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Boys Adrift

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The pace of my speaking engagements, both for parents and for teachers, picked up substantially after the publication in 2005 of my book Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. I’ve now spoken at more than 230 venues around the United States, Canada, Australia, and Mexico. The scene described above has been repeated dozens of times. I’ve engaged in ongoing correspondence with parents and teachers who are struggling to encourage boys to work up to their potential. And of course I’ve seen many such boys in my own medical practice in Maryland.

I’ve heard any number of explanations for why so many boys are having trouble connecting with school. Some parents blame the school. In some cases, Mom believes it’s because the boy’s father walked out when her son was little, so he’s never had a strong male role model. Others blame video games or “society” or plastics or Hollywood. One parent even blamed Hillary Clinton, and several have blamed George W. Bush.

“What’s the connection between President Bush and your son’s problems in school?” I asked that parent.

“Our country is spending so much money on that stupid war, when we ought to be spending money on the schools,” she replied.

But how would spending more money on public schools help your son, I wondered. Your son attends a private school.

But I didn’t ask that question. I wasn’t interested in having an argument. I was interested in finding some answers.

I’m a family physician. I’ve lived and worked in the same suburb of Washington, DC, for the past seventeen years. We have more than seven thousand patients in our practice. I’ve seen hundreds of families where the girls are the smart, driven ones, while their brothers are laid-back and unmotivated. The opposite pattern—with the boy being the intense, successful child while his sister is relaxed and unconcerned about her future—is rare.

It’s not just my suburb, either. As you and I review what’s known about this problem, we will see that the problem of boys disengaging from school and from the American dream is widespread. It affects every variety of community: urban, suburban, and rural; white, black, Asian, and Hispanic; affluent, middle-income, and low-income.

The end result of this spreading malaise is becoming increasingly familiar. Emily (or Maria or Shaniqua) goes to college, she earns her degree, she gets a job. She has a life. Justin (or Carlos or Damian) may go to college for a year, or two, or six, and he may or may not get a degree, but he doesn’t get very far. He may have a great time at college, in part because there are now three girls at college for every two boys. At some large universities, there are now two young women for every young man. But the young women at college are more likely to be studying while the young men are goofing off. That boy just doesn’t seem to have the drive that his sister has. He ends up working part-time at the mall or at Starbucks. Eventually he’s back home living with his parents, or with his girlfriend’s parents or another relative.

But here’s what’s really strange, and new, about this picture: That young man isn’t bothered by his situation. His parents are. His girlfriend, if she hasn’t left him yet, is at least having second thoughts about him. But he’s oblivious to their concerns as he surfs the Net on the computer they’ve provided, or plays video games on the flat-screen television they bought for him.

But haven’t boys always been that way?

During the question-and-answer section of another one of my talks focusing specifically on boys, one father objected: “Dr. Sax, I’m not hearing anything new here. Haven’t boys always regarded school as a boring waste of time? Wasn’t that pretty much Tom Sawyer’s attitude? What’s changed?”

He’s got a point. There’s a long tradition of iconic American boys who disdain school, from Tom Sawyer to Ferris Bueller. But while those boys weren’t heavily invested in school, they were still highly motivated to succeed—on their own terms, pursuing their own schemes. Tom Sawyer is determined to outwit Injun Joe, to go exploring with Huck Finn, and to win the affection of Becky Thatcher. Ferris Bueller disdains school because he has other more important and engaging missions to accomplish in the real world—which for him is any world outside of school.

What’s troubling about so many of the boys I see in my practice, or the boys I hear about from parents and teachers, is that they don’t have much passion for any real-world activity. Some of the boys are seriously engaged in video games, but as we’ll see in chapter 3, most of the video games these boys play seldom connect with the real world—unless you want to shoot people or fly combat aircraft. The boys I’m most concerned about don’t disdain school because they have other real-world activities they care about more. They disdain school because they disdain everything. Nothing really excites them.

Even more disturbing is the fact that so many of these boys seem to regard their laid-back, couldn’t-care-less attitude as being somehow quintessentially male. “You need to care about what grade you get. It’s important,” one mother told her son.

“Girls care about getting good grades. Geeks care about grades. Normal guys do not care about grades,” her fourteen-year-old son informed her in a matter-of-fact tone, the same tone he might use to show her how to program the TiVo. That’s just the way it is—for that boy. For many boys, not caring about anything has become the mark of true guydom. This attitude is something new, as we’ll see in more substantive detail beginning in the next chapter.

The hostility I’m seeing toward school among so many boys—no longer confined to black and Latino boys in low-income neighborhoods, but now including white and Asian boys in affluent suburbs—is also new. If you’re my age, or older, you can remember forty years ago when the Beach Boys had a major hit with their song “Be True to Your School”: “Be true to your school . . . just like you would to your girl.” That song describes a boy who is proud to wear a sweater emblazoned with the school’s initials, a boy who insists that allegiance to one’s school should be on a par with the enthusiasm a boy has for his girlfriend. There is no trace of irony in the song. If you’re my age or older, you remember Sam Cooke singing “Don’t know much about history . . . but maybe by being an A-student, baby / I could win your love for me” in his song “Wonderful World.” It’s hard to imagine any popular male vocalist singing such a line today, except as a joke. Can you imagine Akon or 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg or even Taylor Hicks singing, without irony and in all seriousness, about wanting to earn an A at school to impress a girl? I can’t.

These changes may be insignificant by themselves, but I believe they are symptomatic of something deeper. As we’ll see in the next chapter, a growing proportion of boys are disengaging from school. More and more of them will tell you that school is a bore, a waste of time, a tedium they endure each day until the final bell rings. As far as the boy is concerned, his real life—the life he cares about—only begins each day when the final bell rings, allowing him finally to leave school and do something he really cares about. “What he really cares about” may be playing video games, hanging out with his friends, or doing drugs and alcohol. It may be anything at all—except for school or anything connected with school.

“But you need to care about your schoolwork, or you won’t get into a good college,” his mom says.

“I hate school,” her son answers. “It’s like prison. I’m just doing my time till they let me out. Then I’m done. Why would I want to sign up for four more years?”

A smaller and smaller proportion of boys are going on to college. Right now, the student body at the average university in the United States is 58 percent female, 42 percent male (with similar numbers in Canada and Australia). And going to college doesn’t guarantee any positive result, particularly for boys. In fact, college is where the gender gap in motivation really shows up. Most girls who enroll in a four-year college will eventually earn a degree. Most boys won’t.


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