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Why are we un-boy-ing our boys?

Courtesy of Weldon Owen

The boy is having trouble with his letter sounds, the teacher says. He gets that it’s a B, but not ba-ba-ba. W, but not wah-wah-wah. F, but not effffff. This is a serious issue, they say. There is a serious-looking form that says so. There is a recommendation to see a specialist. Auditory processing. An appointment is made. He is examined. He gets a diagnosis. The diagnosis: he has no auditory processing issues.

The specialist says this: It might be that he’s a little bit behind developmentally, or he might not be interested. I do not have a Ph.D. nor one of those satiny Technicolor sashes around my neck, but I know this much: he is not interested. I understand the teacher has a job to do, but the boy turned five in July. He cares about marshmallows and the Fresh Beat Band. He cares about chocolate and Halloween. He doesn’t care about vowel sounds. Ba-ba-ba is ba-ba-boring. F is a ffffff#$king snooze. The school is thinking about achievement gaps and advanced placement, which means school rankings, which means PR and fundraising. Tanner doesn’t know he is part of the Big Picture. He doesn't know Obama expects him to win the future. He is thinking about what’s in his snack bag.

I’ve written before about kids not being allowed to be kids. But zoom in, and you’ll find an equally big problem: boys aren’t allowed to be boys. Walk into any preschool classroom and you’ll see little girls sitting still, paying attention. You will also see boys fidgeting, making faces, turning umbrellas into lightsabers. Most would describe this scene as the girls behaving and the boys misbehaving. But the question is: Why do we want boys to act like girls?

When Jackson was in kindergarten, the teacher told us, “He’s having a hard time sitting at his desk.” Of course he is. He is a boy. One hundred thousand years ago, Jackson would not have been gluing buttons to Styrofoam cups at a desk. He would have been hunting wild deer in the tundra, collecting kindling in the forest. Thousands upon thousands of years of evolution was pushing him up from his chair. Eventually, the teacher let Jackson stand at the table. It didn’t affect his work.

We have got to find a way to let boys be boys. My job is to write about this world of youth, a time of violent, magnificent imagination, of reckless independence careening ahead in untied Nikes. At some point, we have to politely wave off the specialists, crinkle up the ADD and ADHD diagnoses, and remember that this is a boy. A boy. Not a girl. Not a soldier in our intellectual race against China. A boy.

Let’s be fair. It’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s all of our fault. And our attitude toward boys won’t change because of a new law or a protest or a petition or an amendment to the Constitution. It must change quietly and subtly, in our living rooms, in the aisles of grocery stores, on the playground, in the classroom. To paraphrase the writer Katie Rolphe, “It is in our casual remarks, our throwaway comments, our accidental bursts of honesty, that we create a cultural climate.”

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