Sunday, July 29, 2007

Raising boys

David von Drehle has a thoughtful story in Time Magazine about how boys are being raised today. Von Drehle looks at the discouraging statistics that led Christina Hoff Sommers to write The War Against Boys.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was explaining how she came to worry deeply about boys. In the book-lined parlor of her suburban Washington home, she ticked through a familiar but disturbing indictment: More boys than girls are in special-education classes. More boys than girls are prescribed mood-managing drugs. This suggests to her (and others) that today's schools are built for girls, and boys are becoming misfits. As a result, more boys than girls drop out of high school. Boys don't read as well as girls. And America's prisons are packed with boys and former boys.

Meanwhile, fewer boys than girls take the SAT. Fewer boys than girls apply to college. Fewer boys than girls, in annual surveys of college freshmen, express a passion for learning. And fewer boys than girls are earning college degrees. Even sperm counts are falling. "It's true at every level of society" that boys are stumbling behind, Sommers continued.
However, von Drehle also finds statistics that hint that boys are reversing the steep decline from the 1980s and 90s.
The juvenile crime rate in 2005 (the most recent year cited in the report) was down by two-thirds from its peak in 1993. Other Justice Department statistics show that the population of juvenile males in prison is only half of its historic high. The number of high school senior boys using illegal drugs has fallen by almost half compared with the number in 1980. And the percentage of high school boys drinking heavily is now the lowest on record. When I was in high school, more than half of all senior boys told researchers they had downed five or more drinks in a row within the previous two weeks--a number that I have no trouble believing. By last year, that figure was fewer than 3 in 10.

Today's girls are also doing well by these measures, but their successes in no way diminish the progress of the boys. In fact, together our kids are reversing one of the direst problems of the previous generation: the teen-pregnancy epidemic. According to the new report, fewer than half of all high school boys and girls in 2005 were sexually active. For the boys, that's a decrease of 10 percentage points from the early 1990s. Boys who are having sex report that they are more responsible about it: 7 in 10 are using condoms, compared with about half in 1993. As a result, teen pregnancy and abortion rates are now at their lowest recorded levels.

What about school? Boys in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades all score better--though not dramatically better--on math tests than did the comparable boys of 1990. Reading, however, is a problem. The standardized NAEP test, known as the nation's report card, indicates that by the senior year of high school, boys have fallen nearly 20 points behind their female peers. That's bad, not because girls are ahead but because too many boys are leaving school functionally illiterate. Pollack told me of one study that found even the sons of college-educated parents had a 1 in 4 chance of leaving school without becoming proficient readers.
It would make sense that, having tilted so far in one direction to favor girls that society is tilting the pendulum back. I was a middle school teacher in the 1990s and I did find some disappointing trends that served to make schools less hospitable to boys. Required reading was often books featuring girls, perhaps in an effort to change earlier choices that featured more boys than girls. Military history has been thrown off for more of a focus on social history. This carries over into high school. I've blogged about this before, but it would be no surprise if boys might lose interest in a study of World War Twoo that talked more about how women dealt with life on the homefront than the war in the Pacific?

Von Drehle credits some anecdotal evidence and the popularity of The Dangerous Book for Boys for helping parents revert back to better days for how to raise boys.
The success of The Dangerous Book for Boys is one sign of a society getting in touch with these venerable truths. Nothing in the book suggests that boys are better than girls, nor does the book license destructive aggression. But it does exude the confidence of ages past that boys are to be treasured, not cured. "Is it old-fashioned?" the authors ask themselves about their book. "Well, that depends. Men and boys today are the same as they always were ... You want to be self-sufficient and find your way by the stars."
If parents are starting to recognize that boys might need different raising than girls do and are backing off some of their overprotectedness so that boys can make their own decisions and learn about consequences, that is all to the good. Girls will benefit from the same treatment. However, we have to be sure that this is not soley a middle and upper class phenomenon.
"Whether it's urban kids who can't go outside because it's too dangerous or the overscheduled, overparented kids at the other end of the spectrum--I'm worried that boys have lost the chance to play and to explore," Anderson told me. Our society takes a dim view of idle time and casts a skeptical eye on free play--play driven by a boy's curiosity rather than the league schedule or the folks at Nintendo. But listen to Anderson as she lists the virtues of letting boys run themselves occasionally.

"When no one's looming over them, they begin making choices of their own," she says. "They discover consequences and learn to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. They start learning self-discipline, self-confidence, team building. If we don't let kids work through their own problems, we get a generation of whiners."
Are inner-city boys getting the opportunities to have such experiences to have such adventures without worrying about dangers that the suburban boys or the boys whose families can afford to go to "structured freedom" summer camps? It's heartening that there is a change from the depressing statistics from ten or twenty years ago, but I think we still have a long way to go.