Monday, February 8, 2016

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

This book arrived at my door earlier this week. I started reading it before supper and didn't put it down until I finished it before bed. The author, Dr. Leonard Sax, is an American psychologist and a practicing family physician. It really resonated with me and my experiences working with boys. It also challenged some of my assumptions - particularly those regarding video games. In the text, he identifies the symptoms of males' lack of motivation and attempts to diagnose the causes. 

The First Factor: Changes at School

Dr. Sax sees several changes at school as particularly negative for boys. First, the kindergarten experience has shifted away from play-based activities towards early literacy skills. Boys thereby begin school with a deficit because of the nature of early childhood language development for males. Second, in an effort to increase scores on various assessments, school curricula has shifted from experience to knowledge, or from kenntnis to wissenschaft. This shift away from experiential learning is particularly demotivating to boys, whose brains can struggle to learn by listening or watching. Third, the teaching of reading has shifted away from finding stories to inspire the mind, towards developing phonics and reading strategies.  What this means is that while boys in fourth grade have better reading skills than they used to, boys by twelfth grade have often stopped reading altogether. Fourth, forms of competition - long successful for motivating boys - have been largely eliminated from the modern classroom. In particular, Dr. Sax advocates for team-based competition within the classroom. The problem with this is that girls don't always respond as positively to competition as boys. 

The Second Factor: Video Games
Next, Dr. Sax identities a variety of problems with video games. First, they provide boys with an easy form of power and control that can often supplant the motivation for power in real life. Second, they are far easier than the sports and activities of real life. This is particularly damaging when you consider the ubiquitous availability of digital pornography. In tandem with video games, pornography offers boys a substitute form of power and substitute form sex - often leading to disengagement from the real world.  

The Third Factor: ADHD Medication
Boys are often put on medication very early in their academic career - largely because they struggle to sit still and listen when they enter school. After taking the medication the boys are often more focused in school, so parents think that the ADHD diagnosis was correct. The problem, according to Sax, is that most people would be more focused if taking ADHD medications. Improved focus while medicated does not confirm an ADHD diagnosis. Dr. Sax found that boys who take this medication show few short term side-effects, but over multiple years these stimulants damage the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain responsible for translating motivation into action. Strangely enough, this same area of the brain is affected by playing video games. 

The Fourth Factor: Endocrine Disruptors

In 2006, male fish were found with eggs instead of sperm. The water they were drawn from had high levels of endocrine disruptors: substances which mimic the actions of female hormones.  Then, doctors found alligators in Florida with shrivelled testicles and high levels of female hormones. Dr. Sax identifies plastics as the culprit, particularly PET, which leach phthalate. This could not only account for problems with boys, but also also for girls who have begun entering puberty years too early. For boys, the affects of phthalates could lead to delayed puberty.  Moreover, mothers with high levels of phthalates while pregnant often gave birth to boys with incomplete masculinization. 

The Fifth Factor: The Loss of Positive Male Role Models

Dr. Sax also argues that there are very few male spaces where boys can learn from older men. This transition to adulthood is largely forgotten in our culture. In addition, modern depictions of fathers have suffered from the Homer Simpson effect, where dads are portrayed as bumbling, lazy fools. What does it mean to be a man? How will boys receive this message of adult masculinity?

What does Dr. Sax Recommend?

  • Enroll your boy in school a year late.
  • If your boy is really struggling, enroll him in an all-boys school
  • Consider the content, time played, and activities displaced by video games and test them yourself. 
  • Avoid using ADHD medications unless ADHD is diagnosed independently
  • Avoid plastic pacifiers, toys, bottles
  • Avoid heating plastic in the microwave

In a Nutshell

As I said, this book resonated with me. In some ways, members of my own family could be grouped within the Failure to Launch generation. I found this to be an interesting read, and I look forward to learning more about this topic as my own boys grow up.