6/07/2010

"Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men" by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.


I picked this book to read because my favorite teacher in college was adamant about the typical American classroom being ill-fitted to the needs of adolescent males, and I saw that one of his five factors was "Teaching Methods". Here are all the factors that he goes into:

- Video Games
- Teaching Methods
- Prescription Drugs
- Endocrine Disruptors
- Devaluation of Masculinity

When I first got the book home, I read part of the intro out loud to Danny, who found the whole thing very interesting. He immediately agreed with all of them, except the "endocrine disruptors" factor, mainly because neither of us could quite figure out what it actually meant.

We basically read the chapter on video games together, which was super interesting to talk about. Danny plays video games and is a guy. I basically do not and I definitely am not. This book introduced whole new worlds of understanding about what playing video games actually means to males, which Danny understood, though probably had never before analyzed. One of the huge, HUGE differences between girls and guys is that guys are wired with the "will to power", some much more than others. That is why a video game that gives the guy ultimate power can be so addicting. Competition is much more important to guys, too. It's a way to bond. Dr. Sax gives lots of thought-provoking examples in this book, one of which was how if you put girls on a team to compete against each other in the classroom, they will usually not to very well because to them the relationships with the other girls, possibly those on the opposing team, are more important to them than winning. But with guys, competition can and usually does strengthen inter-guy relationships. This was fascinating to me. I used competition on a daily basis in my classroom, and I was okay with putting girls on teams based on their friends, but until now I didn't really have a rationale for why I did it; it just "felt right."

The main things I got from the video games section were: There will never be a copy of Grand Theft Auto (or any other such games that reward violence and immorality) anywhere within a 10 foot radius of my house, video games can be good in moderation and with parental awareness and involvement in their use, and a good way to wean a video game addict is to let/force them do something "will-to-power"-ey in the real world, like sports.

The next section was the teaching methods section. Every single point which Dr. Sax made I agreed with. It fascinated me to read. I want to read a book just about this subject. It's late, so I will not be going too much into depth about it. But the main things I got from this section were: If possible, and depending on circumstances, it is probably a good idea to wait until your son is 6 until he starts kindergarten (which is actually more of "first grade"). It will be an advantage to him in many ways. Also, if the boy is not thriving in his school, probably it has more to do with the school than the boy; one option is to send him to an all-boys school. Motivation dynamics are vastly different when boys are surrounded with boys instead of a mix of boys and girls. Finally, teachers should allow more competition and less sitting still in rigid chairs during their classes. This made me feel great; often in my classroom, we would go outside to do something.

The section on "prescription drugs" was mainly an analysis on the over diagnosis of ADHD in elementary school boys, and its effects later in life. This was interesting to me because this is what happened to my brother. According to Dr. Sax, Tom Sawyer probably had ADHD. The reason why Tom Sawyer wasn't "disordered" and my brother "was" has to do way more with their environmental expectations than their actual condition. Boys who are expected to sit still for too long have hard times paying attention. The main things I got from this chapter were: it is not a good idea for the Doctor to prescribe powerful meds like ritalin and adderal to "see if it will work" because they can seriously damage a section of the brain that has to do with motivation, perhaps permanently. Also, many boys are incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD; you don't have it if you never showed symptoms of it before you were an adolescent. Finally, the best way to treat problems with ADHD is to change the environment, not the child. Changing the school is more effective, healthier, and usually reaches the root of the problem.

Perhaps I would have been more skeptical of the idea that you should change the kid's school, if I hadn't been a teacher and worked in a school and seen first hand how vastly different school environments can be one from another. Also, my parents did this with my brother, and it worked. Instead of sending him (and all of us) to public school, they did lots of research and sent him to the best private school they could. It was a place where his (and all of our) intelligence was valued. Totally different goals and requirements (you had to do sports every semester) than public school. Joe went off drugs when he was a freshman, and has never used them since. He told me that they killed his motivation, just like Dr. Sax said they do. It impresses me that Joe was so sensitive to their effects on him. I'm glad he doesn't use them anymore even if he still has ADHD (which I am not to say whether he does or not, and frankly I don't care much because it's not going to affect the way I see him at all!), because I know that those drugs also affect his creativity and drive, which are both immense.

So the chapter on endocrine disruptors was basically about how different hormones in plastic have emasculating effects on animals, and possibly humans. It was terrifying to read about. You know what? We don't drink bottled water because it's too expensive. But my baby does drink from a plastic bottle. And the next one will, and the next, etc. To us, it is a factor of reasonableness. There is no way that we can avoid all plastic. The chapter also does not convince me that eating organic is the way to go; genetically modified foods are not necessarily those over-treated with pesticides (he didn't really go into this, but I've been thinking about it a lot). I think that scientists changing the genes of a plant is far less harmful than overspraying it with pesticides, but then again my husband is a bioinformatician, into genetics.

Bottom line: in my opinion, this chapter had the weakest arguments to support his theories, and it relied too much on a "shock and awe" method to impress his readers into believing him. Probably there is truth to what he says in this chapter, but he offers no viable alternatives so I can either cower in my house, fearful of all the different ways that plastic surrounds me, or I can just say, "Well, that sucks, better not think about it too much." If he wanted a call-to-action effect, he very much failed here, for me at least.

The final chapter was fascinating, but also felt doomsday-ish. He gives example after example of how men and masculinity are devalued in American society. I love that he did it in a way that was not devaluing to women. He was very careful about that, actually. I agreed with everything he said here.

By the end, I was worried that the book would offer no solutions to the problems. The final few chapters were excellent; they lead me to really, really like Dr. Sax as a person because he is so reasonable. I think the main reason he wrote this book was because, in his vantage point as a physician, he could see a growing epidemic of unmotivatedness in young men, and he really wanted to figure out why. I think the main point of the book is, "This is a problem, here are some reasons why, and here's a few things I think we might do but I don't claim to hold all the answers about what we should do so after reading this you need to go out and take action yourself." I like that he didn't claim to have all the answers. I really like how clear and honest he is. He is a reasonable, intelligent author and I really liked what he had to say.

I especially liked his definition of masculinity: "using strength in the service of others." What a powerful, strong, uplifting message. I also agree with him that in order for boys to become men, they need to be around men, because this shift is all about imitation. It is the same for girls, but the fact is that in our society boys have far fewer opportunities to be surrounded by good male role-models.

As I finished the book, I had a strong, clear impression that one reason scouting is so important in my church is to provide the boys with good male role-models. It's so important that boys get this. I am really glad that this program is emphasized and promoted in the church. Growing up, I was always jealous that they got to go camping and shoot guns and tie knots and stuff. Danny thinks a similar organization does not really exist for girls in the church because those are not things that adult women are really interested in doing (which is true; I'd way, WAY rather spend my weekend reading or swimming or sewing or cooking or basically doing anything else besides sleeping on the hard ground in a tent without air conditioning, running water, or sewers). I'm not making a statement on girls' needs here when I say that I think it's critically important for guys to be involved with an organization like scouts where they can be around middle-aged men. Boys need this, and it's great that my church has this, and emphasizes it so much (especially here in Texas, holy shmoly).

I would recommend this book. It's interesting. Don't get bogged down by the depressing middle. The end is good, but don't expect him to have all the answers. I'm really glad he doesn't; he allows you to devise your own, with the new knowledge you have. Dr. Sax is a great writer because he uses tons of examples and his own voice. He speaks for himself, not all M.D.s and Ph.Ds. I think my parents would really enjoy reading this book together.

2 comments:

  1. This sounds like an interesting book. The he may be correct about the importance of environment. Right now that isn't big on the popularity list of things that form personality, but it is good not to discount it. However, while a lot of people would like to be able to change schools for most people private schools are not an option because of money issues. Public schools are organized in such a way as to discourage changing schools unless there is a serious problem. The only other option is to move to another school district. This may not be a good choice although it could be.

    The strong male role models boys need is their fathers. If they don't have a father available then they need uncles and grandfathers. If they don't have a close relationship with a related male by high school they will find role models in school teachers, gangs and other places. It is a fallacy to assume that the home is unable to provide what boys need. I realize the book isn't about the home it is about the schools, but the remedy is still the home.

    Both your parents provided you with the role models that make you and your were blessed with. They provided you with opportunities few other people in our society have. How wonderful for you!

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  2. Great review. This book looks really interesting. I agree about schools expecting boys to sit still too long. I have a boy going into third grade who loves learning and is totally into anything mechanical, but he hates school, hates homework, and especially hates having to spend so much time sitting in a chair. He's biggest complaint when school is in session: "I don't have enough time to play."

    I feel for him. It does seem a tad intense for a kid to sit in school for seven hours, then come home and slave over homework for at least another hour or two. I agree that the sitting thing tends to come easier for most girls. Home schooling is turning into a popular trend and it wouldn't surprise me if this was one reason for that. And I love how Joe has tremendous creativity and drive. I'm glad he's off any drugs that would dampen that.

    As for scouts. I love scouts! Soccer was too competitive for my son, but scouts has really helped him make friends and given him more male role models. He's all into fishing and camping now, he likes ice skating, and building pine wood derby cars with his dad. We don't do scouts through church, though. We do it through our community because there aren't any other boys my son's age in his primary class.

    It is probably one of the best choices we've made for him yet. Because most of the boys he sees at scouts are in his class at school, and we really feel like we're more integrated into the local community than if we'd simply done scouting through the church.

    My daughter is crazy jealous of scouting and I know what that feels like. So we'll probably enroll her in girl scouts in a year or so. Also, I descovered the best thing ever! A tailor just up the street who sews on patches, it's great.

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