Young and male in America: It's hard being a boy

Here's what it's like to be a boy in America today.

Boys drop out of school, are considered emotionally disturbed, and commit suicide four times as often as girls; they get in twice as many fights; they murder 10 times more frequently; and become the victim of a crime 15 times more often. They are less likely than girls to go to college (because they haven't done as well in high school); are labeled "slow learners" and assigned to "special ed" classes twice as often; and far more boys than girls are diagnosed as having "attention deficit disorder" and placed on powerful prescription drugs.

This does not describe all, or even most boys in America. But the figures, and especially their pattern, are disturbing - especially as they relate to extreme antisocial behavior.

And as the country sorts through the emotional debris of the Littleton, Colo., high school shooting last week, there has been a lot of talk about warning signs missed or ignored by parents, teachers, and religious leaders - responsible adults who could have prevented this tragedy, as well as the eight other major school violence episodes in the United States over the past three years, all of them involving boys.

But there are deeper issues as well, experts say, and they relate directly to how boys are perceived and treated in America today. As a result, there is a burgeoning "boys movement" aimed at achieving a better understanding of male adolescents and specifically addressing those problems that can precede violence.

"We've basically dropped the ball on our males," says Michael Gurian, a family therapist in Spokane, Wash., and author of several books on adolescent boys. Having studied some 30 cultures, Mr. Gurian concludes that American boys are noticeably slighted in two key ways.

"They have the least emotional bonding ... with Mom, Dad, uncles, grandmas, grandpas. And they have the least moral development of any of the boys I've seen anywhere else in the world," says Gurian, whose 1996 book "The Wonder of Boys" became a bestseller.

In addition, he adds, early exposure to television and the tendency of so many boys to burrow into the Internet for escape and comfort - condoned if not encouraged by the adults in their lives - accelerates the separation from parents and other important adults. The "greater culture" also becomes a kind of substitution for traditional means of moral development, including religious communities. "It's sort of a triple whammy," he says.

Myths of boyhood

William Pollack, Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood," says boys "receive conflicting messages about men and masculinity from society, their peers, and even their parents."

On one hand, there is what Dr. Pollack calls the "Boy Code" - the pressure to be "cool, confident, and strong." At the same time, he writes, "society tells boys they should be egalitarian (particularly in relation to girls), sensitive, and open with their feelings.... Most boys have a very difficult time trying to sort out these conflicting messages and determining what masculine model to pattern themselves after."

Usually, he observes, the Boy Code prevails - based on the signals from mothers as well as from fathers - and this emotional clamming-up can lead to danger. "Many boys not allowed to shed tears, shoot bullets," he warns.

"We don't teach boys how to handle their emotions," says Dan Kindlon, a Harvard research psychologist and co-author of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys." "We just tell them to sit on it and tough it out."

That's the essence of Cain's story in the Bible - someone who stifled his anger and resentment, and violently snapped. "That lesson is still an important one today," says Dr. Kindlon.

There are elements of both "nature" and "nurture" in the findings and recommendations of educators, therapists, and others involved in the boys movement, which has evolved recently in parallel with (and in some ways in reaction to) the big push during the 1990s to improve the lot of girls, especially in the classroom.

Boys need to be able to express a full range of emotions without fear of ridicule or disapproval, says Pollack, and it's up to those closest to them - their parents - to help them do this. At the same time, classroom structure and curricula need to better accommodate the natural differences between boys and girls.

"They're not wired to be like girls, and they're going to act differently," says Gurian, noting what he sees as boys' natural inclination to be more competitive, aggressive risktakers - tendencies which can be interpreted as misbehavior. "It's the teacher's job to create a classroom environment that accommodates both male and female energy, not just mainly female energy."

Female influence at school

Since most teachers (espec-ially at the grade-school level) are women, this will take some conscious adjustment. The emphasis on how girls are treated in school, particularly as it relates to their "self-esteem," began in earnest with the 1992 report "How Schools Shortchange Girls."

Sponsored by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), this study claimed that while boys and girls enter school with roughly the same measured ability, by the time they graduate girls have "fallen behind their male classmates in key areas such as higher-level mathematics and measures of self-esteem." Among other things, the AAUW report charged that teachers tend to pay more attention to boys.

Since then, teachers and school administrators have done much to encourage girls and provide for their perceived special needs. At the same time, follow-up research has found fault with some of the assertions and conclusions of the AAUW study.

"It is girls who get higher grades in school, who do better than boys on standardized tests of reading and writing, and who get higher class rank and more honors," says Judith Kleinfeld, professor of psychology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

"Schools have always been slightly biased against boys," says Dr. Kleinfeld, who reviewed the AAUW data and researched more recent findings. Meanwhile, many experts are coming to realize that what was perceived as higher self-esteem in boys actually is bravado masking insecurities.

As a result of the "girls movement" that took off with the AAUW study and publication of "Reviving Ophelia," Mary Pipher's highly popular 1994 book about adolescent girls, Kleinfeld says, "we just went a little bit overboard with attention to girls."

Littleton, Colo.

The causes and motivations of the Littleton, Colo., shootings may never be fully known. The two boys apparently were bright students and said to have come from solid, middle-class families.

But there also seemed to be signals - perhaps warning signs - about their year-long plans to commit mass violence. And there is no doubt that the problem of boys led, or driven, to violence persists. (In Los Angeles Tuesday, a 16 year-old boy shot his parents and brother to death before killing himself.)

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention notes that the number of youngsters ages 10 to 17 in the United States will double in the next decade.

Still, says Gurian, "I'm certainly optimistic about the future because now people are waking up to what we've been tracking for 15 years."

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