Tough times for boys

August 25, 1999|By Kathleen Parker

IT'S always nice when experts confirm what we mortals have known empirically.

Parents of boys, for instance, have known that the cards have been stacked against their sons for a generation. Even semiconscious bystanders may have noticed that boys are in trouble -- socially, emotionally, academically and -- given the high rate of medicinal dosing -- physically.

Across the board, they're failing and faltering at higher rates than girls. Lower grades, higher drop-out rates, reduced enrollments in colleges and graduate schools, higher suicide rates.

And, of course, the growing number of tragically infamous gun-toters are boys, not girls. Only now that boys have started "crying bullets," as one psychologist put it, have we bothered to wonder, what's wrong?

Last week, experts in child behavior met to pool their research, looking for clues to the puzzle of lost boys.

They concluded that boys have fallen victim to "emotional miseducation," which is a nice way of saying we've abandoned boys, leaving them without affectionate parental guidance or societal support.

If girls once were considered second-class citizens, boys today are Third World street urchins. Mostly absent parents still enforce the "boys are tough" message. Schools continue to insist that boys conform to girl-behavior (sit still and be quiet), despite overwhelming research predicting failure.

Most young boys are incapable of sitting still for long periods, yet they're expected to and punished (or drugged) when they can't. Most boys lag behind girls in reading and writing, yet these are the first skills students are expected to master.

Meanwhile, the hyper-masculine media message to boys is: Terminate, Die Hard, Payback.

I recently watched a televised prison interview with one of the young boys who last year opened fire on his Arkansas classmates, killing four students and a teacher. Now 12, the boy said he was sad because he lost his friends -- the ones he killed. At the end of the bloody day, he was still a child.

His mother also was mystified. Her son was normal in every way, she said. I don't doubt her words or the heartfelt sentiment that shone through her pained eyes. But normalcy must be redefined if we're to raise better boys and stop the insanity of male violence.

Left to the constant input of violent imagery -- and absent the counterbalancing of physical and emotional affection from attentive parents -- boys aren't likely to develop into the sympathetic, empathetic creatures we wish our daughters to wed someday. Top that with a daily dose of social and academic failure, and a monster is in the making.

Bad boys aren't born. Meanness isn't a male trait. Emotional detachment isn't genetic. As the mother of a son, I know this about boys: They're sensitive, fragile, kind, caring, loving, affectionate, loyal, cooperative and dependable. They also cry, hurt, long and endure, often in silence, fearful of being considered weak. Who gave them that idea?

The psychologists made specific recommendations for raising better boys: Encourage schools to be boy-friendly by accommodating their demanding needs for physical expression; encourage parents and teachers to drop the boys-are-tough ruse and be physically comforting; treat them as the sensitive, fragile, affectionate people they really are.

To their list, I'd like to add a thought: Treat them the way we treat girls.

Kathleen Parker is an Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel columnist.

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