Boys will be (good) boys

The big news these days is that our boys are in trouble. A number of psychologists are warning us that young males in contemporary America are increasingly violent, undisciplined, depressed, isolated, fragile, and alarmingly low in self-esteem. The problem, we are told, is epidemic, even among youngsters who appear to us and to themselves to be normal and happy.

This idea is not supported by the facts. The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-IV), which reports the percentage of children and adults exhibiting various emotional disorders, reveals that adjustment problems are uncommon in youngsters of both sexes. The proportion of children displaying behavioral and emotional difficulties typically ranges from 1 percent to 4 percent. The numbers increase for adolescents, but even here, we are talking about a small minority of young people. And adolescent behavioral and emotional disruptions are hardly a contemporary anomaly. Anna Freud observed more than 50 years ago that adolescents behave in ways that, if exhibited by adults, would be classified as pathological. So, rather than pointing to the fragility of boys, the statistics dramatize the resilience of our children.

This perception that boys are in crisis is being fueled by psychotherapists and by the few horrifying cases of school violence that we have witnessed over the last several years. But these are hardly reliable indices of the mental health of boys in general. Youngsters who visit therapists are likely to have some kind of problem - that's why they are seeking help. And it is normal for people to think that some well-publicized behavior is common when it is in fact rare. This way of thinking is so normal that social psychologists have given it a name: "the availability heuristic."

Indeed, the worry that boys today are emotionally crippled is powerfully contradicted by cross-cultural research showing that males and females are equally happy with their lives. In North America, in particular, the number of individuals of both sexes who view themselves as pretty happy or very happy is 90 percent. Further, gender accounts for only 1 percent of variation in people's sense of well being. And 15-year-olds are as likely to be happy as anyone. So the subjective experience of adolescents, including males, seriously undermines claims about a crisis in the emotional adjustment of our boys.

It is true that boys display more aggression than girls. But male aggression is not unique to contemporary life. Rather, it is a truism that males are and have been more aggressive than females across time, societies, and species, suggesting that male aggression is not due to the quirky child-rearing practices of any particular culture. If males are in trouble because they display aggressive tendencies, then they have always been in the same trouble.

It is, nevertheless, possible to combat male aggression, and parents of the relatively few boys who have problems should do just that. Aggressive conduct is a precursor and predictor of antisocial behavior, delinquency, and poor school performance. But research shows that the behavior of at least some aggressive boys can be improved by firm, rule-oriented parenting, and not by the half-hearted, ineffective disciplinary measures practiced by the parents of many troubled kids.

We might also worry more about the consequences of raising boys without male authority figures in their lives. Across cultures, in families where fathers are absent, the chances of aggression and other antisocial acts by boys increase. Sadly for mothers, male children are typically less compliant than female children, both here and around the world. Hence the refrain, "Wait 'til your father gets home." Men seem to provide a civilizing influence on the aggressive impulses of boys that women cannot.

We make such a fuss about the differences between males and females that we forget an important fact: In the last analysis, gender accounts for only 2 to 5 percent of the differences between people concerning virtually every emotional, behavioral, and cognitive characteristic that we can measure. Even with regard to aggression, gender accounts for only 5 percent of the differences between children. Genetic heritage, temperament, child-rearing experience, personal values, and attitudes toward life, among other factors, more likely explain people's differences than does gender. This robust finding is hard to reconcile with the claim that boys are in trouble.

Clearly, there are some boys - and girls - who have problems, and we should be vigilant in this regard. But fear-mongering about the state of our boys can cause the competent caretakers of well-adjusted boys to have nagging doubts about their own abilities and about the well-being of the youngsters they are supervising. And that can't be a good thing for us or our children.

*Gwen J. Broude, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is the author of 'Growing Up: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia.' This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. issue of the Harvard Education Letter.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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