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The Trouble With Boys

The Trouble With Boys

What’s going on with our boys in the classroom?

By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind. In preschool boys are expelled five times more often than girls. In elementary school boys are diagnosed with learning disorders four times as often. By eighth grade huge numbers are reading below basic level. And by high school, they’re heavily outnumbered in AP classes and, save for the realm of athletics, show indifference to most extracurricular activities.” – The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre

So, I’m going to bare my soul a little bit in this post. Note: I’m no parenting or education expert, so all I can share are my own personal accounts.

When I was pregnant and discovered we were having a boy, we would imagine the kind of person we thought our son would be: kind, imaginative, social, and smart. He wouldn’t be a mainstream cookie-cutter kid, and everyone that met him would be in awe of how amazing and interesting he was. His dad and I would make sure he was well-rounded, but give him enough room to be the person he was as well. And how lucky… that’s exactly the kind of boy we got!

Things went pretty according to plan until it was time to start kindergarten.  I was excited and nervous for him to start school – he was curious about EVERYTHING, and always eager to learn and meet new people. I knew the first year of school would set the tone for the beginning of his primary school career, and so it really needed to be a positive experience.

First day of Kindergarten

It was NOT a positive experience.

Our excited, bright boy became sad and anxious. Even though he was smart, he wasn’t making good marks on his progress reports (IN KINDERGARTEN!?) and his whole attitude about school took a nose dive. Although she said he was friendly and sweet, his teacher implied he was also “high-energy” and “impulsive” and used those words often, pretty much every time we talked to her. He cried a lot, and so did we. It was a rough year.

Like a good little bookworm, I did the main thing I knew to do – I scoured the library and Internet for books on the subject.*  Peg Tyre’s The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do seemed to be written just for my son.

Tyre’s book offers insights and approaches from teachers, administrators, parents, students, child psychologists, and other experts. Formerly a senior writer at Newsweek, Tyre backs up her research with statistics and addresses everything from the ADHD epidemic and literacy to single-sex schooling and the absence of male teachers. She includes the controversial subject of gender politics in the classroom, and the tendency for some schools to be tailored (inadvertently) to the way girls learn:

In elementary-school classrooms–where teachers increasingly put an emphasis on language and a premium on sitting quietly and speaking in turn–the mismatch between boys and school can become painfully obvious. “Girl behavior becomes the gold standard,” says “Raising Cain” coauthor Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.”

After reading this book (and getting an adamant “Um… no.” from our pediatrician when we asked about ADHD) I realized that, as his parents, it was up to us to get our son in an educational environment that fit him better. There was too much at stake to wait around and let him slip farther behind both academically and emotionally. In a time where Kindergarten is the new First Grade, we opted to “red-shirt” our son, as well as switch his school. The decision was terrifying, but I’m happy to report it was the best we’ve ever made to date. His new school is challenging, and offers subjects he didn’t have at the other school. His self-confidence has grown by leaps and bounds, his new teacher appreciates his imagination and creativity, and his marks at school have improved dramatically.

My hope is that all parents take the time to do THEIR homework. If your child is constantly struggling, and things just seem… off to you, know what your options are. Educate yourself so you can help your student overcome those obstacles and become lifetime learners that enjoy their school experience and know their strengths.

See Also
Author Interview

“… we as parents need to acknowledge to our sons, to our kids’ teachers, and to each other that this is a tricky time to be a boy. And we need to stop letting our sons negotiate the changing demands of school alone. Stay alert to the warning signs. Watch out for boys who complain they are bored or afraid to go to school. Watch out for teachers who complain that boys are too active, who clamp down on boys’ fantasy play, who allow boys to languish in reading and writing, who chastise boys for poor organization or bad handwriting. These are signs that your son may be in a school that doesn’t respect him or that even discriminates against him.”

* Other Good Titles to Read:
Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind by Richard Whitmire

That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life by Ana Homayoun

The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life by Michael Gurian

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon, Michael Thompson



View Comments (17)
  • I love this post!!!! Excellent information, and great photos! Folks are so quick to jump on these conformist bandwagons and, furthermore, we as a society have started to see the glass as half empty and we impose that on our children by allowing stigmas to subjugate our children. What ever happened to embracing each individual person for who they are? Children who are colorful, imaginative, bright, and, even shy are suddenly considered to be in an ADD spectrum or an Autism spectrum. These are REAL challenges that need to be addressed for the children who really suffer. As the wife of a male teacher and two anti-social children I could go on all day! I love that you tackled this!

  • Good on you for following your gut and what an honest and bare post. As someone who is on the other side and did NOT follow their gut, I can loudly applaud your decision.

  • Very good post. I read “Raising Cain” several years ago, and I vividly remembered that quote about boys being defective girls. The more I’ve watched, the more I’ve realized that it’s true. Thankfully, my son’s first grade teacher really understands boys and is great with them. But at the same time, I’m leery of the “reports” that are sent home telling me that he’s not doing well in reading. It’s perplexing because I can sit down with him and have him read well. If I thought it was real, I’d be all over it, but I have come to believe that the tests are set up for girls, too. The reality is that school is going to be harder for him than his sister, who has breezed through at the top end of the scales. And that’s sad, because I think he’s every bit as smart, he’s just the wrong sex for the school system.

  • This fits my son exactly as well….. I am also interested in the school you have found. Can you share?

  • As a mom of a son and a daughter I would just like to say that my daughter is a bad fit for the typical school model…and when I did all my searching for a solution there a tons of books about how “it’s a boys world” but I tend to think it’s less about gender and more about the lack of aalowance for individuality. Schools usually play to the middle and focus on producing “workers” not necessarily innovative thinkers or even just average people who do things ther own way….just my thoughts.

    • Franki – as someone who went to a public school most of my life and then worked at two different independent schools (including one that closely followed Piaget’s model of inquiry-based learning) I agree 100%. I think this is often discussed as a gender issue b/c that seems to be the most obvious way we have of explaining the issue and statistics do back up that boys overwhelmingly “suffer” more than girls during the early stages of standard school. However, the larger problem is that our schools have become learning factories and children are not encouraged to explore, create, innovate and imagine. They are taught to answer questions on a test. This isn’t every school but it’s most of them.

      How did we get here? If you haven’t seen this video, watch it. It’s a fascinating look at why we are in this predicament.

  • I enjoyed your post. Did you know that you only spend 5% of your life in a classroom? If this is true, then why all the push to standardize everyone?

    There are now studies that show the ADD and ADHD drugs don’t work as well long term. TV and other media have been linked to these diseases.

    I would strongly recommend that you list “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv to your recommended reading list as well. His in-sight into this and our children’s health in general is outstanding.

  • Jackie & Judi – email me and I’ll be happy to share the school. I’m not willing to post that publicly. I will say that our new school was a good fit for US, and it was a very scary decision to take him out of the old school. I know lots of people don’t have that option, but I would hope they would empower themselves with enough knowledge and Mamma Spidey-Sense to know if a teacher or class not only isn’t working for their child, but is becoming retroactive. I’m at swalker(at)

    Franki – I completely agree. This particular post was a book review for TwB, but many girls have this problem too. I think it’s a strong indication of how we, as a nation, need to rethink education paradigms. Have you seen this video? FASCINATING. Seriously, watch it to the end and you won’t be sorry.

    • It’s like we are the same person! 🙂 I must have been submitting my comment to Franki at the same time you were. Love that video too and I want everyone I know to see it.

  • Excellent post, Stephanie. Came here via Carol Marks and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! Keep up the good fight!

    This is not related to the gender bias (which we’ve seen firsthand as well), but we’re now facing a grading change in our high school as well.

    My oldest son is attending the same high school I attended, but this year they’re trying a “pilot program” (which, coincidentally, they’ve already announced will be implemented throughout the district next year) where they’re changing the traditional A-F grading to a 4-0 scale where 0 is “did nothing” and 3 is “proficient” and 4 is exceeds guideline requirements and expectations”.

    I’ve asked his teachers what merits a 3 or a 4 and I was told “you’ll need to talk to the principal about that”. When we (the parents in a large meeting) asked about a cross-walk between the traditional grades and the new grades, we were told there wasn’t one. My question (having worked in admissions in a major university) was, “If there’s no cross-walk between the two grading systems, how are our kids going to be evaluated for college?” His answer was “I wouldn’t worry about that, they normally use class rank for admissions.”

    OMG! Are you kidding me? My son’s 6 teachers can’t agree on what a “4” represents (in fact, I’ve been told by one teacher that she doesn’t think a “4” is possible on most of her curriculum because “how can one exceed proficient at (reading) literature?”) and you’re telling me not to worry about his grades? Seriously, how did we get to this point in the educational system??

    The sad part is that the new system has some definite merits. They use rubrics which show kids what is expected of them in the coming 6 week curriculum segment and kids can retake tests, or portions of tests, to improve their grades. The problem seem to be in the implementation and teaching the teacher how to use it.

    Sorry for the rant, but you pushed a button this morning! 🙂

  • gpence, You need to contact the curriculum director at the central office of the high school where your children attend.You have followed the chain of command by taking your concerns from teachers to the administrator and they obviously don’t know the answers so you need to go forward. You need to express your concerns and ASK QUESTIONS. If the principal and teachers are not on the same page with how to use the rubrics on a 4.0 system, you want to know if they are going to have training before beginning this program. I am sure it has wonderful merits, but if it is not implemented correctly it will be too subjective. Good kids get good marks, bad kids get bad marks. I don’t necessarily mean bad but rowdy, high-energy, etc…. If the teachers you talked to said there if not a 4, they need to look at a rubric and learn how to use them. They can find tutorials and already made rubrics for any subject matter they want online. Maybe an open forum with parents,students,teachers, administration, central office personal, and the mastermind of this grading system explain to everyone how it is to be used, etc…. That way everyone should be on the same page.

  • This is GREAT!!!! We are preparing for kindergarten for 2013 since my son’s bday is after September 1. But I am soooo concerned about his education and really leaning towards homeschooling. But I would love to know which school your son attends. It is really great to know what my options are. Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks! It’s a tough decision to make, and parents should know their options and keep an open mind. There are so many great teachers in the school system, and I was really surprised when that wasn’t our experience.
      One thing that is really hard to grasp until you’ve done it with your firstborn, is how fast they can change developmentally, and how different that process is for each child. The difference between ages 5 and 6 was a huge milestone for us, and so surprising how much my son settled down maturity-wise. I wish someone would have told me that when we were struggling.

  • Well written. Thanks for sharing, I’ve had similar experiences with my boys.

    • I know you’re in the trenches too, Cindy! Actually, this post could use a little updating… 🙂

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