Boys Adrift:  the Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

An ULTRA-short summary

By Leonard Sax, MD, PhD

 

I have been a practicing physician for 21 years. For the past 17 years, I have worked in a suburb of Washington DC. Ten years ago, I began noticing something odd. I’d find a family where the daughter was motivated, hardworking, and successful – while her brother was an under-achiever. I have now documented this pattern dozens of times just in my own practice. Emily is a straight-A student determined to get into a good college, while her brother – just as smart as Emily – has none of her drive.  The opposite pattern, with an intense, highly-motivated son and a laid-back “slacker” sister, is very rare.

In the past seven years, I have visited over 200 schools around the United States, Canada, and Australia. I have met with teachers, spoken with parents, and listened to children and teenagers from every demographic group. I have found that this pattern is becoming more common everywhere you look. You will find it in cities, in suburbs and in rural areas; you will find it among White, Black, and Latino families; and you will find it in affluent neighborhoods nearly as often as in low-income neighborhoods.

What’s going on?

I have spent every available moment for the past seven years researching this question. I have published scholarly articles for the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians. I have written op-eds for newspapers such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Daily News.  I have corresponded with more than a thousand parents and their sons. I have seen this question grow from my own personal mission to become a national topic of debate and the central theme of movies such as Failure to Launch.

And now, finally, I think I’ve figured it out. I have identified five factors which I believe are driving this phenomenon. And I have seen what works: what parents can do to turn this thing around and get their sons back on track.

 

Here’s a quick run-down on the five factors which are disengaging so many boys:

1)     Changes in education.  Over the past 30 years, American education has undergone three major changes which have had the unintended consequence of turning boys off school.  Here we have space just to talk about one of those changes, namely:  the acceleration of the early elementary curriculum.  Thirty years ago, kindergarten typically was about activities such as fingerpainting, or playing duck-duck-goose, or singing in rounds, or going on a field trip to splash in a pond or chase after tadpoles.  No longer.  Today, kindergarten is first and foremost about learning to read and write.  In other words, the kindergarten curriculum in 2007 looks suspiciously like the first-grade curriculum in 1977.  Likewise, we’re now asking 1st-graders to do what we asked 2nd or 3rd-graders to do thirty years ago.  And so on.

That acceleration of the early elementary curriculum took place without any awareness of recent neuroanatomical research showing that the different regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared with boys.  The language area in the brain of a typical 5-year-old boy, according to a large NIH study published in 2006, looks very much like the language area in the brain of a 3½-year-old girl.  Many 5-year-olds are simply not ready to sit for hours, learning to read and write – not because they’re dumb, but because they are BOYS.  The result is that for many young boys, the first experience of school is a turnoff.  I’ve watched this happen countless times.  “Jason honey, why are you squidgeting and widgeting in your chair like that?  Please stop, it’s very distracting.  Damien, are you making that buzzing noise again?  Please.  Jason, what did I just tell you!  Now look at Emily, she’s being so good, she’s sitting still and being quiet.  Is that so hard for you boys?  Can’t you please just SIT STILL AND BE QUIET!  The boys get the message that doing well in school means being more like a girl and less like a boy.  But boys don’t want to be girls (just as girls don’t want to be boys).  As a result, many boys develop hostile attitudes toward school – by the age of 6! – which are hard to change, particularly if parents and teachers don’t understand where those attitudes came from.

2)     Video games.  The average American boy spends 13 hours a week playing video games, compared to less than 5 hours per week for girls.  That figure does NOT include time spent watching television.  And that’s just the AVERAGE:  many boys spend 15 to 20 hours a week, which means on a typical day they’re spending two hours or more in front of the PlayStation or the Xbox or the GameCube.  We now have some extraordinary brain research demonstrating that boys who spend more than eight hours a week playing video games – which means, the majority of American boys – actually atrophy the area of the brain involved in motivation and concentration.  They are more likely to prefer video games to reading a book, and more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, which leads to the next factor:

3)     Medications for ADHD.  In affluent suburbs, as many as one in three White boys today is taking a medication such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, or Metadate.  Recent research from Harvard University and other prestigious research institutions suggests that when these “academic steroids” are administered at an early age, the end result may be damage to the nucleus accumbens.  The nucleus accumbens plays no role in cognition.  The function of the nucleus accumbens is to translate motivation into action.  If a boy has a damaged nucleus accumbens, he’ll look fine and he’ll feel fine.  But he’ll be lazy – particularly if he stops taking those medications.

4)     Endocrine disruptors in the environment.  The average young man in the United States today has a sperm count less than half what his grandfather had at the same age.  And, a typical boy in the United States today is more than twice as likely to break a bone compared with a boy thirty years ago – despite the fact that the boy today is less active.  Researchers such as Dr. Shanna Swan at the University of Rochester have traced these changes to endocrine disruptors in the food our children eat and the water they drink.  For example:  what’s the composition of that clear plastic bottle that your bottled water is in?  That bottle is made out of polyethylene terephthalate, a substance which mimics the action of female hormones.  The result of drinking water out of clear plastic bottles is not only lower sperm counts and brittle bones, but diminished motivation and drive.  That effect is seen only in boys, not in girls.  Recent studies which I cite in the book show that endocrine disruptors lead to derangement of the motivational system in boys, but not in girls.  (In girls, these same substances accelerate the onset of puberty, and may increase the risk of breast cancer later in life.)

5)     The decline and disintegration of the masculine ideal.  Forty years ago, popular evening TV shows included Father Knows Best and My Three Sons.  Twenty years ago, The Cosby Show was a leading sitcom.  Today, the most successful evening comedy show is The Simpsons.  We’ve gone from Father Knows Best to Homer Simpson in a little more than one generation.  I don’t believe that these shows caused the change in the way that men are viewed in our culture, but I do think that television and other aspects of popular culture reflect changing views of masculinity.  Today, a boy doesn’t get much constructive guidance about what it means to be “a real man.”  He can choose between boobs like Homer Simpson or slackers like the Matthew McConaughey character in Failure to Launch, or he can choose a thug or a bully as his role model – such as the personae portrayed by male pop stars Akon, 50 Cent and Eminem.

 

Together, these five factors have created a perfect storm whose net result is the disengagement of American boys and young men not only from school but from life.  In May 2007, the Pew Centers reported that 32% of American women have earned a college degree by the age of 35, while only 23% of America men have done so.  That gender gap is growing rapidly.  Some experts forecast that within ten years, 40% of American women under 35 will have earned a college degree, while only 20% of American men in the same age group will have done so.  We will have a 2-to-1 ratio.  That’s a situation in which many young women will have to choose between marrying a less-educated man or not marrying at all.  I present evidence that those women are already deciding that marriage is not a wise choice for them.  The net result is likely to be a plunging birth rate similar to what is already being seen in Japan, and the continued emergence of a society in which more and more young men live as “slackers”, partly or wholly dependent on parents or other relatives well into their 30’s.

This extremely brief summary does considerable violence to the evidentiary basis linking these five factors to the disengagement of American boys from school and from the real world.  I hope you will take the time to look at my book, Boys Adrift (more information online at www.BoysAdrift.com).  My book includes more than 400 scholarly references demonstrating the linkage – as well as concrete and practical strategies which parents and teachers can use to get these boys back on track.