Magazine article Work & Family Life

Helping Our Sons Develop Healthy Emotional Lives

Magazine article Work & Family Life

Helping Our Sons Develop Healthy Emotional Lives

Article excerpt

Eighth grade girls score 11 points higher than boys on reading tests and 21 points higher on writing tests. Boys are 33 percent more likely than girls to drop out of high school, and the percentage of male undergraduates in colleges has dropped almost 25 percent since 1970. These are a few of the alarming statistics that have spotlighted the difficulty many boys are having in school-and in getting on with their lives.

In the wake of widely discussed teen-shooting incidents a few years ago, the nature vs. nurture question was raised again. Many people concluded that boys are more prone to violence because of their biology. But human behavior defies simple explanations. All behavior is influenced by multiple forces, and research has found inextricable links between biology and experience. Environmental factors can affect the brains structure, and brain functioning can be enhanced by our various learning experiences.

For example, a boy's early ease at throwing a ball or climbing may begin with developmental readiness. But when the boy receives encouragement for his efforts, his interest and skills grow. A girl's ease with reading and language also appears to begin with an early neurological advantage, and it too is enhanced through encouragement.

Gender differences

Boys and girls alike bring energy, curiosity and a desire for competence to their lives in school, but those gifts come wrapped in recognizably different gender patterns. The "differentness" of boys is not inherently bad, but it may sometimes present a challenge to teachers, the school culture and the boys themselves.

The average boy's gifts are wrapped in high activity, impulse and physicality ("boy power"), and the value of these gifts depends on the teacher, the boy and the moment. Where there's room and respect for bold strokes of action and impulse, these qualities serve boys beautifully. But in the classroom-alongside girls, who are typically more organized, cooperative and accomplished school learners-those boy qualities may turn from assets to liabilities.

Since girls mature earlier, they achieve cognitive milestones at a younger age. They are sooner to learn names for things and colors and how to do simple counting. Because girls are a step ahead in these prereading skills, boys are more likely to be miscategorized as learning disabled in the early grades.

In short, the early age at which we teach reading puts boys at a disadvantage. Boys tend to catch up later, but in the early grades especially they do not feel as able or as valued as the girls in the central learning tasks of elementary school.

Research can be misleading

The great attention paid to gender differences skews our view of reality. But if you had to sum up all the scientific work on sex differences in one finding, it would be that men and women are a lot more the same than we are different.

When research does offer us a fascinating glimpse into the science of boys and points up a difference, the information is often misrepresented or oversimplified-and then accepted as the Truth. Testosterone, for example, has become a buzzword for masculinity and a popular explanation for all boy attributes. A review of scientific studies, however, does not provide evidence of an association between testosterone and aggressive behavior.

Scientists do not know how testosterone shapes brain development before birth, but we do know that before and after puberty, the amount of testosterone in the bloodstream does not cause aggression. …

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