September 13, 2007


Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. By Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. Basic Books. $25.

      The societal pendulum is starting to swing from concerns about improving opportunities for girls to improving them for boys. The many recent advances in women’s lives, and the lives of their daughters, have occurred at the same time as the development of significant problems involving boys and young men. There seem to be no barriers to what girls can do and are doing these days: outnumbering boys at college, going to any graduate schools they wish, moving into the highest echelons of corporate management, becoming engineers and astronauts and flight commanders, and generally working hard and getting ahead. Many boys, on the other hand, seem to be drifting, lacking in motivation and a work ethic, preferring video games to intellectual pursuits, ceding higher grade-point averages to girls, and becoming less committed to everything from work to family life.

      The ways in which the boy-and-girl trends are related are complex, but the fact that they are related is in little doubt, and more and more educators and doctors are speaking out to express concern about what is happening with (or to) boys, and to suggest what can be done. Leonard Sax, a family physician and psychologist who founded and runs the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, thinks he has found five factors responsible for boys’ comparative lack of motivation: 1) Children are now taught reading and math very early, even in kindergarten – putting boys, who tend to mature more slowly, at a disadvantage, since young boys need a multisensory, hands-on form of learning and are not getting it. 2) Male-oriented video games are causing loss of drive, disengagement from the real world and reduced interest in the opposite sex. 3) Prescription drugs for attention deficit disorder are four times as likely to be prescribed for boys as for girls – and may be damaging the part of the brain responsible for helping turn motivation into action. 4) Environmental estrogens, from plastic bottles and food sources, may be lowering boys’ testosterone levels and slowing their biological and psychological development. 5) Our cultural shift toward equalizing opportunities for women has resulted in a devaluation of such traditional male values as motivation and responsibility – leaving young men without positive role models.

      Sax offers a provocative set of arguments, not all of which are easy to accept. Does microwaving food in plastic rather than glass containers really put a boy’s endocrine system at risk? Are tooth sealants, now applied routinely to children’s teeth to prevent decay, a possible systemic problem for boys, since they may contain phthlates – whose supposed dangers are by no means proven? Just how cautious must parents be in raising their sons?

      Some of Sax’s recommendations for remedying the problems he identifies are broad and entirely ordinary: know what is going on in your child’s school; band together with other parents to attempt to have changes made if the educational experience is unsatisfactory. Other ideas will strike parents as weird and, depending on where they live, impractical: get rid of video games, then take your boy to a motocross track, rent him a motorbike, and let him race in the real world. Still others, however well-intentioned, are simply impossible for many families: strengthen the bond between generations, in part by arranging all-male retreats through a place of worship, the Boy Scouts or year-round competitive sports.

Parents concerned about their sons will find food for thought – not all of it, admittedly, palatable – in Sax’s analysis of the demotivation of boys. But they will not find a cure for the problem here, unless they accept all of Sax’s analyses unquestioningly and are willing and able to devote huge amounts of time and energy to implementing ideas that are stated with certainty and a sense of general applicability – even though the source and extent of the motivation problem are not really certain, and Sax’s proposed solutions may be helpful in some cases but surely not in all.

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