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Why Are Boys Now Less Motivated Than Girls?

The gender gap is growing among high achievers. How come?

It's graduation season. Among students graduating with highest honors, have you noticed that the girls now significantly outnumber the boys? For example: among this year's crop of valedictorians at Boston's 42 public high schools, 30 valedictorians were girls, 12 were boys. And that's typical, in my experience: among students earning highest honors, girls now often outnumber boys by 2 to 1, or more. How come?

I recently visited a school where the 10th-grade English teacher asked all her students to write a story about anything they liked. One boy chose to write about the battle of Stalingrad, November 1942, from the perspective of a Russian soldier. The Russian soldier was patrolling a street when he was ambushed by a German soldier. The Russian soldier fired his rifle at point-blank range into the face of the German. The boy then described what happens when a soldier fires a rifle into another man’s face. The head explodes: a piece of chin goes this way, a piece of skull goes that way, a chunk of eyeball goes another way.

This boy was suspended from school. His parents were told that he would not be permitted to return until the parents obtained an evaluation by a licensed professional, assuring the school that he posed no imminent danger to himself or to others.

When the parents shared this story with me, it struck a chord, because I myself wrote a similar story. Back in 1977, when I was a senior at Shaker Heights High School outside Cleveland, the lead teacher for English nominated me and three other students to sit for a competition administered by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The proctor gave each of us a blue essay book and told us to write a story.

In my story, I imagined an East German trying to escape to West Germany. The East German man is running across the no-man’s-land separating East Germany from West Germany. He steps on a landmine, which – in my story – blows off his left leg up to the hip, and his right leg below the knee. The man crawls to the border. The West German guards pull him to safety, to take him to hospital. But as they lift him off the ground, the man dies.

My own mom died in 2008. Going through her papers after her death, I found that she had kept the certificate sent to our home by the NCTE back in 1977, awarding me their highest honor in creative writing.

Boys have always written stories about traumatic amputation and violent death. In 1977, writing such a story might earn you an award, as it did for me. Today, it may earn you a suspension. The girl who wrote a story about how she felt when she wasn’t invited to the party was commended. The boy who wrote about the Battle of Stalingrad was disciplined. Boys doing things that boys have always done now gets boys in trouble. Schools have become less friendly to boys.

I thought of the boy who wrote the story about the battle of Stalingrad while reading a recent paper examining changes in the gender gap in academic achievement since the 1980s. American girls have always earned slightly better grades than American boys. But in the past three decades, the gender gap at the top of the distribution has widened: American boys are now markedly under-represented among those earning As. The scholars titled their paper “Leaving Boys Behind: gender disparities in high academic achievement.”

Why aren’t boys keeping up with girls? There are multiple factors in play. One factor is surely that the average school today is less welcoming to boys and to the kind of stories some boys like to write. But that’s not the whole story. As a practicing physician, and as a PhD psychologist who sees these boys and listens to what they have to say, I am convinced that another factor is video games. Many boys, probably most boys, want to feel that they have conquered, that they have triumphed against great odds. I’ve been a medical doctor for thirty years. If a boy wanted to gain that feeling of accomplishment thirty years ago, he actually had to accomplish something in the real world. Many boys today boast to me about their achievements in Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty the way a boy thirty years ago might have boasted about his achievements in track and field.

Another factor is the normalization of pornography in the life of teenage boys. For most of recorded history, a young man’s desire for sexual intimacy with a young woman has been a major motivator for a young man. The young man wanted to “make something of himself” partly in order to impress young women and improve his odds of achieving sexual satisfaction. As pornography replaced actual intimacy in the lives of many young men, that motivation shifted, away from the real world and into the make-believe world of porn. This change isn’t confined to scrawny geeks who are unable to find a willing partner. John Mayer, a pop star whose previous girlfriends include Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson, proudly told Rolling Stone magazine that he is “the new generation of masturbator”: he now prefers online pornography over actual sexual intimacy with actual women. This is the new normal. For many boys (though not all) it undermines the motivation to achieve in the real world.

What can you do about this, if you have a son?

First: find a school which is friendly to boys. If necessary, move to a different community which offers such a school. Many private boys’ schools understand these issues well. There are also a growing number of boys’ schools in the public sector, such as the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, a public school in Dallas Texas, which get this (as I learned from six days on site at that school). Some coed schools also know how to make a school friendly to boys without making the school unfriendly to girls; but such schools are not typical. You have to look for them.

Second: limit your son’s time spent playing video games. No more than 40 minutes a night on school nights; no more than an hour a day on weekends. Prioritize the real world over screens.

Third: no pornography for boys under 18. The adolescent years are a crucial time in which sexual desire is taking shape. Boys whose ejaculatory experiences are based on pornography, rather than on actual girls they have met (whether those encounters are real or fantasied), are more likely to have difficulty with sexual intimacy, more likely to have difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection with a young woman who isn’t wearing lingerie and doesn’t resemble a porn star. Boys tell me that the most common portal for viewing pornography is on their mobile phone. If you have given your son a mobile phone, you must install apps like Net Nanny Mobile or My Mobile Watchdog which allow you to govern and see what your son is doing online. Explain to your son that he is not allowed to watch pornography, because pornography objectifies women, because pornography creates unrealistic expectations, and because pornography may decrease his ability to perform sexually with real women in the future. Explain, but don’t negotiate. Any viewing of pornography on the phone means that he loses his phone privileges, indefinitely.

Being a parent is a challenge in every generation. But the challenges are significantly different today compared with just twenty years ago, when scholars were still voicing concern about the under-representation of girls among high academic achievers. In order for your boy to become a gentleman and a scholar, you need to fight against much of contemporary American popular culture, which now has normalized and even glamorized disrespect and rudeness. If your son is going to model himself on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rather than on Eminem or Justin Bieber or Akon, then he may need some guidance from you.

Leonard Sax MD PhD is a practicing physician in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and the author of four books for parents. An updated and revised edition of his book Boys Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men has just been published. More information about Dr. Sax is at his web site