Writing at the intersection of motherhood, feminism and my Latinidad

28 October 2009

Book Review: The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre


The problem with The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre is that it is a good book wrapped up in so many stereotypes it is difficult to find the true nuggets of knowledge.

As a grown up tomboy who ended up marrying a man who sat still as a young boy, I find dealing in stereotypes completely unhelpful to the conversation. In fact I am so allergic to them that it takes a lot of data for me to say uncle. Tyre claims to want to rip the myths to shreds, but I fear that she merely reinforces them.

One myth that needs to die is that boys are violent. Boys may be rougher than girls in their play, but violent shouldn't be tolerated. There is a line and we need to keep our boys on the proper side of that line. Tyre correctly blasts against zero tolerance rules, but we still need to deal with violence in our classrooms or the emergence of violence. Star Wars = ok, bloody murder scenes NOT ok.

Hands on learning is essential to all students, girls as well as boys. Tyre repeatedly talks to teacher after teacher about how boys learn better when they get their hands on something, they run around or put theory into action. Just because girls learn better than boys in a "sit down and be quiet" way does not mean that they can't also benefit from hands on activities. In fact it is hands on activities that will help girls break thru the glass beaker ceiling.

And this is where recess comes into play. Or rather a discussion of how recess is becoming more of a luxury than a staple. Yes, boys need to run the ants out of their pants, but girls need exercise too. From just learning to discover the power of their bodies to staying healthy, we shouldn't paint recess as a solution just for boys. But this was one point where I did learn how horrible our boys do have it with the quick to diagnose ADHD and the insistence that they have the wild rumpus medicated out of them. Again, this is where girls do benefit for being "good" and it sucks. That said, my daughter can't sit still to save her life, so I'm a bit worried of the ADHD verdict as well.

Tyre does tackle the "reading is for girls" stereotype by calling men out for not doing more reading with their sons and the boys in their lives. Her example of a firefighter coming in to read to classes is an excellent way to address the issue. Much different than say my nephew who improved his grades once he saw that some of the pretty girls were also smart! Or the teacher on Donors Choose who sought to entice the boys to read by getting the girls to fall in love with women authors. Oh, the bad well-meaningness of it all!

On the other hand Tyre blames those who championed "children are all the same" for the ramblings of Michael Gurian. Gurian's theory is that boys and girls brains are fundamentally different, so different that single-sex schools are needed. The problem is that no well-regarded scientist will back him up. Tyre's explanation for his success and popularity? That parents of boys NEED to have validation that their boys are different. OK, your boy is different than my girl, but difference can be managed.

And here's where I agree with Tyre. Our schools are in trouble. Boys and girls are suffering from standardized testing and the ramping up of education that goes along with it. Yes, I want all of our kids to read at grade level, do math well and graduate on time. But that doesn't mean that we need to have our first graders doing third grade work or pre-schoolers in professional tutoring to prepare for kindergarten.

Tyre spends a lot of time trying to discredit anyone who claims that the boy crisis is overblown (which I agree). On page 43 she takes Kim Gandy, past President of NOW, to task for drawing a line between how boys (men) are reacting to the changing role of girls (women) and rape. "How can concern about boys in the classroom be linked, even tangentially, with rape?" It's pretty simple to a woman who was pinned to a classroom desk in biology class by a boy while the teacher just stood there. It's about power. Girls are exerting their power in the classroom, yet a boys will be boys mentality still rules in life. Yes, there are zero tolerance policies, but I'll get to those later. Rape is a tool of power or more precisely a lack of power. It's really not that hard to see that aggression against women and girls can start right in the classroom.

Tyre does a great job at running the college admissions numbers. There has been a lot of whining about how hard it is to get into college, but the simple fact is that we have a record number of men and women entering college period. Colleges, especially state schools just cannot handle the increased capacity and thus making colleges even more competitive to get into.

Ironically we are at a point where we can say that boys just might be the canary in the coalmine when it comes to schools. Schools are so scheduled that there is little time for physical activity that is critical for boys and girls. Art and music is pushed out in favor of double reading and math time. Administrators can't fully grasp what it means to have actual sexual harassment occur so they set up zero tolerance rules rather than work to address the reason why boys (more often than not) feel entitled to touch or harass girls.

Boys are different, yes they are. But as Lise Eliot (her book is next!) says in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, the different among boys is far greater than between girls and boys.

I do recommend this book for those of us without sons. It is amazing what our society has done to boyhood, not just in trying to squash it, but also to romanticize it ala a conservative right-winger longs for a return to "Leave it to Beaver" days. If you can keep licking that block of salt, you will learn things that will knock your socks off. For those of you with sons, I fear this would only feed into your fears. Eliot's book is more up your alley.

Need to get yourself a copy? Try an indie bookstore or Powells.com.

3 comments:

Thanks so much for mentioning my book but alas, I think you misunderstood a big chunk. I never thought or indeed never wrote that boys are violent. What I wrote is that boys, perfectly normal boys, are often transfixed with violence. They play, think and fantasize about it. And as adults, and as feminists, we misunderstand what we see. They are playing around ideas of courage and valor and we see a potential columbine shooter and try to put the kibosh on it.
As for defending Kim Gandy? Well, fine. My opinion is that she has hurt the sisterhood by being so unsophisticated and reactive on the issue of boys and education. She should keep in mind that roughly half of all feminists with children have sons. And they know better.
Anyway, thanks for reading the book.

Hi Peg...Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Yes, boys have violent thoughts, but rather than brush them off - which is how many of the parents, esp dads, seemed to want to do - I think we need to see why boys do that. It's too slippery a slope from war games to real violence and I fear that we do too little education far too late in that area.

I said the same thing until I actually spent time looking at the research. Turns out, for most normal kids, thinking about violence doesn't lead to violence. Otherwise, all our fathers, husbands and brothers who played Cops & Robbers would be serial killers, right? So why do we act like it does? Also, for the record, violent video games don't seem to either. Why do I say that? In the last ten years, sales of violent video games to 13-19 year old (boys) have skyrocketed. Rates of violent crimes among boys -- plummeted.
I think we can both agree that we need to shape our feminist discourse with the best research and the sharp tools we have.