Monday, June 2, 2014

Boys Are Failing, And Here's Why

We want them to be girls.

I'm not pointing fingers, because my thumb will be pointing right back at me. We are requiring boys to do things they simply are not built for, and we have expectations for behavior that are completely unfair.

Look at a classroom. Sit still. Be quiet. Don't fidget. Stop tapping. Don't make that noise with your foot. No you may not get up and walk to the book shelf. Now take out your pencil and paper and write an essay about what you did this weekend. What? You didn't finish that essay? It's time for recess. Guess what? Because you didn't finish the essay, and you walked to the window instead of sitting in your chair, you don't get to go to recess. You have to stand against the wall of the building and watch the other children play. (This seems to be a very common form of punishment.)

But if you look at the kids standing, watching other kids play at recess because they are being punished, you will see that most, if not all, of them are boys. Every. Time.

And you will see why this is so ridiculous and needs to stop.

It isn't working, and it isn't fair.

Why do boys throw things, jump from the top stair, slide down a banister, use a baby doll as a weapon, and treat each other like punching bags?

Now I know why. Boys are wired differently than girls.

Chuck and I spent last Saturday at the "Helping Boys Thrive" summit in Edmonds, Washington, learning why boys are this way. The summit was co-hosted by Michael Gurian, a mental health counselor, and Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center-A Place of HOPE. Both of these men have authored numerous books.

I will attempt to share what we learned in the six hours we were there, so this is condensed.

In a nutshell, boys' brains are different than girls' brains. And we don't stop being different once we are grown up.

The difference begins in the womb. This is not something that any of us have any control over whatsoever. The way the brain is formed is biological, or nature, if you will, not nurture. Brain development is a constant. Some things we have some control over, and can shape and change with societal norms and expectations. The brain development is not one of them.

While girl brains are getting the development for language all over the brain, and a little bit of their brains are developed for spatial relationship, boy brains get HALF of theirs for language and the other half is for spatial relationship. (Not relationship as in boyfriend, girlfriend. Spatial as in physics and engineering.)

This fact was presented to us with brain scans of boys and girls across cultures.

This difference in brain development begins to happen at about the fourth week of conception.
Please. Don't get defensive. This isn't to say there are not female engineers, it's just a scientific fact that the brains are different. About 20 percent of us have what is referred to as a bridge brain, meaning that either gender can have a little bit  more of the other's characteristics, but male brains are NOT female at birth, or at any other time in their lives. If there is a Y chromosome, then there is a male brain.

Also, the boy brain is bathed in testosterone in the womb, and this hormone is the aggression hormone.

From the time that boys are very young it is clear that they need to move, and some need to move more than others. That is why if you are looking for one, it is important to find a daycare or preschool with plenty of space, both inside and out, for movement. (A little Montessori plug here, true Montessori schools do a great job of allowing for a lot of movement, especially through third grade.)

This need for movement is also why using no recess as punishment doesn't work. They NEED that outlet, that time to run, get the energy out of their system for a while, and there is also a lot of social learning that happens on a playground.

The systems we have in place for school are really geared more for the way girls and women do things, and especially how they learn.

If you put a boy in a regular classroom and make him sit at a desk or table, expect movement. And what I've noticed is that by the time they are around 8 or 9 years old, if not sooner than that, they tend to tap their pencil against the desk, doodle on their math page, wiggle their foot, bang their knee against the leg of the table, or some other fidgeting behavior. As irritating as this may be to others, and especially to teachers, boys are not doing this irritate you.

It is to keep their brain awake.

Boy/man brains shut down easily. If they are not actively engaged in something, their brains want to shut off. Brain scans show that a girl brain at rest is still very active, while a boy brain at rest is shut down. To keep this from happening, we have to allow boys to fidget. Let them doodle and draw. If their brain shuts down they aren't learning. (One of the activities the boys in Sean's Lower El class loved to do was finger knit. They did this while the teacher was talking or reading to them.)

Boy brains have a lot of gray matter, and this leads them to focus on the moment. Girl brains have white matter, and this allows them to be thinking of a million things constantly. Even when they are resting. Boys do not like innuendo. We have to be direct, and we need to use powerful visuals when we need them to transition to another activity. Sign language works well.

We were told that their brains aren't equipped to write and speak immediately when we demand it of them. They need time to process. So instead of asking them to write an essay, tell them you'd like them to storyboard the subject, then write about what they just drew.

If they are upset, or have just had an outburst that led to some kind of time out, don't immediately demand to know what happened, or get them to talk about it. They really can't articulate it right away. Cortisol, the stress hormone, increases in these situations, and a drink of water will reduce the cortisol. Do that first. Then ask them to go with you for a walk. Maybe let them bounce a ball as you walk, and then begin to ask them what they think happened and talk it through.

It's also OK for boys to be aggressive.  Boys are naturally aggressive, and it isn't a bad thing. It is their way of bonding and showing affection. They love to hit and be hit, etc. What we have to watch out for is the intention behind the physical aggression. Once the intention is to do bodily harm, and not just play around, that is not aggression, it is violence.

Getting hurt on the playground is healthy. It isn't going to kill them. We have to stop hovering over our boys and protecting them from the things that will help them develop and become young men.

Because boys like using objects and moving them through space, i.e., swords, sticks, balls, rocks, etc., it is important to give them that outlet with rules or parameters. They are also drawn to video games because of the visual stimuli, and the ability to control objects moving through space. They are good at these things, celebrate it, but limit it. Because of the visual stimulation, it triggers something in the brain that makes them crave it. More of it just makes them want more, like an addiction. Talk about your values around technology and screen time. Limit it. It can also interfere with sleep. Some people have a rule that TV and games must end two hours before bedtime.

Another very important point to make is that boys NEED a three-family system. The first is the family involved in day-to-day care of the child, the second is a group of friends the child can go to to talk, and a community or faith family is third. With all three in place, things are easier for you and the child. Boys naturally want a kinship group. If we don't find a healthy way to provide it for them, they will seek it out and can find the kinship in gangs.

Boys are good at all sorts of things, and we need to allow them to be in charge of their decisions, and show them they are appreciated and valued. Boys are funny. We have to allow them to be funny, allow them to talk about guts, boogers, slugs, poop, snot, and all those icky things that girls don't like.

The alternative is just not working. What we are doing is failing them. Of course there will be those boys who do just fine in the system that is designed for girls. But what about the rest of the boys? This video contains staggering statistics and statements.

Here's a humorous video about the difference between men and women.

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