Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Raising American Boys: New Book Puts Us On Notice

Boys aren't dumber than girls, so why are they lagging behind so much?

We all know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and attorney and bestselling author Lisa Bloom reminds us that American boys are the grease when it comes to caring for and protecting our youth. In her new book, Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture, Bloom takes an exacting look at the trajectory boys are on today: graduating at lower rates, getting incarcerated at higher rates, and often self-medicating with drugs or other substances. Bloom shows us how popular culture encourages emotional numbness and thugdom which holds boys back in ways that prevent both social-emotional and professional development. I’ve read the book, and I can tell you that her insights and solutions are right on target.

In her book, Bloom makes many suggestions to help counter the nasty influences at work today, but the one that resonates the most with me is her position on reading. Simply put, she argues that reading is a powerful protector against the forces that can bring a boy down in today’s world, allowing him to learn and develop self-esteem simultaneously. Go figure, a boy developing self-esteem because he’s well-read and knowledgeable, as opposed to the gone-in-a-minute confidence that comes from, say, mastering a video game!

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As a therapist, I sincerely appreciate Bloom’s take on gender stereotypes. It sounds like she hates them just as much as I do, but she leaves room for the occasional instances in which they’re true, or true-ish. When you understand, for example, that boys underperform compared to girls in every grade and subject, you realize that there are distinct mechanisms at work in negatively influencing the minds of boys – because it’s not that boys are dumber than girls. Fortunately, Swagger offers simple steps parents can follow to step in and make sure they’re doing everything in their power from preventing their sons from becoming another nasty statistic.

I'm sure we all agree that boys have so much potential. I have a 5-year old son, and I can tell you that he has, well, an awful lot of energy. (That’s the diplomatic way to describe him after a night when I’ve had enough rest.) My challenge as his parent is to channel that energy into the right outlets which, for me, means encouraging him to read, teaching him about nature and plants, and modeling empathy for him. I read to my son even when he’d rather play with his ball, and I talk until I’m blue in the face about following through and finishing projects he starts.

My personal view is that a lot of the trouble boys can get into stems from their vast resource of energy - and boys, as a rule, do seem to have more energy than girls. Too much energy can be a very bad thing, particularly when boys are flooded with video games, computers, and hand-held computer devices that practically beg for a bona fide diagnosis of Attention-Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder. I know that cars are sold with DVD players for the kids, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy them. Let’s let boys – and the girls, too – sit in the back and actually use their imaginations to pass the time.

A good parenting book always gets me worked up, and Lisa Bloom’s book, Swagger is no exception. She reminds us that there are so many things we can do to help our boys and improve their future course with a caveat: almost all of them involve a parent’s time and attention. Sure, it’s a drain on our own emotional and energy resources as parents, particularly if you work full-time and have other kids in the house. But these boys are worth it, and it’s our responsibility to take better care of them.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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