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Boys Adrift

Excerpt from Boys Adrift


I didn’t know what to say.

I’d just finished speaking to a parents’ group in Calgary, Alberta, in March 2004. The talk—about the subtleties of difference between how girls and boys learn, how they play, and how they are motivated—had gone well. I began doing these talks for parents’ groups, and for schools, in 2001. By March 2004 I was pretty comfortable with the format.

The presentation is the easy part. The questions afterward are more difficult.

“Dr. Sax, my son Billy is very bright,” one father said. “We’ve had him tested, twice, and both times his overall IQ has been in the 130 range. But he just has no motivation to learn.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean that he doesn’t do his homework and he won’t study for tests. He doesn’t seem to care whether he gets an A or a C or an F.”

“How old is he?” I asked.

“Sixth grade.”

“Umm. What does he like to do in his spare time?” I asked.

“Actually Billy loves to read. Science fiction mostly. He just refuses to read the books the school assigns. I don’t know why he seems to hate school so much. It’s a good school.”

“Which school does he attend?” I asked.

Dad named a local private school that I knew to be very prestigious. Class sizes at that school are small. The teachers are well trained and highly regarded. Tuition is more than twenty thousand dollars a year.

Stall for time. “Have you spoken with anyone at the school?” I asked.

He nodded. “The school counselor thinks Billy might have ADD, but I just don’t buy that. How could he have ADD? He’s read Isaac Asimov’s entire Foundation trilogy twice. He can quote whole passages from The Lord of the Rings, he’s even memorized some of the poems in Elvish. That just doesn’t sound to me like a boy who has ADD. Billy loves to read. He just doesn’t like school.”

I paused. I wanted to say that I couldn’t give any specific advice without meeting Billy myself and doing my own evaluation, an evaluation that would take a minimum of two hours. That was the truth—but I knew it would sound like a cop-out, since I was flying out early the next morning to return to my home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. There would be no time to meet with Billy on this trip.

While I hesitated, a woman spoke up: “My son’s in a similar predicament, but he’s younger. Second grade. Outside of school my Jason is as sweet as an angel. But he’s been sent to the principal’s office several times now for hitting other kids. He says he was just playing. He’s never actually hurt anybody, but the teachers say they have to refer any child who hits another child. Referral to a specialist is mandatory after three episodes. So now they’re saying that I have to have Jason evaluated.”

I wanted to point out that Jason’s predicament wasn’t in any way similar to Billy’s situation. Billy hasn’t been hitting anybody, but he seems to lack the motivation to succeed at school. Jason’s problems seem to be not motivational but behavioral. But I knew better than to say that.

I just didn’t know what to say. So I turned the tables. I asked the parents a question of my own: “How many of you are in a similar situation: You have a son who’s having school problems of some kind, but it’s not clear why?”

About half the parents raised their hands.

“I’d like to hear from you, then. What do you think is going on? Do you have any thoughts as to why your son is having a problem?”

“School has become too academic,” one father said immediately. “Kindergarten isn’t kindergarten anymore. My son, and my daughter last year, came home with homework their first week of kindergarten. Can you imagine assigning homework to kids in kindergarten? Five-year-old kids with an hour of homework to do. It’s absurd. No wonder kids hate school.”

Several parents nodded. But why would that affect boys more than girls, I wanted to ask. Another father said, “The schools have become feminized. The only adult male at my son’s elementary school is the janitor. The teachers all want the students to sit still and be quiet. For some boys, that’s not easy.”

“It’s not the teachers who are to blame,” a woman said softly but firmly. “It’s the kids. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to give offense, but kids today are lazy. The boys especially. They’d rather just sit at home and play video games. They wouldn’t go to school at all if it were up to them. I know a boy across the street who doesn’t do anything except play with his PlayStation. He doesn’t do homework, he doesn’t help around the house, he doesn’t play sports. It’s just video games, video games, video games.”

More nods.

“When I was their age, we had to walk to school, three miles each way, no matter the weather,” an older man said. “We didn’t have any of these school buses you see nowadays. We had to walk. Even in the snow. And I’ll tell you one thing. When you’ve walked three miles in the snow to get to school, you make darn sure you learn something. You don’t want that long walk to be for nothing. I think it motivates you. Nowadays the kids get chauffeured everywhere. No wonder they don’t have any motivation. They don’t have to work for anything.”

No one made any reply. After a moment, a young woman said, “I read somewhere that plastic might have something to do with it.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Something about plastic. It’s like hormones in beef. It messes up children’s brains. That’s why so many boys are having problems.”

That sounds a little far-fetched, I wanted to say. But I’ve learned that it’s best to humor the people with the wackiest ideas—while still expressing courteous skepticism, so that the sane people won’t think you’ve completely lost your marbles. “But why would plastic affect boys differently from girls?” I asked politely. “Aren’t girls and boys equally exposed?”

“I don’t know. It just does,” the woman said.

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