Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Boys Need Help on their Spelling

It's no secret anymore that boys typically mature slower than girls, so they are more likely to struggle when it comes to reading. What is often elusive is what can be done about it when it seems nothing has been shown to eliminate the gap. It shows up among boys of every demographic and to some extent may even be baked in. On the flip side, research has found young girls to be just as good at maths as boys until certain school biases throw them roadblocks, and that girls have been shown capable of closing their gaps. The trouble with boys and reading is that they... don't, and for reasons that may actually be more genetically defined than we'd like in this age of sexual equality. In fact, some studies have found that girls' reading superiority may even make them actually the ones better at math too. So is there any hope for boys? That's what researchers have been scrambling to find out, and now they're saying it all may come down to letters, numbers, and how well a child can sort them in their heads, verbally. 

One of the ways having superior language skills may help girls also be better at maths, according to researchers in China, is that arithmetic and counting requires a great deal of verbal processing, a skill boys are on the whole genetically slower to develop fully into. For example, counting is verbal, times tables are memorized verbally, and calculation makes use of verbal memory, essentially talking through the problem linguistically, because math has its own linguistic framing. Is it no wonder then that when testing primary students aged 8-11 at 12 different schools around Beijing, it was actually the girls who showed to have the better math skills: 
Indeed, girls outperformed boys in many math skills. They were better at arithmetic, including tasks like simple subtraction and complex multiplication. Girls were also better at numerosity comparison -- making a quick estimate of which of two arrays had more dots in it. Girls outperformed boys at quickly recognizing the larger of two numbers and at completing a series of numbers (like "2 4 6 8"). Boys performed better at mentally rotating three-dimensional images. 
Girls were also better at judging whether two words rhymed, and Zhou and his colleagues think this is the key to their better math performance.
Of course we're not talking about every boy. As the youngest contestant of the 2016 National Spelling Bee showed us, you don't have to be a girl to be a great speller. But why must it seem that on average, girls are smarter with both math and language by design? Well, first of all, no one should disagree that girls are smart, but the fact that these two studies are separated by many thousands of miles, between two different cultures, may just clue us into how pervasive it is for "boys to be boys" when it comes to all-important language skills, and why it's so important that they be exposed to letters, words, and communication early and often. It can be helped. We may just need to convince more parents that their sons need at least as much of their valuable teaching time as their daughters do.

In a recent study, Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson of NTNU in Norway, performed a letter recognition test on 224 girls and 261 boys at the age of six, looking to see what their knowledge was at identifying upper and lower case letters, and how well they could pair letter sounds with their shapes. The results showed that already by the age of six, girls were better at identifying letters and pairing them with their sounds. 

If we can think of numbers as analogous to letters, it might explain both why the girls did as well as they did with numbers, and why the boys in this study from Norway lagged as much as they did when it came to naming letters. If we can know why that is, better interventions can be set aside to help boys gain this very essential skill. After all, naming and pairing letters and naming and pairing numbers relies on the same linguistic skills, and those with better letter naming skills (more likely to be girls) tend to go on to become better readers.
"We found a significant difference between girls and boys in all four variables, in favor of the girls," said Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson.
Two explanations were given by the researchers, one being male genetics like we've already discussed, and the other being the fact that parents do tend to talk more to girls from birth, giving them more practice with letters and their sounds before school than girls. This is done because parents have a tendency to over-estimate their sons' abilities while under-estimating their daughters'. We may not be able to do much about genetics, but we can minimize the difficulties they could be having by spending more teaching time with them as parents, or at least as much as we give our daughters.

And here's why. This reading gap is not one that goes away over time, as the researcher notes: 
"Twenty-one per cent of 15-year-old boys in Norway have trouble understanding a text that is given to them, according to the PISA survey from 2015," says Sigmundsson. These are among the lowest results in the world.
Ignoring the issue with boys will not make it go away. To curb this, he recommends all children should be assessed upon entering school on their knowledge of letters and their related sounds. He suggests that mastery over letters and their individual sounds is important before a child should move on to reading full words. Activities like flash cards, fridge magnets, blocks, or spelling apps can go a long way toward help children become adept with letters from an early age. And also, for parents of boys, talking to them a little bit more in these formative years can't hurt. Contrary to traditional belief, boys are not born more adept at the world than their sisters, and it's all the more reason to coddle boys' young minds as much as we do for girls, and particularly when it comes to playing alphabet soup. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Boy Scouts Going for More Girl Power?

Girls can do anything, even join the Boy Scouts now. You didn't hear it from us, but the century-old institution recently decided to end its "boys only" policy, welcoming girls in its regular programs for the first time, albeit still separated by gender. Some are praising the organization for doubling down after its last major bid for a more inclusive membership. Others don't think "girl power" can or should be used to save the Boy Scouts from its falling numbers. And what about the Girl Scouts? Well you can bet this first shot over the wall was heard loud and clear, and the Girl Scouts are really, really ticked off about it. And that's not good because as everybody knows, you don't mess with girl scouts

Nevertheless, the BSA says they made this decision after years of hearing from families that they should offer more programs that can include the whole family, not just those surging on testosterone. So, next year they will create separate Cub Scout dens for boys and girls, which have the option of combining into co-ed packs. In 2019, girls who graduate from these Cub Scout dens will be able to go on in the program all the way up to the highly-coveted and socially significant rank of Eagle Scout, just like the boys get to. 

Despite fathoming why it should continue to be called "Boy Scouts" going forward, this change on the surface would sound all well and good. After all, many girls who have participated in the Boy Scouts to the limited degree they could, have wanted to join the Boy Scouts officially and be able to receive the Eagle rank, and it's refreshing to think that the BSA now at least officially considers them as capable as boys at doing so. One girl even made a Change.org petition asking the Boy Scouts to let girls join for that very reason. In it she wrote: 
“I cannot change my gender to fit the Boy Scouts’ standards, but the Boy Scouts can change their standards to include me. I am determined to be an Eagle Scout. It isn’t just a hobby, it’s access to some of the best leadership training there is."
It's important to emphasize that boys and girls will continue mostly in separate dens and packs, so nothing about the sacred male-bonding experience for boys is bound to change (yes, the "public farting" and "number 1 distance contest" joke merit badges are there to stay). But as Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh explains:
“The values of Scouting – trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, brave and reverent, for example – are important for both young men and women. We strive to bring what our organization does best – developing character and leadership for young people – to as many families and youth as possible as we help shape the next generation of leaders.”
But aside from detractors who want to keep it a boys-only club, the sharpest criticism of the change has come from none other than the Girl Scouts, who don't think "girl power" can save the Boy Scouts from itself. In August, the president of the Girl Scouts released a letter warning of a "covert campaign to recruit girls" into the Boy Scouts in an attempt to steal potential female recruits away. In the letter she claims that this is nothing but a bid to bolster lower recruitment numbers by inviting girls, and suggests that the BSA should've focused more on getting boys to join:
“I formally request that your organization stay focused on serving the 90 percent of American boys not currently participating in Boy Scouts." 
Many agree. Many also say that girls who join this smaller counterfeit outfit hosted by the BSA will be getting robbed of whole package that the Girl Scouts is actually designed to offer them. But are these clubs really so different? In a head-to-head match up of the BSA and GSUSA in 2011, it was found that boy scouts are lead away from artistic interests while girl scouts are lead away from scientific fields, although the Girl Scouts have made strides by introducing 23 new STEM and outdoor badges. Girl Scouting also tended to be more group based while Boy Scouting tended to be more individual. Both organizations have image problems they've yet to overcome, with the Girl Scouts often being seen as half-baked as their cookies, and the Boy Scouts obviously struggling with misconduct allegations and lawsuits. Both organizations are in decline, with the BSA having gone from 2.8 to 2.3 million members since 2012. Statistics like that make critics skeptical as to whether this move is about inclusiveness or about using girl enrollments to do what boys alone haven't been able to do for the BSA. 

Motives aside, in theory the Boy Scouts seem to be on the right side of history, suggesting that the skills they teach boys can also apply to girls. On the other side, the Girl Scouts reply: 
“the need for female leadership has never been clearer or more urgent than it is today—and only Girl Scouts has the expertise to give girls and young women the tools they need for success. We’re committed to preparing the next generation of women leaders, and we’re here to stay."
So the battle lines have been drawn, but let's hope peace can be achieved. Boy and girl scouts are better working together than they are by themselves. As the parable goes, when a group of girl scouts set up table to sell their confections, it took a group of boy scouts to discover the truth that you can't have cookies without milk.

Let that be a lesson to anyone losing sleep over this. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Why These Are the Best Times to Be a Boy

Forget what the haters say. Boyhood has never had it so good. In fact, the only troubles the "concept of boyhood" faces are started by people who don't want to see it be the expansive and integrated individual identity that it really is. These days, every boy adds a little bit more to the patchwork that is "boyhood." Its better past tropes are not lost, and a better and freer future is gained. What's not to love? 

The arrival of sexual equality may have brought with it some growing pains for all involved, but aside from some confused old fuddy-duddies and bullies on the internet and in the schoolyards, the age of equality has been as big a cultural boon for boys as it has been for girls. It's a win-win. Gone are old notions of what girls and boys "should" or "can" do, and that message, when handled right, is very empowering for both. In this age of "girl power," we've seen the rise of boys redefining what it means to be what they are too, in what could best be described by a clever acronym: 

B.O.Y. = Be Only Yourself!   

...because it's better than always trying to be someone or something else, something other than you. Going by that mantra, here are eight ways boys these days have it better than boys did decades ago:

1. Century 21 boys can be sensitive, and even cry, and still be all-boy: Boys can be tough, strong, and traditionally macho all they want (within reason), or, they can be sensitive, darling, nurturing, and emotive, and preferably, they can be both! Whatcha gonna do about it? Maybe a boy can be a tough kickboxer, but also be the proud owner of a pet rabbit or chinchilla as well. He can enjoy a Transformers movie right along side My Little Pony, and anyone who would tell him he can't is just an old fuddy-duddy or a bully. It's also no mystery that boys have feelings too and that they need to vent them. Crying is something humans do when they're in need, and there's no shame in it anymore for boys, because boys are fundamentally human. It's not a sign of weakness to be human if human is what you are. It's called reality. And anyone too afraid of facing the reality of their own emotions can't be said be "strong" or "brave."  

2. Century 21 boys can wear pink, and still be all-boy: This is a clear "oh get over it" one. Girls do not own the color pink, or any soft color, any longer. Gendered toy aisles have gone down with the dinosaurs. If girls can go for everything from balls to Barbies, boys can go for the construction kits and goop, or the dolls and the tiaras, and anything in between. Anyone who would make fun of a boy for getting the rad pink bike he wants needs to get their heads out of the 1960s. Anyone, boy or girl alike, who would bully a boy for wearing pink at school, having pink school supplies, or indeed, even schools themselves who might try to stop a boy from doing this, really need to get with the times, set a good example, and stop limiting his freedom of reasonable self-expression to such arbitrary and outdated standards. It's just a color. Get over it. 

3. Century 21 boys can have style, and still be all-boy: Boys don't need to be confined to the "snips and snails and puppy dog's tails" any longer, not unless we think girls should be confined to the "everything nice" realm. If boys don't want to wear feminine-styled fashions, all the power to them, but if they do, then... all the power to them! Boy power. That's how we roll in century 21, and anyone who would have a problem with boys wearing traditionally "girly" clothes really needs to go get their heads checked out. Last time we checked, there's nothing inherently "wrong" or "bad" with being "girly", whether you're a boy or a girl, and to continue to think so is just plain sexist. Why hate on the girls? Why limit the boys? Come on now. Boys can still get muddy and bruised all they like, or they can be clean and styled, and anything in between. The point is, when boys can be anything, only people who want them to be a certain way are the ones "robbing them of their boyhood." So cut it out. 

4. Century 21 boys can be into anything, and still be all-boy: Boys can be into everything from baseball to ballet, without giving up either their X or Y chromosome. They can be budding astronomers or authors of pretty poetry. They can be into rough-and-tumble wrestling, or they can be into precise and ornate origami. They can play colorful "girly" games, and still like action games. They can like gymnastics and still be into sports. They can go from football to violin practice without losing any part of their masculinity. They can have tea parties, and still burp with the best of them, if they want. Anyone who would bully a boy for going to dance lessons over hockey, like they used to do in the past, really just needs to start explaining why they're the ones who want to destroy and weaken the multifaceted humanity of a boy. The question shouldn't be about what progressives are seeking to add to the old boy repertoire, but what these old fuddy-duddies are still obsessed with taking away from the boys of the present. Fuddy-duddies, y u so mean?  

5. Century 21 boys can have long hair, and still be all-boy: Once again, this is another "oh just get over it" kind of issue. Seriously? The list of dudes who have rocked long hair over the past 40 years is extensive, from rock stars to actors to just about any cool dude. Heck, most of the male cast of the Lord of the Rings and the Avengers have long hair without taking anything away from the state of masculinity. Burly and masculine dudes have long hair, aka Thor. Thin and feminine dudes have long hair, aka Legolas. Tough boys can have long hair. Sensitive boys can have long hair. Can you believe that this is still an issue in 2017? After all, why can girls wear their hair however they want, and yet boys can't? Only bullies who would call a boy a "girl" for having long hair, or fuddy-duddies who would force them to cut it against their will, have any explaining to do. 

6. Century 21 boys can stand up against bullying of boys/girls: Boys don't have to "take it," nor do they have to dish it out, to prove their masculinity. That is just downright dumb, whether we're talking about 2017 or 1950. It was dumb back then and it's still dumb today. There is such a thing as "the power of virtue." These days, a boy has the option to prove his masculinity by speaking out against the violence, bullying, and harassment he sees or is the target of, and thereby put a stop to it. Boys are not "target practice." Their bodies no longer need to be violated by violence to prove some kind of point their aggressors are trying to make. Bullies can be boys or girls. Victims can be boys or girls. Bullying can be aggressive or it can be verbal/emotional, or both. It is not acceptable for a girl to hurt or cause pain to a boy, for any reason (other than self defense!), and the same goes for acts of violence between boys. There is a difference between horseplay and bullying, and now we know the difference. Anyone who would think otherwise needs to stop being a bully. 

7. Century 21 boys can be gay/straight/bisexual/+, and still be all-boy: Gone are the days of suffering in silence. Boys these days don't need to feel trapped like boys of old, forced to conceal part of themselves from others or forced to live double lives in shame. Feminine boys should no longer need to fear being called "gay" because now being gay should have nothing to do with how feminine a boy is. Very masculine boys can still be homosexually inclined too, or be bi. The point is, sexuality no longer defines you. It may be a part of what you are, but who you are is, and always will be, defined by you. You can be very close with your buddies and not necessarily be "gay," or you can be actually be gay, and still be friends with your buddies. The point is, being gay/straight/bisexual/+ is just a sexual preference, nothing more. The most important thing you can be is you, and as long as you feel comfortable in your own skin, love others and be loved by others, that's all that matters. Anyone who would disagree is closed minded. Case closed. 

8. Century 21 boys can have it all: By now it should be clear all the ways boys can truly have it all these days, and unlike at any time in history. It should be noted in all this celebration that there are still places in the world where boys can't be all these things, and sometimes that place is not as far away as we might think. Sometimes it's right down the street. Boys' rights to express themselves and be protected from those who seek to abuse, coerce, or belittle them to act a certain way, are human rights, and human rights are everybody's business.

Even if there are still some stragglers out there who still don't get it, boys benefit from progressivism to such an extent that it's going to start making the rigid traditionalist types jealous of everything they're choosing to miss out on. Sad for them! On the other hand, progressive ideas about what boys can do only add more diversity and richness to the "oldie but goody" aspects boyhood, and the best part is, don't take anything away from it. It is not about uprooting "slugs and snails" and slapping makeup on them against their will. That's ridiculous. It's about letting them be slugs if they want, letting them wear makeup if they want, or not if they don't, or both, or whatever. Preferably both. Okay? And anyone who disagrees with that needs to explain why they are the ones who want to take something away from what it means to be a boy. 


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Boys Get the Brunt of School Discipline

It's a story all too familiar to many. You arrive on your first day of school anxious. Where once you could've run free, you're now bound in a room, with all your natural kid energies flowing, but "structure" stops you at every turn. And when you do what comes natural, sometimes you're bound even more, inside even tinier rooms, making you frustrated. You lash out, and sometimes, the last room they're keeping you bound up in has bars. 

Little did you know that just being a boy meant you were more likely to be arriving at school developmentally behind half of your classmates whilst still being expected to match them behaviorally, despite being cognitively slower to mature. By the time you're seven, the pattern that began while you were forming in the womb making you male, making you more impulsive, and reducing your judgement abilities, is playing itself out academically now, with all the good natural energies, that should be there to help you learn, getting stifled only to be used for purposes that only separate you from your learning more and more by disciplinary policy. The ways schools react toward you are often unsympathetic, to say the least. Forget the dunce cap and writing on the chalkboard, because what you may find yourself facing for even the smallest shoving match could come with criminal consequences. As a result, you rule nothing at school except the detention, suspension, and expulsion lists as just another boy in a school culture subjecting you to more and more disciplinary actions, even compared to girls. And this feeling of mutual distrust you have while in school you end up carrying forward with you as you drop out in higher numbers, and go to jail in higher numbers. 

Yeah, it's hard out there for a boy. But it's hard out there for girls too, so who cares, right? After all, despite all that up there being disturbingly true (especially for Black and Latino boys), girls still somehow are more likely to sell themselves short when it comes to who has the smarts between boys and girls. So boys get the hammer down on them for being more physically aggressive? Some would say that's just the system working. Girls have to contend with not feeling as smart as they really are. By any estimation, that's a broken system, the irony of it being overwhelming considering how research tells us those very same 6-year-old girls may actually be "smarter than the average boy" regardless. Girls may come to that hasty conclusion simply by observing these slower maturing boys naturally ending up hogging most of their teachers' attention in the classroom with their increased behavioral issues, figuring their increased efforts are the result of boys actually being more worthy of consideration and therefore "smarter," when actually the opposite is closer to the truth. The fact that girls are actually more self-sufficient than boys, despite considering themselves less so, only fuels this irony. 

But not only do boys come to school with more behavioral problems than girls, they are also punished more for them than girls are, according to a new study from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and as a result, early behavioral problems cast a longer shadow for boys than girls when it later comes time to advance, graduate, go to college, and even complete a degree. Because boys are seen to be harder to manage, they end up baring a harsher burden of discipline than girls even for the same behaviors, the researchers found, a kind of stigma that even disfavors them academically compared to girls, regardless of ability. It was found that teachers essentially give better grades to students who behave better, regardless of performance, and since girls tend to behave better, boys are more likely to get the shaft academically and bare the brunt of discipline, compared to their sisters. Things like this may lead to the fact of boys' prevailing distrust of school and the belief among them that "school is for girls" and they just go to it.

The study in question (quoted below) compared 4-and-5-year-old boys and girls with the same behavioral upsets, including being able to sit still and not be distracted for a short time, figuring out what emotions help or hurt your cause and when to use them, being able to wait your turn, and being friendly and cooperative with teachers and peers enough to form positive bonds. This was a large, national sample of children born during the 1980s who were then followed up on into adulthood. As if any would be surprised, the girls proved themselves better at all these skills and naturally were better behaved as a result, while the boys' behaviors probably bore more resemblance to those of monkeys trapped in a cage, to which they were subject to more disciplinary interventions and harsher sentences. All of it provides a good explanation for why those "trapped monkeys" end up having such a persistent gender attendance and completion gap with the opposite sex by the time they have grown to be men of collegiate age.
“One of the big things that jumped out in the study was the fact that the same behavior problems in boys and girls were penalized a lot more in boys than girls,” Owens says. “So in addition to the fact that boys come to school on average having more problems, they also get penalized more for having these behaviors.”
Ay there's the rub. A very important finding of this study was that just as girls report lower confidence in themselves, boys report lower confidence in the school system. This is important, because despite being hailed as "the smart ones" by their female comrades, boys reported for themselves about feeling out of place in elementary school, feeling like "teachers don't like boys," and by high school, had lower expectations of their education than girls. They also reported being exposed to more negativity, more peer pressure, and more often had the experience of having a bad reputation, compared to what the girls self reported. Indeed, if girls think "boys rule" at being smart, the flip side for boys is that they think "girls rule" at doing this whole school thing. In a sense, boys may only display the attitude of charisma and intellectual prowess in school as a defense mechanism, a way of carving their own path away from a system they feel has long since abandoned them, and ironically, end up going on to a success they feel was at least self-made. Girls, on the other hand, tend to become better at holding out for hope that the school can still save their academic lives, despite feeling less empowered to carve their own path within it, more content to follow a path laid out for them. 

This problem only gets compounded among students of color, with Black and Latino boys getting hit with the double whammy of being both male and a minority, having even fewer expectations that "school" can be their saving grace than even Caucasian boys do. Studies have long noted that race dramatically impacts the punishment a student receives for the same offenses. With less trust in the school system among minority boys, they tend to trust in themselves more, accounting for this "going their own way" approach, which as we see from the statistics turns out a lot more prison inmates than Steve Jobs's. The lagging graduation rates, increased incarceration rates, and more women than men in the workforce these days (believe it or not) among these young men are so costly that President Obama initiated federal programs like My Brother's Keeper to combat the drop-out rates among male students of color, certainly a highlight of his presidency. 

But hold the phone, because some policy experts think boys are getting enough attention. After all, in case we forget, girls (and especially girls of color) face injustices as well, and because boys tend to be more obnoxious about their issues, the same kinds of problems that girls experience tend to be swept under the bad-boy-brigade steamroller:
“Too often we’re in a space where we as scholars and as the public compare the experience of boys to girls,” says Monique Morris, president and CEO of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” “Once we do that, because girls typically have contact with disciplinary authorities and get into trouble at rates that are lower than their male counterparts, we tend to think that girls are OK because their numbers look better than the boys,” she says. “That’s a big mistake.”
“That’s not to say that boys are not disproportionately impacted, particularly black boys and boys of color,” Morris says. “But we must also understand that when black girls represent 20 percent to of those enrolled in pre-K but 54 percent of girls receiving one or more out-of-school suspension, that that also impacts their ability to complete school.”
Even the researcher of the study agrees. Boys may be punished harder, but it can often spur them on to greater self-reliance later on, something girls particularly struggle with for no other reason than it simply still being considered un-girly for girls to be as self-reliant as boys are expected to be. Basically, boys may be punished harder for typically more severe behaviors everyone expects boys to come with, but girls may end up being punished at least as hard for less typically severe behaviors, or indeed, even behaviors that are just plain "un-girly." It's one thing for a boy to get punished severely for beating up another boy, but it's quite another thing for a girl to get punished severely for spreading a mean rumor. Plus, the lingering strains of the old "boys will be boys" culture can sometimes give boys a pass for typically brutish (or "boyish") behavior, as ordinary or par for the course when it comes to boys, but in girls only stands out as "unbecoming" and therefore more reprehensible. In which case, the best that can be said is that both boys and girls are negatively affected by the  double standards present in the discipline they receive, but each in their own ways, and both would benefit if these standards didn't exist. The trouble with boys though is still that, at a certain level, they are still more often getting punished at least for the right reasons (being violent), compared to girls, who are more often punished for not being boys. 
“Boys are cut a little bit of a break and girls get rated more negatively for behaviors that are objectively less severe,” Owens explains. “So what that may mean is that girls face this reality in which any amount of deviation from what is considered appropriate for girls may be perceived as a lot worse than it is.”
So what can be done to give boys some constructive things to plant their energies into at school so we don't have to deal with as many of their Testosterone-fueled behavioral misfires, and to give girls some reason to embrace being as smart as science proves they are? Owens suggests that schools can do better by incorporating more learning materials into the curriculum that tap into existing interests among boys and girls alike. Programs like NBA Math Hoops could benefit boys with its combination of physical activity and algebra (because boys learn better when they can be active while doing so), and could benefit girls by propelling their self-confidence with skill acquisition in sport while investing them in the all-important STEM fields so many girls pass up. Likewise, including programs like Rhymes with Reason also could be beneficial, drawing on popular songs to teach vocabulary, a subject boys tend to struggle with due to that all-important and less than fair biological skills deficit they have with girls when it comes to literacy. It certainly can't hurt. If "idle hands are the devil's tools," kids only stand to benefit from more physical application and positive energy expenditure, because the toll of forcing them to redirect those energies into other, less productive, pursuits is just too costly to society. 
“The idea out there that, ‘Oh, we just need to have more recess and that’s the best way to help boys who are overactive do well in schools,’ I think we can do more than that,” Owens says. “I think we can make the content of learning also more relevant and tap into things that boys, and especially boys of color, are already interested in.”
Some ideas involved recruiting more male teachers, and especially male teachers of color, and teachers whose life experiences more closely match those of the students in the room. While simply presenting boys with more relevant "boy curicula" may not do much to reach into the lives of those of color and those who are impoverished or come from difficult environments, getting them in touch with mentors who have been there, particularly those who share their life stories, can go a very long way. This is especially true for boys, who tend to be more used to going their own way anyway. Also, reconnecting with "boy interests" means no longer being so fearful of them when they surface, even if they're not traditionally appropriate. Seriously, how can we expect to make education more relevant to young boys' interests, keep them thinking that school values their contributions, when schools and teachers can't even stomach a fart joke in a writing assignment, let alone anything to do with blood, guts, or weapons? Let boys have their clean fun in the classroom so they don't have to turn to dirty fun after school. Give boys a chance to be good, so they don't see their only route is to go bad. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Boys And Porn, How to Handle It Like a Pro

Porn and the internet are a better love story than Twilight. They've been going steady and that isn't going to change any time soon. Gone are the days of nudie mags stuffed under mattresses and being passed around the play yard. These days if kids see porn, they got it in tidal waves every second of the day right there in their back pockets. And in the age of the smartphone, porn is more than a fact of life growing up, it's like the air. It just exists everywhere and gets into everything. On the other hand we have kids, curious and sexual from the womb, now breathing in porn like air, whether they want to or not. We have boys with their male visual-spatial adeptness and budding sexual development becoming particularly infused with it throughout their development, and we have parents, professionals, and everyone else trying to figure out the psychological, behavioral, and sociological consequences that all this porn viewing will have on kids. The fact of the matter is, it's not a question anymore of when or if a kid sees or watches porn these days, it's a question of what they thought or did about it when they saw it. 

A recent study from Australia found that 90% of the youth surveyed have viewed pornography (the rest of which were probably lying or blind), with boys in particular revealing themselves to be quite adept with it by the age of 13 on average. Those with psychological issues were also more likely to be viewers. Despite age limits and other legal penalties supposedly in place to "protect" kids from it, it's still getting viewed in droves, with or without protections, and whether parents know about it or not. Internet filters don't work to keep kids from finding it. So, you could say it's time to put away both the fear mongering and the ignorance and get real about it. 
“It is vital that pornography is addressed as part of high school sexuality education programs, if not sooner,” they wrote. ...“We give people access to the internet in their pockets and then we expect them not to be curious,” he said.
That curiosity factor about porn may not necessarily be harmful, the researchers said, but only if kids are given proper guidance. Porn, being ubiquitous and easily accessible to anyone with a media device these days, ought to be treated more like how children are taught about general hygiene and personal safety. That is, as a thing that's out there that they need to be aware of and know how to properly deal with. Kids need more than just a "if you see it, run!" message, but also one that warns about the dangers of addiction and possible legal trouble. The age of pretending it doesn't exist or that "kids aren't viewing it" is over. 
“When it comes to the impact of porno-graphy, young people mightn’t have adequate framework to interpret what they’re viewing in a way that keeps it healthy. We also have to be mindful about age, because when we’re talking about a 13-year-old, I don’t believe pornography is appropriate at all.”
Forget old notions of shame and guilt though, because routine pornography viewing by boys in particular carries with it enough of its own negative effects. We all hear horror stories about a kid who goes on a raping rampage after viewing porn, or kids who fall victim to anti-child pornography laws by sexting each other, but the consequences for average kids can go unnoticed. Studies have shown that young males who regularly consume porn were more likely to regard women as sex objects and try out what they see on the screen. They're also more likely to end up with a very distorted view of sex and sexuality, and are more likely to become addicted to it. They are then more likely to be less sexually and/or emotionally competent with partners in the future, which is not something any guy wants.

This is a problem everyone can agree on, but nobody wants to deal with. Parents who have long labored over the "sex talk" are now finding themselves in an even more awkward situation of having to do the "porn talk." Regardless of how awkward though, everyone seems to agree that it's just as important these days as anything parents have ever had to historically do to help prepare their kids for the riggers of life. Parents absolutely NEED to have this talk with their kids, and perhaps especially their sons, or at least be able to refer them to someone the kid isn't going to feel so awkward around. The point is, education is sometimes an awkward process. You take a kid who knows nothing about something and introduce it to them so they better know how to prepare for it when they see it later. It's like that with anything from learning to read to learning to count and what to do around "strangers." It's going to be like that with porn too, but it's a learning process like anything else.

The problem with outright attempting to ban pornography to kids' devices is two-fold. One, kids can always, always, always find ways to access it (from others' devices...etc.). Two, porn these days isn't always a matter of graphic sex acts. Parents have often been perplexed to find what they thought were "My Little Pony" videos turn into someone's fetish porn before their kids' eyes (just as an example). It really does come down to the fact that the more they tighten the grip, the more porn slips through their fingers anyways. This has lead many parents to consider teaching their kids to be "responsible consumers." Some parents have resorted to teaching kids how to be discreet about it, how to clear web browsers and how to avoid the negative consequences of porn use, or they permit only certain websites access to their kids once they've discovered their interests (after a discussion about it of course). The problem with that approach though is that, as news reports have shown, kids and parents can often end up facing the legal consequences which were originally set in motion to protect kids from sexual abuse. Showing pornography to a minor can be "child abuse" in many jurisdictions, regardless of intent, and kids who view porn or even create it can be subject to the same laws that put sex offenders on registries and behind bars, regardless of their age in some jurisdictions.

There won't be much disagreement about the fact that parents shouldn't need to have "the porn talk" until their kids are old enough to be discovering porn for themselves. If that age is ten for one kid and fourteen for another, then that's when they need to have the talk, respectively. Before that, it may only be a matter of saying "no, we don't watch that." The most important thing that can be done though is to teach kids that they haven't done anything wrong in either stumbling upon porn or one day waking up and discovering that they "like what they see." This is all a natural part of being human and living in society. Instead of being shamed for it, being forced to be woefully ignorant of it until it's too late, or just being thrust into it before they're ready to comprehend it, they really need to be told that they have a choice about what they are going to think and do when they see it, and to consider at least a few things when they do:

  1. Porn is not normal sex. It may look like it, but it's not how real sex often works or looks. It's often edited together like a sports montage. Just like basketball or football games are not all goal-scoring passes, sex is not "all intense" like it looks in porn.
  2. People in porn are people, not just sex objects. People who have sex often don't look like porn models. Porn models are often actors or models, there to look good and look good at doing what they're doing. Not all women have big breasts. Not all men have muscles and big penises. It's not normal. 
  3. People in porn are sometimes forced to do it. Some are poor and are doing it for money. Some are doing it for food. Some are doing it for drugs. Some are doing it because they don't love themselves or others, or are addicted to it, and need help. It's not normal. 
  4. It can be illegal to show porn to other minors, even if you are one! So watch out. Don't send porn to others. Kids have gotten in big trouble for this. 
  5. People don't have to be having sex in a picture or vid for it to be porn. Anything can be someone's porn on the internet. If you don't want to see it, just click away and find what you were really looking for instead. Just know it's probably going to be there whether you are looking or not. 
Once all that is considered, they can make a better judgement as to how to deal with any pornographic thing they may find. Go easy on them, but not too easy. Remember, shaming boys for looking at porn may not be a good idea, but neither is just saying "boys will be boys." 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Why Teen Titans Go: "Boys v Girls" Sucks

What's the one thing boys can do better than girls? According to a Teen Titans Go episode titled "Boys Vs. Girls," it's being able to say the opposite sex is better than you. Think about it. Only boys can say it! That's something to be proud of fellas, amiright? So... ha ha?

Yeah. That was literally the "moral" of that episode, and yeah, it stinks worse than Beast Boy. The best that can be said about Cartoon Network's "favorite show" is that it's popular. So popular in fact, the channel plays it almost non-stop, so kids are almost required to see it these days. That being the case, it's probably a good idea to get a grip on just what it's dishing out to them. It's a goofy, colorful, sometimes slick, always dumb romp of a show about none other than the so-called Teen Titans (not to be confused with the older show), as kids, usually just hanging out, pigging out, and being idiots... and every now and then doing something somewhat heroic (or at least something slightly less than horrible). In the case of the episode in question, that feat was stopping a self-inflicted viral cootie outbreak among our heroes... and convincing the boys about how much better girls are than them at everything. Roll curtain!

Seriously, is this show popular enough that CN needs to be spamming it in chunks? Who knows. But is it any good? That depends on whether you like your shows ironically or not. This show is meant to be taken ironically. Always irreverent, tongue-in-cheek, and self-aware to a fault, casual viewers (parents) are likely to be put off by some of the rather un-PC messages being put forth in it, while more loyal viewers (older kids) will be able to pick up on just how un-serious the show takes itself and laugh at its sheer stupidity. This would all be pretty harmless were it not for the show's confusing habit of getting out of its lane on some occasions and teaching lessons "ironically." Fans of the show may be able to see the hideous non-lesson a mile away, but for kids who aren't so hip with it, these "lessons" could be quite hazardous. Sure, waffle songs, copius bodily functions, innuendo, and Beast Boy twerkin' may be silly enough, but what about when the show goes out of its way to "teach a lesson" only to teach the absolute wrong one, and none of the kids are laughing? 

The yucky lesson in question in the season two episode "Boys Vs. Girls" begins at Titans Tower where Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Robin (the boys) are eating pizza and talking about "boy stuff" like football and race cars. They immediately launch into burping at Raven and Starfire (the girls). They also sing a song praising the essence of BOYness:

The girls become understandably annoyed at this little pep rally of theirs and Raven smashes Beast Boy under a meteor for being such a pig. Already the episode is probably making kids everywhere cringe for one reason or another. What ensues is battle of the sexes banter that relies mostly on all the typical stereotypes being lobbed back and forth (girls are "emotional" and obsessed with appearance, boys are "dumb slobs"...etc). Eventually the boys and girls challenge each other to a contest of mind and body to see who reigns supreme. Now at this point, you already think you know where this is headed, but no, it's worse than cliched. If only it fizzled out to a cliched ending where everyone learns that sexism is wrong and that boys and girls are equal. But no. It gets downright ugly to all involved.

We then see a montage of the girls easily beating the boys at each contest: speed, intelligence, and strength. Despite the fact that they're all super heroes and each one has a particular ability and skill that they make use of in these challenges, the wins for the girls are all presented as though the only deciding factor is that they were girls, and that the boys weren't. Sexism is alive and well, indeed, and it's not just infecting the boys in this scenario. We shouldn't have to tell you how this demeans boys and rips the agency away from girls. After all, if you're a boy, why try hard at anything if being a boy automatically makes you worse at it? And if you're not a boy, why try hard at anything if being a girl automatically makes you better at it? 

But then the episode spirals right off the rails when Beast Boy and Cyborg, so discouraged for being boys and now utterly convinced that girls are better, decide they now want to be girls because then at least they can feel good about themselves. This is something that is just so far out there that while you're watching it, you're still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely they're going to bring the curtain down and fix all this, but then you feel like the idiot for thinking that this show has any sense of decency. These turn-coat boys, now identifying as girls, then begin to harass Robin, the sole surviving boy, simply for being a boy. Then, this show turns the sole surviving boy against his fellow "heroes" as he attempts to sabotage them with a cooties strain. What ensues is a rapid chase sequence where they all become infected with cooties and eventually all become cured by means of Robin's cootie-catcher device.

It's all painfully outdated and seems to have no point to make, but then we get the "moral?" of the episode. Robin admits that girls are better than boys in every possible way and apologizes to them. And that's it. Nobody steps in to dissuade that conclusion! Then Beast Boy claims that "only a boy" could make such an amazing speech about how much better girls are, and so in a moment of misdirected pride, they attempt to do another rendition of the "Boys! Boys!" song only to get their mouths stopped up by Raven and her demonic tentacles. The end. 

Wow. Obviously they're riffing on the "cartoons always have to have a lesson" trope, but young children aren't going to get the subtlety of that. All young kids are seeing is the cartoon that's in front of them. The episode may be trying to parody a "girls vs. boys" plot and subvert it with something subversive (which only goes to show just how outdated and unnecessary this kind of storyline is for modern kids), but instead of giving kids a new angle on it, relevant to today, they just lapse into teaching sexism "ironically" by inserting the old patriarchal trope of one sex being better than another, just reversing it. All this confusion means parents will have some 'splainin to do once the show's over, hopefully. But at that point, why bother even teaching a lesson? Just stick to waffle songs! 

Whether you like this show or not... even for a show like this, this is one rotten stinker of an episode. It really ought to be prefaced with something like:
Disclaimer: Don't listen to this episode kids. It's lying to you. Girls and boys are equal. Work hard and you will go far, whether boy or girl. Respect each other. That is all. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Why "Be a Man" is Toxic for Boys

In a world where girls often have to run the sexist minefield of taunts, put downs, and lowered expectations for being well, girls, what's the worst thing boys have to put up with? Three simple but equally damaging words: "be a man."

Ouch. Why would anyone want to be one of those, right? Aggressive, sex-obsessed, beer guzzling, chest beating, emotional morons? Close up and conceal your feelings? Push others away? Tough it out? Stop being a human and just be a brute? Pretend nothing bothers you? Joke it off and run? Drop out and get laid? Is it any wonder most boys who know what's good for them end up saying "no thanks"? Nothing could pack more of a punch to a kid than those words, and yet every boy is somehow expected to grow into one. That's quite a minefield to traverse. What can be done to save masculinity from its own baggage so that it can be something future generations of boys don't have to find ways to get around, and even better, can actually take pride in? 

First, let's step back for a moment and look at what boys typically hear when they hear "be a man" these days, as described by this article here:
"Don't cry, don't express any emotion – except anger – don't be a pussy, don't be a "girl", don't be gay. Don't show any weakness. Be aggressive, dominant, be big, tough, athletic and courageous. Be decisive. Don't ask for help. Be good at "getting chicks" but remember women are lesser, objects, especially sex objects. Oh, and be relentlessly heterosexual."
Basically, be a big, dumb, angry, rapey ape. Bonus points for beer guzzling. Like it or not, this is what "be a man" or "be manly" or even "masculinity" in general has come to mean, and boys are not clueless as to the absurdity of following these silly expectations, nor the baggage that comes with being on that track to manhood. They want an option that respects their humanity in its fullness, without trying to pigeon-hole them into this weird subhuman species of "pig" or "ape" or "dudebro" frat boy. Unfortunately, so many boys learn early though this indoctrination that the only way they can get any positive affirmation from others, as a guy, is via their bodily needs, abilities, and instincts (and never their minds or feelings), so they learn to turn off their emotional centers and become the hyper-aggressive, hyper-sexual, and emotionally weak individuals that "men" are often expected to be. For the rest of them, they spend their time trying to avoid identifying with the dreaded "man" label.

A recent survey, carried out by the gender equality group AWARE, found that pretty much all of the 809 boys questioned (9 out of 10) have faced pressures to be "manly" through harassment, bullying, teasing, social exclusion, and both psychological and physical violence. Almost all (97%) of them said they actually experienced or participated in gender-policing violence against other boys for being too "gay" or "girly" (ie. not "manly enough"). Words like "sissy" and "gay" are often directed at boys who simply have more feminine characteristics, or who behave in more feminine ways. Boys who have answered the call to be more "manly" were four times more likely to commit violence and six time more likely to be the victim of violence from other boys, and interestingly, also more likely to have lower self-esteem. Imagine that. 
"There's an overwhelming connection between boys facing pressure to be 'manly' and boys using physical violence as well as verbal and social cruelty on one another," said Ms Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy and Research at AWARE. "Parents and teachers need to reflect: when we tell boys to 'take it like a man' or 'stop being a girl', we are perpetuating a pattern of violence. The education system, too, needs to step in: by actively facilitating conversations respect."
Daryl Yam, one of the panelists reviewing the survey findings was so moved by them that he expressed his own experience with such bulling, and what is objectively backwards about this whole toxic notion of masculinity: 
"It led to very self-destructive behaviour, and the only thing it taught me was that masculinity - this constant pressure to be 'a man' - was an ideal that constantly led to ruin," he added.
Other significant results from the survey include:
  • Some boys who were seen as 'weak' and 'girly' were reported to be sexually abused: One respondent reported that these boys “were raped”, while another said, “They (were) touched inappropriately to make them cry.”
  • Boys who were seen as 'weak' or 'girly' were socially excluded: ​Said one respondent, "They were socially outcast by most of the people they met and had little or no good friends around them." Another said, "They were not included in sports, projects and outings. Also, they would be a hot topic to speak about when everyone is bored."
  • Violence experienced by boys who were seen as 'weak' and 'girly' is normalised and trivialised: ​Said one respondent, "If they said how they felt when someone insulted them, they would say to take it like a man and stop being such a girl."
Like the "like a girl" taunt, telling a boy to "be a man" it has nothing to do with the words themselves. In fact, being a man is actually supposed to be a noble thing, something we want boys to aspire to be, believe it or not. The problem is that, like the word "girl", "man" has had its meaning hijacked. What once might've stood for being a well-rounded individual attentive to one's own needs and the needs of others, standing up to challenges and bravely seeking resolution on behalf of those in need, is now the first thing a boy hears any time he's about to bud a tear, often as a means to get him to shut up and "take it." It's another way of saying "suck it up" or "tough it out." In other words, don't work to resolve the issue that's hurting you, just ignore it. The intention behind this strategy is to project strength and resilience by covering up perceived weakness, but it only ends up making a boy a victim of his own fear: the fear of being vulnerable. Thus, the net result is an emotionally crippled individual who seeks to compensate for his internal vulnerability by exaggerating his exterior physicality and prowess, and the proportion that he gets away with it (or lives long enough to do so) is the proportion to which he's trying to compensate for. Sometimes it's more than just having a small penis. Most of the time, it's emotional. 

Feelings are like open wounds. If not cared for properly, if ignored, there's a good chance they'll get infected and harm the whole body. We're not talking about pampering or coddling to the point where boys can't handle their own issues, but nor are we talking about ignoring the issue until it blows up into something more severe. We're talking about teaching boys what being a man really is about. Dealing with feelings is like strength training your muscles. If you never train them, how do you expect to get stronger with them? Boys need to learn how to flex their "emotional muscles" by being encouraged to confront them and manage them, use them for good and not just ignore them. Ignoring one's own emotional wellbeing is a road to becoming emotionally compromised, and ironically, weaker, as the article linked above points out: 
Here's the problem. To "be a man" is the polar opposite of what is actually important to successful manhood – meaningful relationships and the ability to love and be loved. On our deathbeds, our abs and BMWs and all the hot chicks we banged are going to be exposed as the meaningless things they are. All that will really matter is the connections we've made with the people we love and who love us.
So, what's the most "manly" thing a boy can do these days? The article puts it very well: 
Being brave enough to not "be a man" might be the most "manly" thing we can do.
In other words, be brave and reject all the dumb macho stereotypes. Don't worry so much about what you have to do or be to be a "man." Just be you. Be the best you you can be, even if you have to cry now and then, and you will become a true man. It's going to take some bravery to express openly your whole self, especially with all the bullying out there, but do it anyway. Real men aren't afraid of being who they are, regardless of what anyone says. The most manly thing you can do, boys, is be true to yourself... and yes, always respect girls. That too.