The Thinking 

Boys and School

February 1, 2010


Karen I. writes:

I have two school age children, a boy and a girl. My girl, who is under age 10 (I don’t want to be too specific), does amazingly well in our public school system. The teachers can’t say enough good about her. They don’t find a single fault with her, ever. She is considered a role model by her teachers, and she knows she is very smart because she hears it constantly. We have heard from multiple professionals she may be “gifted” and may need to be pushed to another grade level in some subjects eventually. 

My son is another story. A gifted artist, he has struggled from day one with language arts in particular as he was identified early on with speech and language difficulties, some of which now seem to me to be pretty typical for boys. He is now a regular education student. He is older than my daughter by several years and I can see he is getting discouraged because no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t seem to meet the benchmarks set by the school, which “teaches to the test”, as most do these days. The same teachers who tell him he has a great attitude (he really does) seem to never miss a chance to find a fault with his work. Today, he brought home two progress reports which said the same things as usual, nothing major, but reminders he is not perfect and likely never will be in the eyes of his (female) teachers. He cried, big fat tears of despair, and it broke my heart. I have tears in my own eyes recalling it. My daughter brought home a perfect report, as usual. I was torn between comforting my son and trying to still let my daughter know she is doing well. I feel we are losing him and it is only a matter of time before he gives up on himself. 

My question to you is how to approach this situation with my son. I don’t feel qualified to homeschool, and we really can’t afford the parochial school without a huge sacrifice, maybe not even then. That would only take him through a couple more years anyway and there is no parochial high school within 40 miles. I know of several other families where the girls are doing incredibly well while the boys are faltering and have been labeled the problem child of the family. I don’t think that of my son, but I don’t know how we can preserve what is left of his self-esteem while keeping him in the public school system. He is a very handsome boy and I kind of feel he is being labeled a good-hearted, good-looking dimwit by the teachers, some of whom have even commented on how handsome he is in the past. I don’t know what to do. Any suggestions? I value your opinion and your take on the way men and boys are treated. I am hoping you can provide some suggestions on what parents should do when their girl is thriving in public school and their boy is not. I know I’m not the only one in this situation.

 Thank you.

Laura writes:

There’s been well-publicized alarm in the last few years about the crisis in schooling for boys. Girls are dramatically out-performing boys in elementary and secondary school and, if judged purely by the number of degrees awarded, in college as well. Legions of boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and many thousands are on medication for behavior modification. Parents are worried to death. Will their sons ever succeed in life or are they total losers? Most noticeable of all, girls are happier in school than boys. Anyone who has had even casual interaction with school children can see this phenomenon. There were always Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns who hated school. It’s partly in the nature of a boy to hate the whole thing, but this contempt appears to be on a whole new level, with boys in significant numbers becoming disengaged, discouraged, discontented and so depressed they require medication to function.

It is sad and disturbing. I do not agree, however, with the rosy picture presented for girls. Yes, many girls are performing well by school standards, but they are disastrously “miseducated,” as the writer James Tooley put it, as well. They are taught to be overly sentimental and, at the same time, as aggressive as men.

There’s a very good case to be made that all schools should be single sex, so profound are the differences in the minds and development of boys and girls. At any rate, only schools imbued with a deep awareness of sex differences and a respect for masculine and feminine ideals can successfully manage coeducation. The American public education system is founded through and through on egalitarianism. I do not see any hope of substantial reform short of the privatization of education. By privatization, I do not mean the government granting of charters to private schools, but an end to government-controlled schooling altogether.

In the meantime, let’s look at some of the reasons schooling for boys has gotten worse. The early grades have changed dramatically in recent years, with even kindergarten transformed into a little factory for teaching reading and writing. Recess has been abolished in many cases and even five-year-olds spend as many as seven or eight hours in rooms with few breaks for physical activity. In some schools, boys are prohibited from engaging in any form of physical contact during outdoor play, which is like telling bees not to fly.

The early years are very different for boys and girls as anyone who has an ounce of awareness or has ever been a little boy or a little girl knows. Girls mature much more rapidly in language skills. They possess greater fine motor coordination which helps with handwriting and they thrive more on pleasing others. Boys need more physical activity; are much less focused on reading and writing; have stronger spatial and math skills and are generally more distracted. Boys appear to be more sensitive to a disruptive home environment too.

The demands for earlier and earlier proof of reading and writing ability, only natural in an education system that values individual achievement and nothing else, places especial stress on boys. Many are diagnosed with learning or attention deficit disorders when they are in fact perfectly normal boys. More boys also have genuine learning disorders than girls, as males are overrepresented at both extremes of the intelligence spectrum. But there is no question over-diagnosis of disorder is common. The little boy has been medicalized and people are profiting off risky cures.

Once the early years are over, there are still very substantial differences in boys and girls, with boys preferring a more impersonal approach to subject matter and girls always benefiting from learning that prizes the interpersonal. Boys enjoy competition and risk. They like entirely different kinds of books, history and heroes especially. They also love trivia and lists, impersonal data and abstract comparisons.

Girls like group learning, which has become a significant part of the school day, while boys prefer big teams or solitary work. Once girls are given a constant diet of social approval for high grades, and the message that these grades will win them even more approval later in life, they can become almost intoxicated by the pursuit of approval. Girls also genuinely enjoy accomplishment. I don’t mean to discount that, but there is a common phenomenon today of the overworked girl, running extra-curricular activities and acing AP courses. She is ready for a meltdown in her future and it may be to the grave disadvantage of her husband. Also, with these high achieving girls we encounter another facet of male and female psychology. In general, men will cede the field when it is taken over by women.

All education should instill three things in students, no matter what their intellectual ability: virtue, a sense of higher purpose, and the basic skills for learning. The public school offers only the last. 

I gather your son’s report card includes no grades for character. When my husband was in parochial school, he was graded on obedience, self-control, neatness, health habits and cooperation. It sounds as if your son has worked hard and there should be no need for him to feel so discouraged. If he were graded in these other important areas, he could come home with some high marks. (Boys could also be graded on things they too enjoy, such as competitive physical activity, and on displays of valor and courage. But of course they are not. It is not in the interest of teachers with many students to encourage or supervise these dynamic pursuits. Better to encourage docility.) 

Why isn’t a child graded on character today?

Well, because character is considered something that just happens, not the result of conscious effort or cultivation. Furthermore, character is something subjective. It cannot be established by a test. The school has absolutely no authority to make subjective judgments like this. The public school is not founded on shared ideals of what character is or for that matter what human destiny or meaning is. The solution is to deny all ideals, other than that of skill and the learning of facts that do not arouse any suspicions of higher ideals other than individual achievement.

Let’s acknowledge two very good things about the public education system in America. One, there are many decent adults who work in this system and who take a genuine interest in children and teenagers. Two, wherever children are there is goodness and hope and light. These two positive aspects of school are very confusing for people. They see this human element and lose sight of the fact that this is a vast monopolistic bureaucracy, its primary purpose being the perpetuation and expansion of its own existence.But it is more than a bureaucracy. It is, in the words of R.J. Rushdoony, “a messianic project” that seeks to mold human nature according to its own conceptions of good and meaning.

School necessarily works its way into every dimension of life, fully penetrating the thoughts of students and parents. It fills the entire day. Its greatest success is reducing both students and parents to a state of submission and sometimes fear. Many people are so convinced the grades their children receive in school are the determining factors in life, they would not dare rebel against the entire project. They are too afraid.

They are also afraid that if school did not raise their children, they themselves would be overwhelmed by the task.

 Now here we are. What can you do? You are qualified to homeschool. Anyone who possesses a library card can do it. But, I understand it is difficult and daunting for some. Let’s lay that issue aside and look at what you can do with your children while they are under the almost overwhelming control of this institution.

Here’s the important thing. You must detach yourself and your children from it – spiritually, morally and physically – as much as possible. Do not let it run your life. Encourage them to work reasonably hard and let the chips fall where they may.

Teach your daughter that grades will not be the most important factor in her future. It is important for her to learn for the sheer pleasure of knowing too, not just to win approval. Someday she will be a woman and engaged in the project of loving a man and starting a small society together. This is primary. All she learns can be put to use in this task. Every interest she has and every scrap of knowledge will be of value. Let her know how exciting it will be for her. 

Spend time with your son reading books about conquering heroes and finding other boy activities that he enjoys. Let him know he is distinct from his sister. I know it sounds corny, but he will be a warrior. He is made for courage and danger; it is all there inside him. Give him a sense that no matter what he does in school, this project is an adventure that will not occur in any classroom and does not require good grades.

Be hopeful and excited. Teach them piety and reverence. Point to the mystery and beauty before them. Let them know that virtue and love of God come first. The world truly is at their feet. Don’t let school destroy either your enthusiasm or theirs for the bright future ahead.

                                                  — End of Entry —-


Karen I. writes in response:

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. You are right about all of it, including what happens to girls. My daughter, as I said above, does great in school. However, she often comes home and has horrible temper tantrums because she is overwhelmed with keeping up the perfect act. You are even right about the school not being able to grade character and what would happen if they could. The teacher told us at conference if she could have done that, my son would have received the highest marks possible. I need to keep this in mind. 

Based on my experiences, I would strongly advise parents of late-talking boys to read Thomas Sowell’s writings on the subject. He had a late-talking boy and his unconventional take on the subject is very helpful. I would also suggest that parents who hear from any occupational therapist that their son has “sensory integration disorder” take it with a grain of salt, and to read about the origins of that theory. Furthermore, parents should not accept any “diagnosis” of their son being anywhere on the “autism spectrum” unless they hear it from a qualified autism doctor, preferably at a Children’s Hospital after thorough evaluation. That word is thrown around any time a boy is late talking these days by everyone from speech therapists to occupational therapists. Occupational therapists work with late talking children because speech is a fine motor skill. They are not qualified to make the diagnosis but they scare parents with it all the time. I was amazed to find out there are only three doctors in my entire state qualified to make that diagnosis and they all had waiting lists at least nine months long. They also charge up to $1,000 an hour, not always covered by insurance. Fortunately, by the time our turn finally came to visit one of them, my son was talking and deemed far “too social” to be autistic. 

My final suggestion for parents who are being told to medicate a child would be to watch the movie The Drugging of Our Children. It shows in chilling detail how many children start out on one medication and slowly wind up on several, with devastating side effects. It also shows how parents can start with mentioning a minor concern about behavior to a professional and eventually wind up with a psychiatric diagnosis for their child, along with a treatment plan that includes unproven drugs originally meant to treat psychotic adults. I can’t recommend it enough. It can be downloaded for instant viewing on Netflix for those that have it.

Laura writes:

You are welcome. Thank you for these additional insights.

With my own two sons, I came to be very disillusioned with school even though they are excellent students. I used to be a true believer. You know  the whole schtick. I thought school was the only functioning form of  community left in America and that it was important to support it.

My older son was ill on and off for a few years. I had volunteered in the schools many hours before that. Once he had a bad case of pneumonia and was out of school for three weeks. I called the school every day and explained what was happening and that I had doctors’ notes for his absence. I was worried sick about him. The day he went back to school, I went to the mailbox and there I found a certified letter from the school district. The letter said that if our son was absent for one more day, my husband and I must appear before a judge and respond to charges of parental neglect. I have since talked to a woman who was fined for parental neglect for keeping her son, who had a brain tumor, home from school.

School is not a community organization at all. It is not democratic. It is a tyranny, a soft and beguiling one.

Anonymous writes:

Karen says: “… and we really can’t afford the parochial school without a huge sacrifice, maybe not even then. That would only take him through a couple more years anyway and there is no parochial high school within 40 miles.”

 Now, admittedly, the distance could be a problem. As for affording it … this is your son! Is he not worth a sscrifice, even a “huge” one? Maybe the family can’t afford it, even with a huge sacrifice. But, how will you know unless you seriously look at the costs and at what and how you can trim your budget? And, perhaps there is a boarding school (that would solve the distance issue) at which the students can also be employed (depending on age), which ought to help with the finances. Though, it sounds as though he’s not yet in high-school, so he probably can’t be employed. Sure, sending your son to a boarding school would be difficult … but you’ve already expressed the fear that you’re losing him. 

As for only a couple of years left before high school at the 40-mile-away school … that time might do the trick. My parents were able (just able) to send the four of us to a parochial school during my 8th through 10th grade years. I know that I’d never have finished high school, much less have gone on to college without that respite from the public schools.Lastly, even if you don’t believe yourself up to full home schooling, you and your husband could do some teaching/tutoring in the home. Just getting actively involved in helping your son could give him enough strength to do the rest on his own. 

God bless.

Laura writes:

My impression was that Karen couldn’t afford private school and that she and her husband have already made considerable sacrifices for her to stay home with her children. Parochial schools vary. Although they tend to offer more discipline, which some boys need, they are affected by some of the same pedagogical fads as public schools. Some do a good job of teaching the faith; others do not.

Here is a new website, The Homeschool Toolbar, which brings together Internet resources for homeschoolers. I also recommend The Well-Trained Mind; the Rainbow Resource Center;  and Alexandria Tutorials.

Lydia McGrew writes:

Here are two suggestions regarding home schooling. 1) You could go with a virtual charter school, if your local public school offers this option. Your son would still be a public school student, officially, but he would be working from home. You can see that this has a lot of advantages, and since you are hesitant about home schooling, it would give you all the curriculum, etc., which might increase your own confidence. One drawback is that you could not join the Home School Legal Defense Association and have their legal help, as they do not count public schooled children in virtual charter schools as home schooled for purposes of their organization. 2) You could find an “umbrella school” offering either video schooling or correspondence course schooling. If you are a Christian, and especially if you are a Protestant, you might consider either A Beka or Bob Jones, as both offer this sort of service. One uses DVD’s, and the other uses satellite. It’s more expensive than do-it-yourself home schooling, but it would take pressure off of you. The child would then be home schooled in every sense, and you could join the Home School Legal Defence Association (HSLDA) in case you should need legal help. I would expect that there are other options for full-service help for home schooling if you are Catholic or non-Christian. I just don’t happen to have the names immediately available.

If for whatever reason you don’t like either of these options, I urge you nonetheless to consider home schooling. There is a wealth of curriculum and material out there that you can purchase and teach yourself. Sure, you aren’t always going to agree with the curriculum or like everything about it, but the nice thing is that you can modify it or tell your child what you disagree with. In any event, you don’t have to do everything all by yourself. There is now an embarrassment of riches for home schoolers, and beginners probably should use some pre-set curriculum to help themselves feel more confident.

Lydia adds:

If she is Catholic, I just googled up a Catholic home school curriculum, the web page of which comes with suggestions for getting your child a high school diploma from another “umbrella” organization. Mind you, this was the result of five minutes’ googling. I’m not familiar with the Catholic home school “scene,” but I know there is such a scene, and a well-developed one, too. There are regional possibilities as well, depending on where one lives. For example, in California I believe there are California-specific Catholic umbrella schools.

Laura writes:

TORCH (Traditions of Roman Catholic Homes) is a national homeschooling organization with chapters around the country and a website with curriculum advice and support. Here is another national organization for Catholic homeschoolers.


[See further comments on this post in the entry The Boy Revolution.]

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