Saturday, September 13, 2008

Newsweek - Struggling School-Age Boys

This article is from a few days ago, but it merits some attention. Emphasis in the article is added to highlight the seriousness of the problem from my point-of-view. My comments after the article.

Struggling School-Age Boys

A new study says parents are right to worry about their sons.

By Peg Tyre | Newsweek Web Exclusive

boys education problems
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Every other week it seems a new study comes out that adds to our already-formidable arsenal of parental worries. But even by those escalating standards, the report issued last week by the federal government's National Center for Health Statistics contained a jaw-dropper: the parents of nearly one of every five boys in the United States were concerned enough about what they saw as their sons' emotional or behavioral problems that they consulted a doctor or a health-care professional. By comparison, about one out of 10 parents of girls reported these kinds of problems. (See the study here.)

The report confirms what many of us have been observing for some time now: that lots of school-age boys are struggling. And, parents are intensely worried about them.

What is ailing our sons? Some experts suggest we are witnessing an epidemic of ADHD and say boys need more medication. Others say that environmental pollutants found in plastics, among other things, may be eroding their attention spans and their ability to regulate their emotions.

Those experts may be right but I have another suggestion. Let's examine the way our child rearing and our schools have evolved in the last 10 years. Then ask ourselves this challenging question: could some of those changes we have embraced in our families, our communities and our schools be driving our sons crazy?

Instead of unstructured free play, parents now schedule their kids' time from dawn till dusk (and sometimes beyond.) By age 4, an ever-increasing number of children are enrolled in preschool. There, instead of learning to get along with other kids, hold a crayon and play Duck, Duck, Goose, children barely out of diapers are asked to fill out work sheets, learn computation or study Mandarin. The drumbeat for early academics gets even louder when they enter "real" school. Veteran teachers will tell you that first graders are now routinely expected to master a curriculum that, only 15 years ago, would have been considered appropriate for second, even third graders. The way we teach children has changed, too. In many communities, elementary schools have become test-prep factories—where standardized testing begins in kindergarten and "teaching to the test" is considered a virtue. At the same time, recess is being pushed aside in order to provide extra time for reading and math drills. So is history and opportunities for hands-on activities—like science labs and art. Active play is increasingly frowned on—some schools have even banned recess and tag. In the wake of school shootings like the tragedy at Virginia Tech, kids who stretch out a pointer finger, bend their thumb and shout "pow!" are regarded with suspicion and not a little fear.

Our expectations for our children have been ramped up but the psychological and physical development of our children has remained about the same. Some kids are thriving in the changing world. But many aren't. What parents and teachers see—and what this government study now shows—is that the ones who can't handle it are disproportionately boys.

Some researchers responded to last weeks' study by calling for more resources for more mental-health services for children—especially males. That's an admirable goal. But when nearly one in five boys has such serious behavioral and emotional issues that their parents are talking it over with their pediatrician, you can bet we are facing a problem that requires a more fundamental change in our society than medication or weekly therapy. Let's take a moment, before the school year gets any farther underway, and ask ourselves whether we are raising and educating our boys in a way that respects their natural development. And if we are not, let's figure out how we can bring our family life and our schools back into line.

This is one study that we ignore at our peril.

Peg Tyre is the author of "The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card On Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents & Educators Must Do," which is being published this week by Crown, a division of Random House. She can be reached at
Here's my story -- I didn't learn to read until I was in 2nd grade. Teachers thought I was slow. My parents has regular "talks" with counselors and principles. I was put in the "remedial" room, with kids who could barely tie their shoes.

Less than two years later, I was in fourth grade and reading at a 12th grade level. I was placed in "talented and gifted" classes.

So how did I go from "remedial" to "gifted" in just two years? The answer is simple, really -- my parents let me develop at my own pace and didn't try to force me into the school's one-size-fits-all box. They let me be me, which included rejecting amphetamines to deal with my "hyperactivity," which was really a sugar sensitivity.

If I had been pressured to learn Mandarin as a little kid, when I didn't even give a rat's ass about the alphabet, I would really have been a mess. Kids develop at their own pace, and each child is different -- it sounds to me as though boys might develop cognitively a little more slowly than girls, adn we should honor that.

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I think there is some merit to the environmental element impacting today's boys. They are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals and poor diet -- both of which can have a profound impact on cognitive and emotional development. Fish oil and evening primrose oil (combined) has proven more effective than prescription drugs for ADHD, so we know that diet is part of the problem (a lack of healthy fats seriously impacts the brain).

Man-made environmental estrogens (xenoestrogens) are also highly toxic to the brain and are so prevalent as to be ubiquitous. These are generally endocrine disruptors, but all the body's systems are inter-connected, so messing up one system messes up the others as well. For now, the government says these chemicals are safe, so there has been little research into anything other than potential cancer risks.

Boys are more likely to be impacted by xenoestrogens (although precocious puberty for girls is clearly another impact of these chemicals). It is possible to limit our exposure to some of these chemicals, but others (such as deisel exhaust) are unavoidable.

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The other part of this is that kids are not allowed to be kids anymore. What the hell happened to unstructured free time? I never had "play dates" -- I went out and made friends with other kids in the neighborhood. If there were no other kids around, I played by myself with blocks, Tonka truck, Hot Wheels, or whatever else was available.

Kids need to be allowed to be kids, especially boys, who tend to be more physically active than younger girls -- to play on their own, to have unstructured time, to be messy and unproductive. After all, they are still kids, not little adults.

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