented in a dull, assembly-line fashion. The boy parent dilemma is that as parents we must support the authority of our sons' teachers and schools, while at the same time it is obvious to us that the methods and structure they employ are not suited to our sons' needs.
Boy parents agonize and doubt every step of the way. We punish our sons when they "misbehave" (i.e., act like boys) because we want them to fit in and do well in school. Yet in the back of our minds--as we cajole, demand, offer, threaten, reward, and punish--we wonder, "what is this doing to my little boy?"
Helping our sons will require a conscious, national effort to retool our schools and create boy-friendly classrooms and teaching strategies. Since many boys are bodily kinesthetic learners, lessons need to be more physical, hands-on, and energetic. Teachers should use the physical and visual spheres as a bridge to the verbal and written ones. Employing boys' imagination also helps, as does using boys' tendency to learn by exploration.
Cooperative learning is useful in moderation, but educators also need to use boys' natural competitiveness and individual initiative to their advantage. Lessons in which there are no right or wrong answers, and from which solid conclusions cannot be drawn, tend to frustrate boys, who often view them as pointless.
Also, boys in particular need strong, charismatic teachers who mix firm discipline with a good-natured acceptance of boyish energy. Concomitantly, a sharp increase in the number of male teachers is also needed, particularly at the elementary level, where female teachers outnumber male teachers six to one. Same-sex classes can also be helpful, and schools should have the power to employ them when appropriate.
Administrators, school districts, and, ultimately, the taxpayer will also need to realize that creating boy-friendly classrooms can be time-consuming and expensive. Most teachers are competent and dedicated but they are weighed down by paperwork and secretarial labor which limits the amount of time they can spend planning and delivering creative, hands-on, boy-friendly lessons. In addition, large classes often make it difficult for teachers to have the time to determine each student's learning style and how best to connect that student with the teacher and the lessons. To help boys, both of these will need to change, and while it will cost money, the cost to society of uneducated, disengaged boys is far greater.
In addition, we need to rethink the current focus on testing, which has exacerbated boys' problems by forcing teachers to narrow their methods in order to prepare students to take the required tests.
This afternoon, millions of us will pick our little sons up from school and hope to hear that it was a good day. Yet many of our boys will have spent much of the day being scolded and punished, often for doing nothing more than being boys. And with each of these mistreated little boys--waving their arms and running toward us across the yard, happy to be away from that place where everything feels so unnatural and they somehow always seem to be doing something wrong--comes the boy parent dilemma.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News (9/6/02).
Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from the male perspective. He taught elementary school and high school in Los Angeles Unified School District and others, and was named to "Who's Who Among America's Teachers" twice. Glenn can be reached at .