Are Boys Falling Behind Girls in School Because School is Girly? A Rant--Part 2

Per may last post, I’m venting/ranting about a response to a column I wrote advocating for boys.  For context, the author of the response is a mother of three daughters, who essentially turned my advocacy for boys into some sort of patriarchal plan to diss girls.

Here’s what she wrote in response to my statement (which I backed up with statistics) that boys are falling behind girls in school:

Girls do seem to be catching up in math and science.  Girls tend to underestimate their abilities in these subjects and boys tend to overstate them.

The result is that girls who end up in STEM classes are the best and the brightest and boys are taking classes above their abilities.  This increases test schools for girls and decreases them for boys, making boys appear to be falling behind.

Appear to be falling behind?  Huh?  Girls are the best and the brightest and boys are in over their heads in STEM?  And this is an argument against what I’m saying?

English and language are the opposite situation.  Boys tend to say they hate these subjects.  They don’t see them as appropriately “masculine,” so they underperform.  Girls often love them because they get to discuss thoughts and interpretations, which is encouraged, and test scores reflect this.

Again, huh?  This is an argument against what I said?  She’s proving my point trying to disprove my point.  A girl’s brain is wired to be far more proficient in verbal/emotive skills.  If English and Language classes skew to a girl brain—encouraging the discussion of thoughts and interpretations—rather than an action-oriented boy brain, is it any wonder boys think these classes are girly?  Shouldn’t we change the system rather than try to reprogram the wiring of a boy’s brain (by the way, there are over 100 differences between a boy's brain and a girl's brain.)?

In the U.S., boys generally regard academic disengagement as a sign of masculinity.  Showing little care and effort toward schoolwork is a badge of honor.  Academic engagement is considered questionable, “feminine,” and frowned up by their male peers.

This wasn’t always so.  Up until 1982 boys were ahead of girls in education.  But that changed in 1982 when girls soared past boys and never looked back.  What happened?  Why did boys begin to believe that school was for girls?  Because, for all good reasons, we decided to teach more to verbal/emotive girls to get them caught up.  But in the process we forgot that boys learn differently than do girls and we started losing our boys. 

So boys have fallen behind.

Her conclusion:

The problem with academic differences is our rigid definition of what is means to be a “real man.”  (Again…huh?  How about some statistics or studies to back this up?  There are none!)  Blaming girls for boys’ problems is unfair and unproductive.  (No one is blaming girls for this.  We’re saying that the good work we’ve done for our girls has had some unintended consequences for our boys that we can easily address!)  This is not a zero sum game: Girls are gaining and boys are losing.  This means more resources, not punishing girls.  (No one has suggested punishing girls.  And I agree, this is not a zero sum game.  So why do we keep playing at it by constantly countering the boy crisis with these unhelpful broad generalizations and stereotypes?)

Friends, let’s stick to the studies, the facts, brain-science research, and the statistics.  The system—not our girls—is letting our boys down on several levels.  Our systems and emphases are the cause of the boy crisis, not girls.

But make no mistake, there is a boy crisis.  And no amount of trying to turn this back on boys or suggesting that to fight for boys is to fight against girls will change that fact.  Nor will it help our girls, many of whom will marry or work with these undereducated, underskilled men.

I’ve never heard or read any boy advocate even come close to suggesting that we should blame girls for the boy crisis or stop our battle on their behalf.

But I have heard and read over and over again girl advocates, claiming to be passionate about equality for all, continually denigrate boys and the boy crisis with stereotypical generalizations rather than facts.

One more rant to come…Then I’ll try to get back to my warm, fuzzy self!

Boys and Girls Emote Differently--Can't We Be OK With That?

Most boys hear those words and exhortations constantly throughout their lives. 

Men don’t cry! 
Men suck it up! 

Act like a man!

Recently I’ve been hearing push back on that phrase, with a growing number saying that Man Up! is one of the most damaging phrases a boy can hear. 

Anyone raising a boy or seeing the way boys are often robbed of the ability to express what we often categorize as “soft” emotions would have a hard time disagreeing.  We seemingly live in a culture that has a difficult time allowing boys and men to show any emotion other than anger—and we don’t like that emotion, either!  Crying, for example, is often pegged as one of the most anti-manly things a guy can do.  It’s a sign of weakness and a guy can never show himself to be weak.

You’ll get no disagreement from me on the problem.  I think we do a great disservice to our boys and the rest of culture when we socialize good, healthy, emoting out of our boys.

But, contrary to much of what I’ve been reading and hearing as of late, the answer is not to socialize boys to cry more or to nurture them to be more verbal with their emotions.  (Or to put it more bluntly, it does not help boys emote by insisting that we can nurture/socialize them emote more freely like girls often do!)

To start there is to do a great disservice to our boys. 

Brain science research has found at least 100 differences between the male and the female brain.  While males and females are mostly the “same” those over 100 brain differences make a big difference.

In addition, at the risk of oversimplifying, males are made up primarily of testosterone—an aggression/action hormone.  Women are made up primarily of estrogen and oxytocin—bonding/tend and befriend chemicals.  While males and females are mostly the “same” those hormones make a big difference.

Boys generally do not emote the way girls emote.  For one thing, because of the way a boy’s brain is wired, he has a much harder time accessing his feelings than does a girl. 

Ask a girl how she’s feeling about something and generally all you have to do is step back and listen to her verbally express her feelings instantaneously.

Ask a boy how he’s feeling about something and what you’ll often get is a blank stare or a mono-syllabic grunt…not because he doesn’t want to answer the question…but because he doesn’t know.  It can take a boy 30 minutes to over a day to access his feelings and put them into words.

Girls tend to processes stress in the front of the brain enabling them to verbalize the stress.  Boys tend to process stress in the back of the brain, moving them to a fight, flight, or freeze response—i.e., a response that doesn’t use a lot of words.

Where a girl’s brain is wired to tie emotions and words together, a boy’s brain is not.
            Women throughout the world have higher levels of prolactin, which controls, among other things, the development of tear glands…hence, generally, wherever you go (even in a culture that is friendly to male tears, like Italy), you see more tears from women’s eyes than from men’s. 
Leadership and the Sexes, Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis, pg. 14
My point is not that we should not nurture our boys to emote in healthy ways, but that you can’t start a discussion on helping boys emote more freely and healthily by focusing first on nurture. When we start with nurture, usually to the exclusion of nature, we tend to assume that boys can be socialized to express their emotions and feelings like girls—who tend to do it more openly and verbally.  But this, in the end, will only frustrate boys more.  Because it is trying to nurture them to emote in a way that isn’t a part of their nature. 

Many will claim that the brain has great elasticity, meaning that it can be molded and shaped through socialization and nurture, which is true.  But the brain also has some set points, so to speak, that make a male male and a female female.  These cannot be changed. 

Boys’ emotive nature, however, can be recognized, affirmed, and nurtured to respond accordingly.  Meaning, if we want to free our boys up to express all of their emotions, we need to understand how boys are wired to emote, and then free them to do so.  We start with nature, and then nurture their nature.

Most boys will not emote like most girls.  But boys are wired to emote and to do so in powerful, profound, healthy ways.  (Movement is always a good starting point for most males—get them moving and it will energize their brains to verbalize better, bond, shed some tears, emote, access feelings, etc.)

Our job is not to nurture boys to express emotions the way girls do, but the way boys do.

In other words, when we exhort a boy to Man Up! we should pour a rich understanding of nature and nurture into those words, so that we are truly inviting a boy to man-up into the healthy, thriving man he is created to be—engaging all of his emotions, gifts, and skills in the way he is created to by God.