TIME and Boys

There must be a blue moon.  Or pigs flying somewhere.  It's a rare moment when a social conservative can pick up an issue of Time and not cringe over the cover story.

Such is the case with the August 6 issue, with its cover featuring a mud-spattered, smiling boy and the headline shouting “The Myth About Boys.”  The author, David Von Drehle, is the father of an almost-ten-year-old son, like this author.  His article takes a look at the alarms rung over the last couple of decades about how poorly boys were faring in America

Pointing out valid reasons for the alarms, such as the influence of the culture wars, Von Drehle also digs through the recent federal report on the well being of children to discover that boys today are doing better academically and socially than they were twenty years ago.  And he points to some programs, one in Harlem and one in the mountains of North Carolina, where the wisdom of the ages is proving true once again: Boys thrive when they have the freedom to be boys.

Not overscheduled, over-sported, over-video gamed boys, mind you.  But boys given the freedom to explore, to challenge, to imagine and to dream.

How counter-cultural!  How (dare I say it?) traditional!

Von Drehle uses the book The Dangerous Book for Boys as the jumping-off point for his piece.  “The Dangerous Book, bound in an Edwardian red cover with marbled endpapers, has many of the timeless qualities of an ideal young man: curiosity, bravery and respectfulness; just enough rogue to leaven the stoic; an appetite for any challenge, from hunting small game to mastering the rules of grammar. It celebrates trial and error, vindicates the noble failure.”

Von Drehle outlines the litany of woes about boys and the raw deal they've received from the culture and education system.  With experts ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to Education Sector (a Gates Foundation-funded think tank), Von Drehle's story seeks to balance the arguments for and against the “trouble with boys.”

Von Drehle states, “The more I probed, the more I realized that the subject of boys is a bog of sociology in which a clever researcher, given a little time, can unearth evidence to support almost any point of view. I also came to the sad realization that this field, like so many others, has been infiltrated by our left-right political noise machine. Our boys have become cannon fodder in the unresolved culture wars waged by their parents and grandparents. On one side, concern for boys is waved off as a mere “backlash against the women's movement,” as two writers declared dismissively in The Washington Post last year. The opposing side views any divergence from the crisis theme as male-bashing feminism.”

His analysis of the America's Children report, culled from the data of over twenty federal agencies and released early in July, revealed something different.  There was in fact a “virtual free fall” in the performance of America's boys in the 1980s and 1990s.  But, the slide has “leveled off – and in many cases, turned around.”

The juvenile crime rate (most juveniles in jail are boys) has dramatically dropped.  More boys are graduating from high school and going to college.  Test scores are improving, though not dramatically.  In fact Von Drehle reports that about the only measure in the America's Children report in which boys are faring worse is with regard to physical health.  1 in 5 boys is considered obese, compared to 1 in 20 in the 1970s.

Cue the video games.

The strength of Von Drehle's article lies in the examples he cites under the subhead “So Where Did We Go Right?” And it is here that he outlines two programs, a school in Harlem and a camp in North Carolina which seem to have figured out what many parents knew generations ago: “return to the basics of boyhood--quests, competitions, tribal brotherhoods and self-discovery.”

The first example is the Frederick Douglas Academy where Principal Gregory Hodge has created an environment in which young black urban males, by far the most at-risk and troubled cohort in American society, strive to succeed. Every single senior in Hodge's school graduated and will go to college this fall.  Hodge's secret? Set the bar high and expect achievement.  And when it comes to boys, “They've gotta experiment, learn the hard way that his head won't break concrete. Male students tend to want to find things out for themselves--so why don't you use that as a teacher?”

That concept of boy-driven discovery is behind the success of Von Drehle's other example, Falling Creek Camp for Boys in North Carolina.  A pediatric nurse on staff at the camp explained the success there, “Whether it's urban kids who can't go outside because it's too dangerous or the overscheduled, over-parented kids at the other end of the spectrum—I'm worried that boys have lost the chance to play and to explore ...When no one's looming over them, they begin making choices of their own …They discover consequences and learn to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. They start learning self-discipline, self-confidence, team building. If we don't let kids work through their own problems, we get a generation of whiners.”


Von Drehle's feature acknowledges and cites the evidence that American society has focused on the success of girls recently (maybe the only positive of the feminist movement) and that focus has reaped benefits as girls are in fact outperforming boys on most measures in the America's Children report.  What will happen when that same positive energy is turned to our boys and applied through the lens of what has in fact worked for generations past?  It's a model that has worked well for the Boy Scouts, as any parent who has sent their son off to camp knows.  Challenge them.  Give them the freedom to explore and discover.  Expect them to do well and give them the tools to achieve.  And that tool isn't a Nintendo Wii.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.