Boys' Self-Esteem Problems

As girls surge past boys in academics, and teachers preach the gospel of girl power, male adolescents are suffering a loss of self-worth. Lisa Wolfe talks to boys, teachers, and parents.

11.11.10 10:42 PM ET

It’s parent-teacher night at a private middle school in New Jersey. Students have been asked to sit in as teachers inform their parents of their progress. A sixth-grade boy, whose mother asks he be identified as Dan, squirms as his teacher tells his parents he’s not trying hard enough in school. He looks away as the teacher directs his parents to a table of projects the class has done on ancient Greek civilization. Some projects are meticulous works of art, with edges burned to resemble old parchment.

Dan’s title page is plain and unillustrated, and he’s left an “e” out of “Greek.”

“You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try,” says Dan’s father as they leave the classroom. “I don’t understand,” says Dan’s mother, whose two older daughters got straight As in school without her intervention.

For a few minutes, Dan acts like he doesn’t hear or care. But when he gets to the car he starts kicking the tires. “I’m sorry!” he says. “I’m sorry I’m not perfect like a girl!”

As girls catch up to—and surge past—boys in many educational realms, scenarios like this are playing out in homes and classrooms across the country. “Boys have stayed at the same level in school,” said Michael Thompson, a psychologist and the co-author of Raising Cain. “But girls have zoomed by them. Because of the anxious attention we pay to education, this can be demoralizing.”

The rise of girls in academia, from elementary school to college, has been well-documented. Girls are outperforming boys in all subjects except math and science, and even there, they’re closing the gap. There has been a steady 25-year decline in boys’ participation in extracurricular activities as girls take over clubs, newspapers, and yearbooks. For every 100 girls with learning disabilities there are 276 boys. For every 100 women graduating college, there are 77 men.

But how this shift is affecting boys psychologically is less well-known, perhaps partly because parents and teachers are reluctant to raise the question for fear it will be perceived as taking attention away from girls. But talk to them privately, and many teachers and parents say they worry that the sea change occurring in America’s classrooms is leaving boys feeling helpless and sapping them of their motivation.

While today’s girls are enjoying a new kind of psychological emancipation thanks to the successes of the women’s movement—they are not as shy about saying what they want, and are motivated to work hard to get it—a growing number of boys seem to be moving in the opposite direction. “They just don’t have the drive we expect from them and that their father had,” says Leonard Sax, a psychologist, family physician, and the author of Boys Adrift. “American women are stepping up and striving to be all they can be. Why is it that so many of their brothers are content to stay home and play [the popular videogame] Call of Duty?”

“We’re seeing a massive effect not only on boys who are falling behind in school but also on those who seem to be doing fine.”

Sax blames the rising phenomenon of disengaged boys on a number of factors, including videogames and a lack of male role models. Michael Gurian, a psychologist and the author of The Purpose of Boys, places more emphasis on the loss of the extended family, and the tendency of today’s parents to do too many things for their boys when they are young. But both experts agree the main problem is an accelerated school curriculum that places a growing emphasis on sitting and verbalizing, when boys learn from moving and doing. “There’s a mismatch between the way males learn and the system,” said Gurian.

Not only have academics changed, but so has acceptable social behavior. “Boys used to be a scourge on middle school girls, snapping their bras and things like that,” said Thompson. “We defined this as sexual harassment and so they stopped. They knew they could get into trouble. But seventh-grade girls telling boys they’re stupid and lazy doesn’t get them into trouble.”

“Girls say that all the time!” said Jon, a senior at a private high school in New York. “They call you stupid, lazy, and immature, and they hit you, but you can’t hit back.”

“Sure girls hit,” said Ariel, a junior at a large public school. “They do it when no one is looking because they know you’re not allowed to hit back. But what are you going to do? That’s how it is. Don’t forget they call it girl power, not boy power.”

Both the boys and girls that I talked to believe that teachers favor girls. Male teachers are seen as being more understanding of boys than their female counterparts, but only 4 percent of elementary school teachers are male. There are more male teachers in high school, but they say they have to be careful in how they reach out to boys so as not to be perceived as favoring them. “It’s easy to think boys feel confident,” said one male teacher in New York. “They can act cocky. But this is a ruse. Teenagers are insecure. It’s a time of figuring out who you are. If you’re 14 years old and a teacher comes up to you and says I think you’d be great in this group, that’s a very powerful thing. I’m not sure we’re saying this as much to boys as we are to girls.”

“I really don’t want people to cut back on the message they’re giving girls,” said Thompson. “I just want them to help boys take leadership positions."

In light of thousands of years of male dominance—and a Fortune 500 list, Congress, Senate, and Supreme Court that are all still overwhelmingly male—no one wants to roll back the gains of girls. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” said Gurian, who is the father of girls. Advocates for boys say it will do girls no good to come of age alongside a generation of males that feel unheard and unsuccessful. They are calling for more male teachers, more single-sex classrooms, and, mostly, for a better understanding of boys’ learning styles. Gary Crossdale, principal of Lord Dufferin Public School in inner-city Toronto, comes by his own understanding of boys naturally. “I was a boy,” he said. “So I know what they like to do.” When he noticed male students becoming disengaged, he began to save his money and search Craigslist every night for gym equipment he could afford. He bought a treadmill, a Stairmaster, weights, and boxing bags, and converted an empty classroom into a gym, where boys began to work out before school and in between classes. Crossdale soon noticed an improvement in behavior and attitude, a decrease in detentions and absences.

“One of our boys with ADHD took a real liking to the Fit Club and never missed a day,” he said. “But our school only goes to Grade 8, so he had to leave for high school. In high school, he started having trouble and showing up late or not at all. His mother came to see me and I suggested he come back to work out. Now he’s here every morning at 7 a.m., and he’s back on track in his new school.”

Not all boys, of course, are struggling. High achievers continue to do as well as ever, with more men winning Rhodes Scholarships, for instance, than women. Nor is life as perfect for girls as boys watching them from the sidelines might think. If boys act out, girls are more likely to act in, suffering from higher rates depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

But for a growing number of boys across the country, school is creating what some experts consider to be real psychological trauma. “We’re seeing a massive effect not only on boys who are falling behind in school but also on those who seem to be doing fine,” said William Pollack, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They’re hiding behind a mask, feeling an angst and pain that go very deep and that lead not only to a disengagement from learning, but also from the adults who provide it and the parents who care for them. There’s a silent sense of shame that some will eventually outgrow, but that others who are not as lucky will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Lisa Wolfe has worked at 60 Minutes and written for The New York Times and O Magazine, among other publications.