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  • Part One: More equity
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  •   Reexamining the Plight of Young Males

    Barb Wilder-Smith and Oliver Boston-area teacher Barb Wilder- Smith wrote on gender differences when her son, Oliver, 8, expressed a preference for a pink bicycle. That's the bicycle he's on above.
    (Michele McDonald for The Washington Post)

    Poll Data
    This series of stories was based on the following polls, conducted for The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University on these dates:
     * Aug. 14-Sept. 7, 1997
     * Nov. 17-23, 1997
     * Nov. 20-23, 1997
     * Aug. 14-Sept. 14, 1997
     * Dec. 19-23, 1997
    Last of five articles.

    By Megan Rosenfeld
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 26, 1998; Page A1

    Two decades of study about the sexual stereotyping of girls is now inspiring a new subject for gender research: boys.

    Our boys are in trouble, say a vanguard of researchers, and it's time to pay attention to how we are raising them.

    The case begins with numbers. Boy babies die in greater numbers in infancy, and are more fragile as babies than girls. Boys are far more likely than girls to be told they have learning disabilities, to be sent to the principal's office, to be given medication for hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder, to be suspended from high school, to commit crimes, to be diagnosed as schizophrenic or autistic. In adolescence, they kill themselves five times more often than girls do. In adulthood, they are being incarcerated at ever-increasing rates, abandoning families, and becoming more likely to be both the perpetrators and victims of violence.

    Some psychologists and educators studying boys argue that because of the way we parent and educate boys, combined with biology and an overlay of popular culture, male children do not fully develop their capacity for emotional depth and complexity. As a result, they are less able than they need to be to navigate the turmoil of adolescence, to develop healthy adult relationships, in some cases to survive at all. While the simple hierarchy of male authority and dominance in our society is becoming obsolete, the men of tomorrow are not being trained for a world in which their traditional survival mechanisms – like physical strength, bluster and bullying – no longer prevail. Meanwhile, traditionally male virtues like courage and determination are too often neglected.

    "An enormous crisis of men and boys is happening before our eyes without our seeing it. There's been an extraordinary shift in the plate tectonics of gender; everything we ever thought is open for examination," said Barney Brawer, a longtime educator. Brawer is managing the boys component of the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boys' Development, and the Culture of Manhood, which is headed by Carol Gilligan, whose research helped shape the new understanding of girls. For two years the project has held a series of discussions and lectures, sponsored mothers-of-sons support groups, and designed research projects. The public interest in their work has taken the academics by surprise. "It's almost more than we can handle," Brawer said.

    A few miles away in Newton, Mass., psychologist William S. Pollack is also worrying about boys and writing a book about them. So are Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon, also psychologists, and consultants to all-boys schools in the Boston area. Publishers have forked over six-figure advances for these books, due out later this year, hoping to replicate the financial bonanza of Mary Pipher's bestseller on girls, "Reviving Ophelia."

    "We've become very clear about what we want for girls," Brawer said. "We are less clear about what we want for boys."

    'Politically Incorrect'
    "It's politically incorrect to be a boy," says the mother of an 18-month-old male. Boys are the universal scapegoats, the clumsy clods with smelly feet who care only about sports and mischief. They are seen as "toxic," says Pollack, creatures "who will infect girls with some kind of social cooties." But could it be they are just as much victims of gender stereotyping as girls have been? As their sisters grow up with more options and opportunities than they used to have, boys may be feeling the tightening noose of limited expectations, societal scorn and inadequate role models.

    "Why is there always a bad boy in every one of my classes, every year, but no bad girls?" a second-grade girl asked Kindlon, who with Thompson is writing a book called "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys." Thompson jokes that the subtitle of the book should really be "how to raise your son so he won't turn out like your husband."

    "Our beliefs about maleness, the mythology that surrounds being male, has led many boys to ruin," writes Geoffrey Canada in the newly published "Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America." "The image of male as strong is mixed with the image of male as violent. Male as virile gets confused with male as promiscuous. Male as adventurous equals male as reckless. Male as intelligent often gets mixed with male as arrogant, racist, and sexist."

    Said Pollack: "If girls were killing themselves in these numbers we'd recognize this as a public health issue in our society."

    A survey on gender by The Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University showed that most parents feel they treat their sons and daughters equally. Still, most parents know that Jack will heedlessly jump off just about anything or pick up a block and make it a gun, while 4-year-old Jill insists on wearing her party dress and wrapping her toy animals in blankets. But while Jill can keep or abandon party dresses as she wishes Jack is often forbidden a toy gun, or he's told repeatedly to sit down and stop running around.

    A 16-year-old boy in Washington remembers his elementary school as a place without male teachers, where by sixth grade (age 11 or 12) boys were assumed to be the troublemakers. One day a girl sitting next to him made him laugh by sticking a pencil up her nose. When the teacher reprimanded him, the boy blamed his friend and her pencil antics. But the girl denied doing anything – and the teacher believed her and not him. She sent him to sit in the hall for lying.

    "That kind of thing happened all the time," he said. "It made me not respect teachers very much."

    Barb Wilder-Smith is a Boston-area teacher who became interested in researching boys after she gave birth to two of them – and realized she didn't know much about them. Three years ago she took her then 5-year-old to buy a new bike. At the time, his favorite color was pink and he wanted a pink bike. She and her husband were content to let him make his own color choice.

    "But the salesman said he couldn't have a pink bike, pink was a girl color, and he had to have a red or blue bike," Wilder-Smith said. "My son looked at him and said, 'That's ridiculous, colors aren't boys or girls, and pink is my favorite color.' "

    The boy got his pink bike. But he was teased so much by other children, who called this 5-year-old gay, that he put a sign on his bicycle basket. It read:

    I like pink.
    I am still a boy.
    I have a penis.

    Now he is 8, and doesn't let anyone know he likes pink. It was the girls who hassled him about it most mercilessly. Girls who wear blue all the time.

    Talking About Differences
    Considerable trepidation surrounds this new interest in boys. Some parents are afraid that it's about having their boys grow up "to be sweet and nice and good," as Wilder-Smith put it, and will endanger their sons. Feminists of both genders worry that the hard-won changes that benefit girls will be pitted against newly defined needs of boys, and that the old canards about biology being destiny will come back from the near-dead. Some are resentful that attention is being directed toward boys when girls have had only "a nanosecond in the history of educational reform," as Gabrielle Lange wrote in the American Association of University Women magazine "Outlook." Researchers into boys' behavior fear they will be tagged as anti-female, and they tread cautiously into the politically and emotionally loaded field of gender study.

    "For 30 years it has been politically unacceptable to talk about [neurological or biological] differences," said Thompson, who has worked as a clinical psychologist with both coed and all-boys schools. But now, he and others note, the scientific community seems more willing to acknowledge that there are differences between males and females. The question is what the significance of these differences is.

    Diane F. Halpern, a psychology professor at California State University in San Bernardino, recently surveyed current studies of differences between male and female intelligence. She found that women do better in tasks that test language abilities, fine motor tasks, perceptual speed, decoding nonverbal communication, and speech articulation. Men are superior in "visual working memory," tasks that require moving objects, aiming, fluid reasoning, knowledge of math, science and geography, and general knowledge. At the same time males have more mental retardation, attention deficit disorders, delayed speech, dyslexia, stuttering, learning disabilities and emotional disturbances.

    Girls' brains are stronger in the left hemisphere, which is where language is processed, while boys' are more oriented to the right hemisphere, the spatial and physical center. Recent advances in brain study have shown that the two hemispheres are better connected in females, which may eventually explain why the genders show different patterns in cognitive tests.

    "Boys' early experience of school is being beaten by girls at most things," Thompson said. "The first thing we do in school is make them read and sit still, two things they are generally not as good at."

    Boys score better on achievement tests, but girls get better grades – another pattern that inspires all sorts of interpretations. Since boys are bigger risk-takers, perhaps they guess more on tests and by the law of averages get enough right answers. Halpern suggested that since most standardized tests are multiple choice, and female strength tends to be in writing, perhaps they lose out that way. Conversely, since sitting still, neatness and studiousness are rewarded in classroom grades, maybe boys are inadvertently penalized in that arena. It also has been demonstrated repeatedly that scores can change with the right training.

    Page Two | Printable Full Text

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