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Grappling with the 'boy problem'

Four books offer differing theories but no real solution to helping young boys become well-balanced men.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000

Boys have always been half of the nation's domestic product, but lately it seems we're displeased with the product's performance.

Now comes a schoolbag full of books about "boys in crisis" -- four books in just under two months -- perfectly timed for the anxious parent's summer reading list. To judge by recent headlines, parents may want to buy the set.

There's the seventh-grade boy in South Florida accused of shooting his teacher to death on the last day of school. Boys spike girls' drinks with date-rape drugs. Adam Davis is on death row for killing his girlfriend's mother, Vicki Robinson.

"It's a bad time to be a boy in America," intones Christina Hoff Sommers in her book The War Against Boys. "As the new millennium begins, the triumphant victory of our women's soccer team has come to symbolize the spirit of American girls. The defining event for boys is the shooting at Columbine High."

Dr. William S. Pollack, author of Real Boys' Voices, is equally glum. "Our nation is home to millions of boys who feel they are navigating life alone -- who on an emotional level are alone -- and who are cast out to sea in separate lifeboats, and they feel they are drowning in isolation, depression, loneliness and despair."

Michael Gurian, in his book What Stories Does My Son Need?, tells the story of the mother of a five-year-old who had been playing the video game Apocalypse. "He gave me his usual goodnight kiss, saying, "Good night, Mom, I love you. See you in hell!' "

Gurian, like Pollack, Sommers and Michael Thompson, the author of Speaking of Boys, knows something must be done to safeguard the moral development of the smiling pre-adolescent boys pictured on the covers of their books. They cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. That's why they keep writing. The recent works of Pollack, Thompson and Gurian are companion pieces to books that have kept each on the talk show and lecture circuit for the past four years.

But don't expect consensus on how to fix "the boy problem." They don't all agree there is a problem, or at least what the dimensions might be.

Sommers, whose book is subtitled How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, thinks feminist ideologues are cheating boys of resources they desperately need by claiming girls are the ones in crisis. Moreover, she adds, a cabal of "boy reformers" and "save-the-males" do-gooders are trying to turn stoic little men into overly emotive sissies. (Yes, Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the only woman in this group of authors.)

Gurian blames the sex- and violence-saturated media. "We must finally admit that the majority of media-created stories are at best amoral." Not exactly a sparklingly new concept, but Gurian, who credits himself with "first bringing the boys movement to public attention," has tailored some old cloth to suit the current demand for boy remedies.

Pollack, whom Sommers singles out for ridicule for his touchy-feely philosophy, wants to convince us that society straitjackets boys with masculine stereotypes that create emotionally uncommunicative men at best and violent criminals at worst.

Add those to a list of other popular theories that already includes: too much testosterone, absent fathers, mothers who separate too early, parents who are too indulgent, the failure of the educational system and the decline of corporal punishment.

Spending a few hours with these books, one realizes quickly that they are not so much about boys, they are about us -- adult society. The remedies are putatively aimed at helping boys, but it is the adult readers who need the help most. Why? Because these are adult-manufactured problems. After all, it's not as if boys held a convention and voted for a party platform of academic failure, drug use and promiscuity.

Why are we targeting boys, then?

Well, as the cantankerous tabloid columnist in The Paper explained to the beleaguered subject of his daily rants, "It was your turn."

In 1994, it was girls who got all the attention. That year, three books were written about girls in crisis, including the best-selling Reviving Ophelia.

The message of those books was that girls weren't getting enough attention. They were being ignored in the classroom, they were being steered away from math and science (the real bread-winning disciplines of the high-tech age), and their self-esteem was being trampled. In the words of Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, "Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously in the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn."

Five years later, the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup, something their male counterparts hadn't come close to accomplishing.

As Sommers rightly points out, 55 percent of college students are women -- and the ratio of women to men is widening.

We were dismayed, as well, to learn it wasn't Ophelia's sisters who were committing suicide at alarming rates, it was Hamlet's brothers. Girls make more suicide attempts, but boys account for 80 to 86 percent of teenage suicides.

Clearly, boys need help. Sommers is correct when she argues that boys as a class do not deserve to be pathologized (that sentiment, by the way, is shared by her whipping boy Pollack, but she chooses not to acknowledge that).

But there is a murkier realm of boyhood that is harder to quantify than failure in the classroom. Michael Thompson, who co-authored Raising Cain, one of the earliest of the "Boys Movement" books, with psychologist Dan Kindlon, calls it the "emotional miseducation" of boys.

"Our culture co-opts some of the most impressive qualities a boy can possess -- their physical energy, boldness, curiosity and action orientation -- and distorts them into a punishing, dangerous definition of masculinity," Thompson and Kindlon write in Raising Cain.

They are not talking about the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. "Most boys, despite feelings of anger and pain, are quieter students of emotional suffering," they write.

Pollack's new book is nearly 400 pages of transcripted interviews with adolescent boys from around the country. Anecdotal, yes. But listen to Sean Graves, 16, who was partially paralyzed in the Columbine High School attack, explain the epiphany he experienced after the shooting.

"I feel embarrassed to be stared at, and I feel put on the spot. Then it occurs to me that this is what happened to Dylan (Klebold) and Eric (Harris). This is what everyone says drove them. I thought, "Now all I need is the teasing, and Dylan and Eric's history will be repeating itself with me.' "

No one is suggesting that the teasing suffered by Klebold and Harris was the sole reason for their rampage. But as Pollack and Thompson assert, the same boy code that promotes the admirable qualities of honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice also can breed a host of less desirable behaviors, such as violent hazing, unquestioning conformity and drug and alcohol abuse.

"A destiny of aggression isn't born, it's made, most notably in societies like ours in which aggressive impulses are allowed free rein," Thompson and Kindlon wrote. "We can raise boys to be non-violent if we so choose."

If only we could teach the experts to behave, too.

The discourse about the boy problem devolves into a sometimes shrill, occasionally hypocritical, often grossly generalized, not infrequently manipulative and embarrassingly self-aggrandizing display of adult dysfunction. If Holden Caulfield were reading these authors, he'd probably call them a bunch of phonies.

Sommers is so single-minded in dismantling feminist ideology that she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of having to argue, none too convincingly, against any psychologist whose thinking remotely resembles her adversaries'. Teaching boys to become emotionally aware, she writes, is tantamount to "the unseemly and humiliating personal revelations elicited on television by the Jerry Springers and Jenny Joneses."


Understanding one's own emotional responses, and by extension empathizing with another person's pain, doesn't lead to chair throwing and hair pulling on daytime television. By that strained reasoning, any one who writes in English would by definition write for the National Enquirer.

Otherwise sensible advice can seem less credible when it is tainted by the author's self-promotion. In his book, Gurian and his co-author Terry Trueman include their own works among those of Aesop, Dickens and Hemingway on their list of 100 books that a boy should read to build a good character. Self-promotion doesn't build character, but it can do wonders for your royalties.

Thompson saves the question he is most frequently asked by parents for the end of his book. It is a variation of this one:

Our 15-year-old son won't talk to us anymore; what should we do?

Thompson's advice is to keep trying, which is not so surprising. But the average parent, fathers in particular, might find the second part of his solution more difficult to accomplish.

"A father needs to share more about himself, about his struggles, about his losses, about his heartbreaks as a teenager," Thompson writes.

Of course, communicating with 15-year-old boys was a problem long before Columbine.

* * *

Real Boys' Voices

By William S. Pollack Random House, $25.95

* * *

Speaking of Boys

By Michael Thompson Ballantine Books, $14.

* * *

The War Against Boys:

How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men

By Christina Hoff Sommers Simon & Schuster, $26.

* * *

What Stories Does My Son Need?

A Guide to Books and Movies That Build Character in Boys

By Michael Gurian

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, $9.95.

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