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Michael Thompson and students
Psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," chats with Carl Silvano, left, and Ricky Hurly at the Langley School in McLean, where he is a consultant.
(By James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)
Page Two

Boys and Learning


Why are so many more boys – six times more – diagnosed with learning disabilities? No one knows for sure, but there are some theories. One is that the standards for diagnosing LD are so loose that disruptive boys are classified to get them to special help and out of the classroom. "The system has shaped the definition rather than the other way around," said Ken Kavale, an expert in learning disabilities who teaches graduate school at the University of Iowa.

Douglas Fuchs, a professor at the Kennedy Center Institute on Education and Learning at Peabody College of Vanderbilt, thinks learning disabilities are over-diagnosed and may be related to early language differences. Millions of boys are now taking Ritalin to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity.

No one questions that many boys are legitimately learning disabled – neurologically mis-wired in ways that make traditional learning difficult. But there may be other factors that affect a boy's ability to be successful in school.

Pollack's theory, based on his years of research and clinical practice, is that many boys' problems are rooted in a too-early separation from their mother's nurturing. While boy babies start out with a wider emotional range – more sounds, expressions and wails – parents tend to give them less adoring interaction after about the age of 6 months, he says. Even though boy babies are more physically fragile, he believes that adults tend to think of them as being bigger and tougher, and also to soothe them into quietness rather than try to understand their noise. Boys are so traumatized by this "disruption of their early holding environment" that they harden up and withdraw, which has repercussions for the rest of their lives, Pollack suggests.

Another question is whether we have failed to appreciate the language of boys because so much of it is either violent in imagery or oblique in approach. Wilder-Smith recalled getting a note from one of the 5-year-old boys whose fantasy play-acting she recorded for a year in a Boston school.

"Have a Hindenburg Exploding Life!" the boy Tyler wrote. Wilder-Smith wasn't sure at first if this note was meant affectionately; after she thought about it she realized it was. It just wasn't her kind of language. But she has come to believe that what appears to be violent play or imagery to a woman may be a valuable tool to a boy, his way of conquering fear and his smallness in the universe. Removing that outlet may end up making boys more violent rather than less, she thinks.

Barney Brawer likes to use the example of a Vermont farmer working on a broken tractor. His son may spend the day at his side, and yet they may exchange no more than a dozen words. But the son has seen a great deal – perseverance, problem solving (or trying to), engine repair. "We've lost a lot of that kind of communicating," he says.

Boys exhibit different signs of depression, says Pollack, whose book "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood" will be published later this year. Thus we often fail to recognize them because they are not as evident as the symptoms common to girls – who in adolescence and adulthood are diagnosed with depression at far higher rates than males. "Our view of depression has been feminized," he said. "Boys may have a moody withdrawal rather than tears."

After spending a year observing in a Boston public school, Wilder-Smith is among those who think we may need to reevaluate our attitudes about boy aggression and action. Too often, she suspects, the mothers and female teachers who statistically spend the most time with young boys believe that the key to producing a nonviolent adult is to remove all conflict – toy weapons, wrestling and shoving, imaginary explosions and crashes – from a boy's life.

"I've watched teachers who have the rule with creative writing that there's 'no killing in stories,' " she said. "One boy said, 'But the bad guy! He has to die somehow!' Finally the teacher said the bad guy could die, and allowed him to be run over by a truck. ... They can't draw it [violence], they can't write about it, they can't act it out."

"We do take away a lot of the opportunity to do things boys like to do," said Carol Kennedy, a school principal in Missouri with 34 years' experience in education. "That is be rowdy, run and jump and roll around. We don't allow that."

Educator Vivian Gussin Paley once put a running track in her kindergarten classroom. The girls ran around it in laps. The boys chased each other. They all seemed to like it.

Mass media ill-serve both genders, researchers say. Many believe that violence on television encourages aggressive behavior in boys and girls, but they have no conclusive proof of a connection. There is more evidence backed up by teachers that television has encouraged shorter attention spans and a need for artificial excitement. While girls are surrounded by television shows and books in which boys are almost always the protagonist, the hero and the main ingredient, boys rarely get a positive cultural message that it's okay to be afraid or sad, to not be athletic, to have a girl for a friend, or to enjoy writing poetry.

New Pressures
It is no secret that modern life has produced a new style of childhood. But some aspects of contemporary life may exact particular hardships for boys that are rarely acknowledged by those in authority.

For example, divorce in many cases not only removes a boy's primary role model from his daily life, it often brings additional burdens from his mother. He becomes the "man of the family," a role he is generally not prepared to handle. School principals dealing with boys who are sent to their office with behavior problems are finding that many of them are in this situation.

"The responsibilities most of our young boys are having placed on them is different than ever before," said principal Kennedy. "Mother is sharing things with that boy that almost makes him a partner rather than a son. ... We find that even in elementary school, when a boy is taking on the role of being the major babysitter, he is often paying more attention to what happens at home than at school. It's more of a boy problem because a mother can see the boy as head of household, or man of the family, and doesn't tend to do that with a girl."

Unsupervised play is another issue – the lack of it, that is. Researchers like Brawer suspect that while too many hours are being idled away alone, indoors, in front of a television set, too few are being spent outdoors in time-honored games of exploration, mock warfare, fort building, sneaking around, inventing ball games and so forth. Because many parents today are legitimately afraid of criminals and bad drivers careening down neighborhood streets, boys – and girls – are rarely allowed the freedom to investigate and master their home turf in a way that once provided a rehearsal for the real world.

So the questions mount. Brawer, who is writing a dissertation on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, notes that in the 1,700 studies on the subject that he has found, the word "father" is mentioned only three times. "The neurobiological crowd doesn't believe in Freudian language," he said. "But if you look at the conditions under which kids are more or less likely to have problems, the indicators go way down when the father is in the home. This is an area we need to study."

What messages do mothers inadvertently send when they recoil from their son's wish to have a toy gun or his desire to be a ballerina for Halloween? How do fathers restrict a boy's emotional vocabulary when they say "big boys don't cry"? Should some boys, as Thompson and Kindlon suggest, start school at 8 rather than 5 or 6 years of age?

"It may still be a man's world, but it's not a boy's," Pollack said. "He's been sat on so long he'll push to keep the dominance. Recognizing boys' pain is the way to change society."

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