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Are America’s Schools Letting Down Little Boys?

Are Our Nation's Schools Letting Down Little BoysYes. So says Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men, which has just been reissued. In an interview on The National Review, she said:

Today’s classrooms tend to be feelings-centered, risk-averse, competition-free, and sedentary. As early as pre-school and kindergarten, boys can be punished for behaving like boys. The characteristic play of young males is “rough-and-tumble” play. There is no known society where little boys fail to evince this behavior (girls do it too, but far less). In many schools, rough-and-tumble play is no longer tolerated. Well-meaning but intolerant adults are insisting “tug of war” be changed to “tug of peace”; games such as tag are being replaced with “circle of friends” — in which no one is ever out. Boys as young as five or six can be suspended for playing cops and robbers. Our schools have become hostile environments for most boys.

Over on Slate’s Double X Factor, Amanda Hess takes Sommers to task for her criticism of schools that promote “circle of friends” instead of tag. Hess writes that, at its core, circle of friends is just freeze tag by another name, and Hoff’s claims of its emasculating effects are overstated. Witness for example when Jon Stewart asked Sommers about which schools exactly have outlawed tag in an interview on The Daily Show. She wasn’t able to provide any statistics to support her argument.

My sense is that Sommers, like many nonfiction authors, is building a trend where one may not exist. And yet I agree with some of what she has to say, and do think that a certain kind of over-cautious, logocentric thinking about children can be damaging, whether it’s directed toward boys or girls.

I saw this first hand a couple of years ago, when my son was two, and spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings at a yoga-centric preschool program. The classroom had no windows, and the students were not taken outside to run around and play. There was time for unstructured free-play, but the toys could not be moved from area to area in the classroom or used in ways that they weren’t intended — in other words, messes and unbounded creativity were frowned upon. Also, the space was small, so the kids had to play together, which my son wasn’t into. Yoga required following directions, and he wasn’t into that either! Socialization equalled cooperation (group art projects), and self-control meant keeping oneself calm and contained (sitting in circle).

My son hated it. He bit, hit, scratched, and acted out with other kids and his teachers. At one point the director of the program took me aside and suggested I seek a behavioral therapist for help, because obviously something was wrong with my son since he couldn’t exist in a friendly, orderly classroom.

Well, he was two years old! A force of chaos, for sure. I know little girls who were and are the same, and I also know boys who were and are not so defiant. But I will concede that, especially as I see my son at pre-K now, boys in general have a lot of physical energy, and the things which captivate them are concrete building, making, destroying and often happen in solitude and not a group.

From my limited experience as a fifth grade public school teacher, collaborative learning was the norm, gym and recess considered extras (since they took time away from the essentials of reading and writing), and completing tasks that required a fluency with language and number skills took precedence over constructive, kinesthetic activities. In general, creativity and individuality was frowned upon, in favor of memorization and cooperation. More boys struggled to achieve in this environment than girls.

What’s to be done about this? On a nationwide level, I’m not sure. Obviously a greater conversation about how our schools serve our children needs to happen, because it seems to me that schools are doing an overall dismal job, for boys and girls alike.

As parents of little boys, and of little girls with active, physical temperaments, we can hold back from pushing our kids too hard to succeed in a system designed to make them fail. We kept my son out of a school program for a year, and that year has made all the difference — he is now better able to handle the requirements of a classroom environment. Boys can be slow starters, late to bloom and develop. It’s ok to let them go slow.

 

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