National Post

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Let boys be boys

National Post

Educators are beginning to quantify an "enthusiasm gap" between girls and boys in co-ed public schools. The reason: Schools, especially elementary schools, have become feminized. Elementary school teachers and administrators who once understood that boys will be boys, now act, at least, as though they expect boys to be more like girls. Their hostility to the male character -- intentional or not -- is turning boys off learning. The behaviours that earn reward and reinforcement -- co-operation, communal achievement and non-assertiveness in class -- are feminine behaviours. Meanwhile, such masculine traits as competitiveness, aggressiveness and individuality are seldom prized, and frequently discouraged or even punished. Little Johnny isn't happy in school, according to Leonard Sax, an American educational psychologist, because schools "are run largely by women and according to women's rules." To do well under such conditions boys have to adopt "geeky" or emasculated behaviours. Rather than do so, many boys simply tune out and let their educations slide.

So, Dr. Sax told a convention of private-school teachers in New York last week, don't be afraid to yell at boy students every once in a while. Or to give them strict rules to follow. Or to challenge them to best one another academically or to prove you wrong by giving them an initially harsh assessment of their work or abilities. Most boys' brains are "hard-wired," he explained, to respond to such "confrontation" with elevated heart rate, increased adrenaline and enhanced alertness. Aggressiveness just naturally draws the best out of boys. "They enjoy it," Dr. Sax claims, whereas girls react to the same stressors with nausea, dizziness and withdrawal.

Teachers shouldn't yell at all boys, and they shouldn't yell all the time. School, after all is still school, not boot camp, and boys are still children, not soldiers. Yet teachers shouldn't be afraid to display their displeasure, or even anger, with a misbehaving or underperforming boy. As long as their displays are rational, controlled and part of a clear, authoritative discipline policy, boys will instinctively understand their teachers' aggressiveness is in their best interests. How to draw the line against teacher-student bullying? Common sense and consistent application -- and reasonable oversight by principals and superintendents. Too often senior administrators spend their time searching for the perfect, cover-all policy, rather than managing and directing teachers in how they are to act.

Parents, too, need to be supportive of schools that deal with boys more assertively. Teachers could follow Dr. Sax's advice and be a bit more domineering, but their efforts would be derailed if overprotective or pacifist parents complain the first time Little Johnny's Grade 4 teacher raises her voice.

The generation-long push to solve perceived social ills such as war, domestic violence and avarice by deprogramming maleness in boys at an early age and in lower grades has failed. Boys cannot be made to be girls by pretending their innate masculinity does not exist, or by attempting to suppress it with zero-tolerance violence policies; no-winner, non-contact games; or doll play. Men and boys are naturally assertive. If they cannot find socially acceptable ways in which to direct that assertiveness, they will channel it into anti-social outlets. Schools need to deal with this reality, rather than closing their eyes and hoping masculinity will go away.

© Copyright  2003 National Post