"When it comes to school, many boys have tuned out, turned off, and they’ve given up,” says Peg Tyre, an education researcher and author of the New York Times bestseller “The Trouble with Boys.” “They see it as a game they can’t win at so they don’t want to play. They say school doesn’t matter, school is girly. But it’s what they do all day long. It’s like going to a job they don’t like for the entire day.”
— Is your smart, capable son starting to struggle in school?
— When he talks about his lessons does he seem bored, disengaged or fearful?
— Does your son appear to be falling out of love with learning?
If your answer to any one of these questions is yes and you’re worried about your boy, you are not alone.
Tyre says there is an alarming trend in this country — that our boys are underachieving, that our schools and culture are making it increasingly difficult for them to succeed, and all of this will have broad societal implications for the future. Tyre will speak at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-boys school in Princeton, on Wednesday, February 10.
Tyre says much of the research today shows many disturbing trends regarding boys and learning, which is why she is sounding a siren call for parents and educators to team up, wake up, and take action. “Boys are diagnosed with ADHD at a rate three times higher than girls,” she says in a phone interview. “There is a higher rate of mental illness and suicide among boys that should be worrisome to parents and educators too. Right now school age boys commit suicide at a rate five times higher than girls do. At the same time as a nation we are stretched when it comes to resources for the young who are mentally ill. That means they’re not getting the help they need.”
The problem with boys starts early, Tyre says. School then becomes like an exhausting treadmill for them where they never really catch up. “We have this massive reading and writing gap between boys and girls. We know that boys come into school speaking fewer words; they may start behind on their first day of kindergarten, and on their first tests. We know that reading is the lynchpin for school success. We make a big deal about girls and science; girls need to be encouraged, yes, but boys also need to be encouraged to read and write well and enjoy it more.”
Tyre says she is encouraged by the recent successes girls have had in education but she does not see school success as a competition between the genders, as if it were a see-saw where one group is up when the other is down. She notes that boys get more Cs and Ds than girls all throughout primary and secondary school and currently, there are 2.5 million more girls than boys in colleges. “I’m a beneficiary of the feminist movement,” she says. “I want to see girls do well. But they don’t have to do well at the expense of boys. Half of today’s feminists — well-educated and empowered — are the mothers of sons, and they can see the trouble their boys are having in school.”
For example, what about those boys — you may have or know one yourself — who seem to have a real laissez-faire attitude about schoolwork? These are the boys who feel they don’t have to study or prepare in advance for class and for tests, who seem to think there’s no reason, no point, to studying hard and doing well in school. For whatever reason, they don’t make the connection between doing well in school and their future success in life.
Tyre says it is a mistake for parents to interpret that behavior as confidence or over-confidence when in fact it is a defensive posture that reflects disengagement. “It’s almost if they are saying ‘I’m too cool to care, or I don’t have to care, my parents will love me anyway, and who needs school, I’ll do fine in life,’ when in fact, they may be scared or feel like they are so far behind they can’t catch up.”
What can parents and educators do to turn the tide around and help our sons achieve school success from an early age and continue that through their lives? “It has to do with the way we are teaching them, and it’s a way we need to change now,” says Tyre. “Boys are pulling back from reading and writing, and we need to look at that and look at new techniques to bring them back into the fold. If you are a second grade teacher and you understand what that data means, you need to broaden your perspective about what constitutes appropriate classroom materials.”
She says the national trend of cutting back on recess and recreational programs is unhealthy for all children, but especially for boys. “It’s hard on boys because on the whole they are more active than girls and they are like the canaries in the mine, they just can’t handle it as well.”
Tyre grew up in Ossining, NY, the third of four children. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a homemaker. Tyre majored in English literature at Brown University, where she received her degree in 1983. As a researcher and writer on education, social trends, and culture, she has served as a fellow at the Education Sector, an educational think tank in Washington, D.C. She is a 2009-’10 Spencer Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Brooklyn, New York ,with her husband, novelist Peter Blauner, and their two sons. “Has having sons sensitized me to this issue?” she posits. “Sure, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m fortunate because our sons are big readers. In our family they couldn’t get away with not being big readers. They have had bumps in their education, as many kids do, but we’re fortunate how it has worked out.”
Unfortunately, for other boys, it has not worked out so well, she says. Another troubling trend Tyre has discerned in schools is the way behavioral issues are handled: a double-standard that favors girls and is driving boys out of school instead of calming them down.
She relates an anecdote from one school where most of the behavioral problems were boys. “They were sent to principal’s office so frequently they were losing a lot of valuable classroom time, which was bad enough. And then we looked at the infractions they were being identified for. Boys were being disciplined for body crimes like slapping each other, darting around the classroom, moving around with their bodies, playing with the math manipulatives, and sitting on the desk during reading time. Girls, on the other hand, were identified for infractions that were much more serious — pulling hair, knocking another girl to the ground on the playground — acts that were much more disruptive to the social structure of the school. There is a difference in the level of seriousness and yet each was being treated as the same. The net result is that the behavior of the boys was less tolerated and dealt with more harshly. We have to identify who is doing wrong and not make body felonies into behavioral problems.”
Tyre says there is a huge disconnect between the way writing is approached in schools and the acceptance of the topics boys enjoy writing about. “I can’t tell you how many parents have told me about their son’s worrisome writing. These days there is a big emphasis on self-reflective type journaling, writing down their feelings, the memoir genre. But boys don’t respond well to that kind of instruction. We tell them to write about their feelings, and they don’t want to do it.”
Creative writing opens up another area of concern. “Many normal boys play a lot around violence, they want to write about firing arrows and decapitation and gore.” Tyre says, “Adults ostracize them and act as if they are training to become serial killers or as if they are expressing their pre-Columbine-type rage. Teachers see this as a big affront and then parents are called in to discuss their son’s worrisome writing. When we teach writing to boys, we want them to be creative but within the rubrics we have set up, what we are comfortable with, and that doesn’t always work well for boys.”
Tyre says that parents and educators have to work together to change the dynamic for boys in the classroom. Disengagement and underachievement may be dismissed as a passing phase but could have lifelong implications for our sons and our society. “We say things like boys will be boys or they’ll grow out of it soon but we often say these things because it makes us more comfortable. It perpetuates the mythology about boys, that they are stoic, that they don’t need more positive affirmation, they don’t need to do well in school to believe they are doing just fine anyway. But there is good evidence that this attitude is not working for boys, and it is not good for culture. The question is, how can we inculcate a culture of male literacy that is so sorely lacking right now.”
Author Event, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, 1128 Great Road, Princeton. Wednesday, February 10, 7 p.m. Peg Tyre, author of “The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do.” Register. Free. 609-924-8143 or www.princetonacademy.org.