Monday, November 24, 2008

Geeky Mom Reviews: The Trouble with Boys

One of the things I did this weekend was to finish this book. I have about 4 books going at the moment and this is the one that kind of stuck. As most of my readers know, I'm struggling with Geeky Boy's school difficulties and I picked this book up in hopes of gaining some insight or finding a good solution. The book is very well researched and Tyre doesn't shy away from including some controversial positions, especially in the section on brain research. She doesn't give those controversial positions a break, either, pointing out, for example, that one proponent of an educational program directed at boys that's based on brain research is not a researcher himself and doesn't even have a degree in anything related to brain science. The real scientists are very circumspect about what their results have to say about differences in learning between boys and girls.

The book covers a lot of ground, starting with preschool and going all the way through college with a few detours here and there. My own son was not one of those typical fidgety boys who always needed to be running around so the early chapters don't apply to my personal experience, though I certainly know boys who fit the descriptions in the book. Some of the personal stories are just heartbreaking. Boys at the age of 6 or 7 who come home dejected and tell their parents they're incapable of being good, where good is defined as sitting still for long periods of time. In the early years, Tyre covers such issues as recess and ADHD, pointing out that programs like NCLB have meant in some schools the elimination of recess, which ironically makes it harder for boys to focus. She shows how many more boys are diagnosed with ADHD and that teachers themselves often push parents to get their boys diagnosed (even though it's unethical for them to do so). She criticizes teachers who have no tolerance for the energy of boys and at the end of the book, calls on them to leave the profession.

Her point about school in general is that it favors girls all the way through. From the early years, when sitting still is important to neatness and organization in the middle to working harder in high school, girls do better at the game of school. I've seen many signs of this throughout our school years. In second grade, at our very first parent-teacher conference here, Geeky Boy was chastised for his handwriting and his lack of organization. I laughed this off at the time, assuming that he wouldn't be writing much past elementary school anyway. In our very first year of middle school, however, his teacher again criticized his handwriting and even had the whole class (predominantly boys) practice handwriting for a week. I yelled about this, saying that I didn't think it was appropriate and that the kids should be learning content. Her response was neatness counts for the final grade. It really just made me mad. In middle school, too, being organized is hugely important and very few boys are good at it. From the book:
'Eleven-year-olds go from having a single nurturing teacher to having six teachers with different personalitites and different expectations. Then there's the paperwork. Every teacher gives handouts, requires you to bring certain textbooks or workbooks to class. Each one assigns homework, and each assignment has a deadline.'
It's more organization than is required of most paying jobs. And it's required for 11-year-olds. Geeky Boy still hasn't mastered this. And unfortunately, his parents aren't much help here. We've developed our own coping mechanisms, but we're don't naturally keep our lives organized. I, personally, have been working on this since I was about 12! Geeky Boy aces almost every test that's given to him and he actually talks about the things he's learning. It's clear, for instance, that he's totally into his history course and that he's getting a lot better content in it than I ever got in school. But he fails to turn in assignments because he forgets to do them or forgets to turn them in and his grade gets dragged down. It's distressing to think that a smart kid like him isn't doing well and could, in fact, miss out on opportunities down the road simply because he hasn't come up with a good way to keep up with all his responsibilities. And, sadly, as Tyre points out, this is exactly what happens to many boys. They miss out on upper level and AP classes in high school, which means they aren't as good candidates for college.

One chapter that was hard to read was the one of video games. Tyre does not outright condemn them the way many parents do, and even goes so far as to say that there is little evidence to support that video games, even aggressive ones, cause violence in kids. What she does say is that games can be addicting, in part because they fill a void caused by school. Video games offer boys an opportunity to socialize and to be successful. If they don't feel successful in school, they can feel successful in a game. She tells a couple of stories of young men who get so caught up in their gaming that they end up in rehab programs and/or dropping out of college. This was a hard chapter to read in part because I don't know if I buy the idea of Internet addiction. On the other hand, I know it's hard to keep my own son away from the video games. And I worry that he may head down a road where gaming becomes more important than life. At the moment, I'm trying to model this for him, by setting limits for myself and only playing when I've gotten my work done. Currently, thanks to his poor grades, he's banned from gaming anyway. Sigh.

Tyre's book is full of good information and I would actually recommend that not just parents of boys read it, but parents of girls as well. The book is, however, short on advice for parents. She recommends changing the whole system, a tall order for any one parent to contemplate. Although I've had some success in explaining to teachers how telling my son he's failing because he can't write neatly leads him to be discouraged in areas that he is actually doing well in, I find the school system so daunting that I don't interact much with it at all. Tyre would probably advocate that I be a little more active and stubborn about the situation. That idea terrifies me. I will say that knowing it's not just my kid and that school is stacked against him, I can do my best to help him cope. And that's pretty much where we are now--coping--and biding our time until high school, where we hope we will begin on a better foot.