Home > Brain Research, Uncategorized > What’s Happening to Boys?

What’s Happening to Boys?

In his March 28, 2010 column for The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof summarized recent research that points starkly towards a global downturn in school, and personal, success for boys. Here are some of his stats:

 • High school GPA for boys is 2.86 compared to girls’ 3.09

• Girls now score equal to boys in math (but boys more often score extremely high or extremely low)

• Girls outscore boys in verbal

• Girls appear to make more effort

• 64% of National Honor Society members are girls

• In many colleges, boys now given “special consideration” so ratios won’t become out of balance (i.e., affirmative action for boys)

• Girls are outreading boys at all age/grade levels in all states, with the number of girls achieving proficiency level at 79%, boys at 72%.

• Boys are two times more likely to repeat a grade as are girls, two times more likely to be suspended, and three times more likely to be expelled

• 25% more boys are dropouts in comparison to girls

• 57% of master’s degrees awarded to whites go to females, and 62% of doctorates go to females

• 66% of master’s degrees awarded to blacks go to females, and 72% of doctorates go to females

• In the national writing exam, 32% of girls are proficient, but only 16% of boys `

Why? Physician and psychologist Leonard Sax proposes in his 2007 book Boys Adrift (Basic Books) five underlying and interactive causes:

1. The current way schools do business does not typically permit boys to be boys.

2. When they do try to be boys, they tend to get (falsely) diagnosed with ADHD and (over) medicated, leading to an unmotivated, alienated anomie.

3. Meanwhile, years of consuming foods and beverages poisoned by estrogen-mimicking phthalates from plastic containers has led to endocrine imbalances and anomalies.

4. This triple-whammy has nudged many boys into the “safe” virtual reality of video games and pornography, where they can have thrills without responsibilities.

5. The family and society have allowed negative cultural role models (epitomized by Homer Simpson) to reinforce an image of boys and men as lazy, unambitious, and lacking in courage, with too few positive role models demanding that young boys exhibit courage and service in approaching manhood (epitomized by the scouting movement)—what is known as “rites of passage.”

So, that’s the situation. The solution is straightforward, if not easy:

1. Schools and parents need to delay boys’ reading instruction and permit more play and exploration; Sax encourages single sex schools and classrooms (see http://www.singlesexschools.org); he also recommends adjustable height tables so boys can stand or kneel, even lie down, while doing schoolwork; follow the German model of Waldkindergarten (http://www.waldkindergarteninc.com/).

2. Resist diagnosing active boys with ADHD; insist that all five DSM-IV criteria are met; if meds are required, start with weaker ones.

3. Eliminate plastic beverage and food containers, especially when they are heated (in a microwave, sitting in the sun, etc.); look for new PLA containers made by Cargill from corn.

4. Severely limit videogaming and provide “thrilling” alternatives, such as RaceLegal (http://www.sandiego.gov/qualcomm/event/tenants/racelegal.shtml) and Wii competitions with parents and kids.

5. Subject young boys to positive, demanding role models, whether through scouting, sports, or other community programs and organizations.

That’s it. Want more? For a little more, keep reading, and I’ll share some of my notes from reading Dr. Sax’s book. If you want more than this, visit his website http://www.boysadrift.com and read his book.

Here is some more detail about each of the five areas. These notes should give you a good feeling for Sax’s reasoning.

1. Schools

Sax writes about the difference in two modes of learning: rote (Wissenschaft) or experience (Kenntnis), or knowledge and understanding, like the difference between being able to recite the steps involved in building a radio, and actually being able to build a radio from raw materials. The current emphasis in schools, where the emphasis is on raising test scores, is on “book learning” (Wissenshaft), and not on experiential learning (Kenntnis), learning by doing. It is like the difference between memory and mastery—the memory of the steps involved in winning friends and influencing people, versus the mastery of actually winning friends and influencing people.

A consequence of the emphasis on testing is that kids at earlier and earlier ages are expected to be able to read and math. Boys are just not ready for this as early as girls, requiring one or more years to acquire the developmental maturity to focus on letters and numbers. The solution is to hold boys back from entering kindergarten, and/or selecting a kindergarten/early grade that permits more play and hands-on activity until signs emerge that a boy is ready and interested in mastering reading. Don’t worry about not starting school until later: Finland, where children do not begin school until seven years of age, comes in first on international tests of school performance. (p. 20) Why? Fewer kids alienated by school will result in a higher average. Turned-off kids sink your average performance scores. Readiness is everything.

Many schools have deemphasized competitive activities, with the result of fewer outlets at school for competitive kids to become engaged. Cooperation has been promoted too often at the expensive of healthy competition.

Boys used to outscore girls on tests of science understanding, but now the gap has vanished. Sax attributes this to less time being spent in play, experimentation, trial-and-error, and more spent on listening and reciting. Girls do not necessarily like such rote learning, but the typical girl appears to be more willing to put up with it than the typical boy. But this doesn’t exist in isolation. The other four factors interact with and exaggerate the boy-unfriendly classroom.

Sax mentions illegal car racing in city streets as an example of boys not engaged by school and seeking thrills. San Diego began “RaceLegal,” in which teens pay to race cars against, e.g., police officers in their cruisers. The program has spread to Atlanta and other cities, with the result that street racing has virtually disappeared. Who says legal thrills can’t still be thrilling?! (pp. 190-191)


The excessive use of ADHD medications leads to decreased testosterone (pp.88 ff.). However, stimulants improve the school performance both of ADHD students and non-ADHD students. As a consequence, many students who do not have ADHD, but who are diagnosed with it, are mistakenly diagnosed post hoc as having ADHD, since the med led to improved performance. The problem is that “…even relatively short-term use of these drugs [Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Dexedrine, Adderall], for just a year or perhaps less, can lead to changes in personality. The boy who used to be agreeable, outgoing, and adventurous becomes lazy and irritable.”

Why? These drugs damage the nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain that “translates motivation into action. If a boy’s nucleus accumbens is damaged, he may still feel hungry, or sexually aroused. He just won’t feel motivated to do anything about it.” (p. 90) Studies show an inverse relationship between the size of the nucleus accumbens and the degree of apathy in an individual. Rat studies show this relationship conclusively—studies are afoot to determine the degree to which humans show the same relationship between size nucleus accumbens and strength of drive. This apathy resulting from nucleus accumbens damage is not the same thing as depression (p. 91).

Always question ADHD diagnoses keeping this in mind: “Very often, when a boy isn’t paying attention, the problem is not with the boy but with the way he is being taught.” See my brain book for diagnosis of ADHD, but Sax says (pp. 195-6, adapted from DSM-IV) must meet 5 criteria:

1. Hyperactivity/impulsivity/inattention

2. Begins before age seven

3. Not just one setting, e.g., school, home, church, friend’s home

4. Impaired school and social skills

5. No other disorder or cause apparent

If ADD diagnosis is unavoidable, start with the mildest meds (e.g., Wellbutrin, Strattera), keeping the stronger ones as a last resort (Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Focalin, Daytrana, all amphetamines and methylphenidates), and accompany with talk therapy/training/behavior mod.

3. Plastics

Plastic containers bleed toxins into contents, with the effect of disrupting the endocrine system. Transparent plastics (polyvinyl chloride/PVC, polycarbonates) used for bottles, food storage, etc., contain polyethylene terephthalate (PET), bisphenol A (BPA), and other building blocks for the purpose of keeping the plastic from being rigid, as well as having other properties. The problem is that the toxins leach into its contents, especially in the presence of heat. That’s why a plastic bottle of water, juice, or soda tastes plasticky after sitting in the car on a warm day. The problem is that these so-called phthalates (and others) disrupt the endocrine system, effectively feminizing humans or animals that consume them. Thus, girls and female animals achieve puberty early if they consume phthalates regularly, and boys and male animals are emasculated. In essence, phthalates act as estrogen. Other chemicals are thought to have a similar effect. For examples, endosulfan is used to keep insects off of crops, but it disrupts the endocrine system in humans/animals who eat the crops they’ve permeated.(p. 105)

Also, this family of endocrine disruptors appears to foul up a neural process based on PACAP (pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide), with the result that the PACAP system’s normal dampening effect is prevented, with the consequence of nonstop activity, or ADD. Sax mentions (p. 107) that 1) India and China have little ADHD, and 2) India and China also have the lowest use of plastic beverage containers, except for tourists. Apparently, these two immense populations are using more and more plastic beverage containers, and it will be of interest to see if ADHD rates increase accordingly—a natural, if unintended, experiment.

Estrogen disruption is also related to the overweight epidemic, as estrogen governs the size of fat cells (p. 109). Increases in estrogen levels enlarge fat cells. And phthalates et al increase estrogen. As children don’t make estrogen, their unnatural acquisition of estrogen through phthalates et al appear to be a prepotent explanation of the weight epidemic among children. The evidence is that phthalates et al cause three disorders (p. 110), all because of endocrine disruption: ADHD, overweight, and delayed (for boys) or early (for girls) puberty. And, Sax thinks that the incidence of bone fractures among boys having doubled since 1960 is largely attributable to these endocrine disruptors—increases in estrogen make girls bones dense, but not so with boys. (p. 111)

“There’s growing evidence that the end result of our increasingly toxic environment is girls who are both masculine and feminine, and boys who are neither masculine nor feminine.” (p. 112) In another study, women across the country who drank water from plastic bottles during pregnancy had boys who were ten times more likely to have genital defects. (p. 113) Meanwhile, their girl babies were ok. And, in a similar vein, rural men (e.g., farmers and others exposed to more pesticides than city dwellers) have been found to carry lower quantity and quality sperm than city-dwelling men.

Sax recommends (p. 114-115):

1. Prefer glass/paper to plastic food and beverage containers.

2. Insure that food and beverages being heated do not come into contact with plastic of any kind.

3. When you must have plastics, look for PVC-free labels

4. Insure that your dentist does not place phthalate-containing compounds in your family’s mouths.

5. If you must take food or beverage in plastic containers with you, keep them out of the heat as much as possible.

6. Be on the lookout for a new container made of corn: PLA (polylactic acid), by Cargill’s NatureWorks LLC. Looks just like other plastic bottles (PET, made from petroleum), but is compostable, is not a plastic, and does not contain toxins.

4. Videogaming

Sax writes (p. 58) that the “average teenage boy today spends more than thirteen hours a week playing video games, compared with five hours per week for the average teenage girl.” The bad video games (Grand Theft Auto, SpyHunter, Halo, Doom, Madden NFL) emphasize power, violence, and thrills achieved in a safe environment in which the worst thing that can happen to you is to have to restart. You don’t have to deal with the 24-7 of ongoing relationships. You can do whatever you want to without real world consequences, and you can watch as virtual people kill etc. without consequences. Games like SimCity and The Sims do not entail violence, but can permit an individual to opt for a virtual existence rather than a flesh-and-blood one. There are “good ones” that permit person-to-person interaction, as in parent and child playing with Wii systems, MTX Motocross, NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona.

The amount of time spent playing video games is inversely related to school performance, regardless of grade level (p. 63). Sax calls it a “clear and unambiguous” relationship. Studies show that time spent on video games “engorges” (91) the nucleus accumbens with blood, in the same fashion that cocaine does. This shuts down blood to the area of the brain—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex–associated with providing a balanced view of the world. The kid on video games is like the rat with an electrode in the nucleus accumbens, who is so ecstatic from the electrode that it neglects to eat. Both the rat and the kid lose perspective because the engorgement of the nucleus accumbens robs the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of blood flow necessary to provide some perspective. I.e., addiction is setting in—video gaming morphs into something akin to crack cocaining.

Sax recommends:

1. No games allowed in which you can kill good people.

2. No more than an hour on weekends AFTER other responsibilities completed, not more than 40 minutes Monday through Thursday.

3. Establish priorities: family is first, school second, friends third, then and only then come things like video games.

4. Initiate alternative ways to get thrills: polar bear club, legal race tracks, sports, music, service clubs, etc. My teammate takes her sons mountain biking.

5. Cultural Role Models

Current cultural norms (e.g. Bart Simpson, Seinfeld) provide unambitious, weak, uncaring role models, rather than the more traditionally rigorous rites of passage that emphasize achievement, courage, and altruism. The percentage of men who are either not working nor not looking for work has quadrupled since the middle of the twentieth century.(p. 128) Sax attributes this to two principle factors: first, the collective influence of the previous four factors, and, second, the decreasing profile of the traditional male ideal. The latter is typified in the popularity of Homer Simpson on television and Matthew McConaughey’s character Tripp in the film Failure to Launch. The malaise results in 1 of 3 college age males with erectile dysfunction, which Sax sees as the result of a preference for virtual reality (video games, pornography) and its guarantee of hassle-free, easy-success relationships and ventures, such that real world encounters simply aren’t arousing. (p. 132) When youth have Homers and Tripps as their model, taking refuge in virtual reality ensues. The antidote is exposure—and exposure from which you can’t retreat—to male role models that exude courage and kindness, a kind of global, cross-cultural male ideal that pours mental, emotional, physical, and financial energy into the service of the planet. Whether it is parents, coaches, bosses, teachers, scout leaders, community organizers, church workers, etc., it must be a grown man, not a peer, who engages the youth mentors them into prosocial goals and behaviors. As Sax, writes: “A boy does not naturally become a gentleman—by which I mean a man who is courteous and kind and unselfish. That behavior is not hardwired. It has to be taught.” (p. 163). He gives the example of several single sex schools that emphasize positive male role models. Whether it is killing an animal to feed the family or completing an Eagle scout service project, youth must pass through a series of tests under the leadership of men. “There is no enduring culture in which cowardly men are esteemed, or in which brave men are held in contempt. There is no enduring culture in which lazy men are celebrated while hardworking men are despised.” (p. 168) “The explicit motivation behind the founding of the Boy Scouts was to ‘make men of little boys’ and foster ‘an independent manhood.’ There was no assumption that an independent manhood would just happen naturally. As in other cultures, there was an urgent awareness that boys must be led to manhood.” (p. 172)

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