Growing Move to Address a Cultural Threat to Boys
By Carey Goldberg
New York Times April 23, 1998

Every April for six years now, as millions of girls have tagged along on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, there has been a pained counterpoint to the training under way, a parenthetical murmur. ("But what about our sons?") A similar objection met reports on how schools short-change girls. ("But don't our boys seem at least as distressed?") And research on how girls' self-esteem crashes at puberty. ("But boys die a thousand deaths too!")

Now, increasingly, such parenthetical protests are translating into a surge of head-on exploration -- from academic research, to workshops and parents' groups, to a rash of books coming out in the next few months -- all meant to address what some people call a crisis among American boys that is different, but no less serious, than their sisters'.

"Four boys are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed to every one girl," said Dr. Michael Gurian, a psychotherapist in Spokane, Wash., and author of the best-selling "The Wonder of Boys."(Tarcher/Putnam, 1996) "In education, two boys are learning disabled for every one girl. In grades, our boys now get worse grades than our girls. If we go to brain attention disorders, there are six boys with attention deficit disorder to every one girl. If we go to teen deaths, there are two teen boys dying for every one girl. Should I keep going? I can rattle off 50 of these."

Drawing much of its intellectual grounding from research and writing being done around Boston, the incipient boys' movement focuses on the deepening difficulties of being a boy in the current American culture.

With cadres ranging from prominent academics the likes of Dr. Carol Gilligan, the Harvard psychologist, to coffee groups of confused and seeking parents, it calls attention to the dangers of seeing what used to be considered natural boyish behavior as something pathological.

At the same time, it casts light on how age-old ways of raising boys to conform to the norms of "real Man'-hood can brutalize and scar them emotionally. From the shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., to the millions of boys on Ritalin, the new boys' advocates say, signs abound that boys are in emotional distress. For all the dark statistics, the boys' movement focuses on the positive side of boyhood as well. Using current brain science and common sense, it aims to help parents and teachers understand what makes boys tick rather than demonizing them as aggressive, and to rear boys to be sweet and feeling as well as tough.

Though the boys' movement might seem to be pulling some of the blanket away from girls, its potential to improve relations between the sexes has won the support of the likes of Marie C. Wilson, president of The Ms. Foundation, which created Take Your Daughters to Work Day.

"I feel like our attention to girls actually engendered this new attention to boys," Ms. Wilson said. "It used to be when we talked about gender, we just meant women. This is such a relief!" Still, some boys' advocates blame feminism for leaving a streak of anti-male sentiment in American culture that creates problems for boys.

Barb Wallis-Smith, a teacher and researcher who has run several "mothers-of-sons" discussion groups in the Boston area and just completed a book on boys' fantasy play, says she has found that "We believe badness is in boys." It has reached the point, Ms. Wallis-Smith said, that when she made T-shirts reading, "Boys Are Good," they raised objections among the student teachers she trains (one of whom was wearing a button reading, "So Many Men, So Little Intelligence.")

And when her young son wore a T-shirt extolling boys, she said, a woman driver passing by stopped her car to say, "Boys are good? Well, girls are better."

In the struggle to understand what goes wrong for boys, researchers are turning more and more to the early years and a crisis that seems to hit many boys around the time they enter school.

Dr. Gilligan, the Harvard psychologist who did pioneering work on girls over the last two decades, has begun observing 4-year-old boys in pursuit of a hypothesis that others share.

Dr. Gilligan's hunch, said Judy Chu, a doctoral candidate working with her, "is that just as adolescent girls struggle with their socialization towards cultural constructions of femininity, boys may experience a similar struggle in early childhood, which is when they are faced with heightened pressures to conform more rigidly to cultural constructions of masculinity. Studies have shown there are parallel symptoms of psychological distress among boys -- depression and evidence of struggle and conflict."

What happens at that age?

First, "They're thrown into schools where on average, boys aren't as good at things as girls," said Michael Thompson, a Boston-area psychologist who is co-writing a book, "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys." "Girls read faster and sit more nicely and boys are more physically restless and impulsive. And we sometimes don't make accommodations for the boys' developmental levels, so we humiliate them and get them mad, or interpret their activity as willful aggression, and so begins the fulfillment of a prophecy where we try to punish and control boys more harshly than girls, and they come to resent it and dislike it and dislike authority and react back against it."

At around the same time, said Dr. William Pollack, a Harvard psychiatrist whose years of studying boys led him to write "Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood," boys are undergoing another difficult process, striking out on their own when they would still like to be clinging to their mothers.

"We prematurely separate boys from their mothers and nurturing in general in a way we don't do to girls," Pollack said. "And we call that normal boy development, and my argument is that not only isn't it normal but it's traumatic, and that trauma has major consequences."


What results, some psychologists and teachers say, is that boys become emotionally cut off and less able to experience empathy and absorb moral teachings.

"Boys were traditionally raised to be soldiers and every toy and cartoon dealt with not having feelings, and you could hurt people and nothing would happen," said Merry-Murray Meade, a veteran kindergarten teacher at the Atrium School, a private elementary school in Watertown, Mass. Now, Ms. Merry-Murray Meade said: "We want little boys to take on feelings. But the fathers often don't even know how to do it. They say, 'If I bring that out in him will he be a girl?' "

In adolescence, said Dan Kindlon, a Harvard Medical School psychology professor co-writing the book "Raising Cain," boys are further isolated and twisted by what he calls a "culture of cruelty."

"In the period of 7th, 8th, and 9th grade, boys learn that to show vulnerability is akin to death," Kindlon said. "You talk to a 75-year-old man and he can still remember the names he was called then."

Black and Hispanic boys can experience particular problems in adolescence, researchers say, because when they act peer-pleasingly tough, adults see them as dangerous and threatening, but if they act soft, they are likelier to be victimized. The suicide rate for black adolescent boys, though still proportionally lower than that of white boys, has gone up by 100 percent over the last 10 years, Pollack said.

Put the psychological picture together, stir in recent biological findings on everything from the effects of testosterone to gender differences in brains, and a slew of scary statistics begin to make sense, these advocates argue.

In his forthcoming book about adolescents, "A Fine Young Man," Gurian notes that adolescent boys are four times more likely than girls to commit suicide (though girls try more often) and boys' numbers are rising while the girls' are not. Four times as many adolescent boys drop out of high school as girls, including girls who have babies.

Of particular concern to many is the epidemic levels at which young American boys are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed Ritalin. A lunchtime line of pill-takers has become a common scene at many school nurses' offices, and many boys' advocates say that though no one knows the exact numbers of Ritalin prescriptions, it seems heavily over-prescribed.

"I'd say what those boys really have is not Attention Deficit Disorder but MDD -- Male Deficit Disorder," Pollack said. "We see boys as deficient because we have models of development that are not empathic to boys."

Commercially speaking, the bushel of books on boys coming out may be merely an attempt by publishers to recapture the commercial success of Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia," which only recently fell off The Times best-seller list after 148 weeks there. But the authors of the boys' books and other researchers see themselves as part of a chorus calling for change, and offer concrete remedies from different ways of playing to different ways of listening.

Many of their suggestions are geared for the mothers who have been so baffled by sons who, given dolls, rip off their heads and use their bodies as guns, or who find a sudden painful distance between themselves and their boys.

"Women have to learn to speak boys' language as well as boys speaking women's," said Barney Brawer, a former school principal now at Tufts University who, with Dr. Gilligan, co-directed a two-year Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boys Development and the Culture of Manhood. That often means more traditional male bonding "side by side," during a shared activity, rather than face to face, he said, or more subtle communication than asking "What's wrong?"

"I might recommend to a mother that sometimes, if you help your son fix his bike, at the end of an hour and a half of fiddling with the darned thing to get the gears smooth," said Brawer. "You'll find yourself having the conversation with your son that earlier at dinner he was unwilling to have about his day or what courses he wanted to take."

Ms. Barb Wallis-Smith said she also tried to help mothers and teachers accept and interpret the rowdiness often inherent in boys' play rather than trying to quash it.

"Most classrooms have rules against play that involves guns or shooting or bad guys," she said. "It's a backlash against the violence in our culture, but I'm afraid we've made boys pathological -- what we used to see as normal. We're rejecting the culture of masculinity and trying to redefine it, but we're throwing out the boy with the bathwater."

Many of the boys' advocates also push for boys spending more time in all-boy environments, whether in single-sex schools and classes or in activities like scouting.

In the Seattle area, for example, Peter Wallis, a longtime teacher and camp director, puts together boys' seminars and weekends that incorporate ideas from Gurian's book in a mix of physical exercise and myth. He has the boys act out dramatic stories and "hero quests" that emphasize "the classical vision of males as noble beings with diverse abilities," he said.

And educators talk about gearing school activities to be more boy-friendly, allowing more learning-by-doing like a recent project at the Atrium School that allowed children to try chipping at rocks in the schoolyard as they studied the Stone Age and to build their own primitive inventions.

Others push for different forms of interaction with girls. At the Atrium School, Dr. Stephen Bergman, a psychiatrist, and his wife, Janet Surrey, a psychologist, are experimenting with boy-girl "gender dialogues" to help each understand what it is like to be the other.

Bergman worries that the boys' movement will become too much like "Robert Bly for boys," he said, referring to the drum-beating, woods-going men's movement.

"If you buy into the let-men-be-men view, you end up with a lot of lonely men in middle age," he said. "What I'm saying is all human beings have the same nature, which is to want to be in a good connection, and all you're doing with boys is to come back to what they experience early in life, and give them what they yearn for."

Some girls' advocates also maintain that the boys' movement is merely more patriarchal business as usual, grabbing attention away from girls' problems just when they have gained a brief spotlight after millennia of neglect and oppression.

But those like Ms. Wilson hold out hope that ultimately, girls could benefit as well from a boys' movement.

"We'd be so naive to think we could change the lives of girls without boys' lives changing," she said.