The Mis-Education of the American Male
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 31, 2008 - As we look with optimism -- or annoyance -- to the fast-approaching election, consider this question for America's future: are we failing our boys? Research shows that boys lag behind girls in reading and writing skills and are also less likely to attend college. They are also more likely to drop out of high school and to have issues with inappropriate aggression. In Missouri, there is a 23 percent high school dropout rate ... 21 percent in girls; 26 percent in males.
Are we going too far with our "Girl Power" message? So far, in fact, that it has become at the expense of our boys? When it is OK for a girl to walk through the halls of school wearing a "Girls rule, boys drool" shirt, what is a boy to think? Cut to adulthood and we are inundated with negative imagery of the American adult man: Loafing on the sofa, unable to complete even the smallest of tasks. Incommunicado, dolt-ish ... defeated.
The effects are apparent. Consider that the suicide rate in the United States is on the rise for the first time in 10 years, driven in part by an increase in suicides among white, middle-aged men, according to a report released online Oct. 21 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
And consider that, when under psychological stress, men with heart disease experience greater blood flow resistance than women, which may affect their risk of adverse cardiac events, according to study findings published in the Oct. 15 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology.
Have we entered into a backlash on our men and boys?
Psychology of a Boy
"It is more than just a backlash on boys and men" following the feminism movement, said Dr. Duru Sakhrani, medical director, Child and Adolescent Inpatient Services at St. John's Mercy Children's Hospital. "A lot of things go on with boys as they grow up ... hormonally, psychologically, physically." And, indeed, "the education system may not meet the needs of boys. Boys who act out may not have alternate methods of learning other than punitive."
Dr. Jeffrey Rothweiler, clinical child psychologist at Children's Hospital adds, "Boys tend to be very action-oriented with a greater difficulty for quiet, 'face-forward' activities at which girls tend to do much better. Girls are also better with verbal communication."
Interestingly, Rothweiler says that the hormonal changes in growing boys are similar to girls, but manifest in different ways. The rapid rises in the male hormone, testosterone, causes surges in a boy's bloodstream "which can lead to anger and frustration." And while "the biology of the parents is very important," said Sakhrani, "so are environmental factors. Our society tends to see boys (and treat them) as troublemakers."
Other environmental factors that come into play include the high rate of divorce and increasing numbers of single-parent families. The majority of these single-parent homes are led by the mother, which means that boys growing up in these homes may not have consistent access to a male role model.
"Racial issues can be added stressors environmentally and even financially," Sakhrani said.
Rothweiler recommends talking with boys about the hormonal and physical changes they are experiencing, much like the conversations we have with our girls about what to expect from their changing bodies.
Other things parents can do: "Recognize the strengths of your boys; get them involved in activities they can succeed at ... at sports levels, but also at educational levels," Sakhrani said.
"Anything a parent can do to fold in physical activity is helpful," Rothweiler agreed. "This will help get the energy out and boys will be more workable afterwards." And this may be used as a learning strategy as well. "If, for example, in history you are talking about Lewis and Clark, plan an expedition or an actual exploration as a learning tool."
Read the research
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Dr. Cindy Haines is managing editor of Healthday-Physician's Briefing and president of Haines Medical Communications Inc., a full-service medical communications and consulting firm. As a board-certified family physician, Haines is well-versed in all areas of health care, with particular interest in fitness, nutrition, and psychological health.