'Mommy, I Know You'

As the mother of three sons, I have attended my share of hand-wringing parent-teacher conferences. Having read "Tom Sawyer" and "Catcher in the Rye," I know that boys and school don't mix. That boys are having trouble with school is not news. But images of rough-and-tumble boys not fit for the classroom now may blind us to a problem that has less to do with how boys seem and more with who they actually are--but are not allowed to show.

We are only a generation away from the time when girls were effectively off the map. To take one example: the 1980 "Handbook of Adolescent Psychology" concluded that adolescent girls "have simply not been much studied." By bringing girls and women into research on human development, I and others discovered that their exclusion did more than hurt them. It distorted our understanding of boys as well. Both sexes suffer when one is not understood. This is not a zero-sum game.

Several decades ago, revolutionary psychological research on women led to a reframing of such concepts as intelligence and self. A new set of terms--"emotional intelligence," "relational self" and, most recently, the "feeling brain"--heralded a cultural shift. Emotions and relationships, once associated with women and therefore with limitation, are now understood to enhance intelligence and the self, and have become desirable attributes of manhood.

The study of adolescent girls bears on problems boys have with school by solving a longstanding psychological puzzle. Adolescence for girls is often marked by the sudden appearance of signs of distress, such as depression and eating disorders. Girls' adolescence is comparable in this respect to an earlier time in boys' development, one that coincides with the onset of formal schooling. Around the ages of 5, 6 and 7, boys often begin for the first time to show signs of depression as well as learning and speech disorders. Because girls, by adolescence, are mature enough to recognize and reflect on what's happening to them, they reveal a process of initiation that exacts a psychological cost. Seventeen-year-old Iris, the valedictorian of her class, observes, "If I were to say what I was thinking and feeling, no one would want to be with me; my voice would be too loud."

Boys as well as girls can read the human world astutely. Four-year-old Sam asked his mother one day, "Mommy, why are you sad?" Wanting to shield him from her sadness, she replied, "I'm not sad." Sam said, "Mommy, I know you. I was inside you." Yet when this kind of emotional openness, sensitivity and connectedness are seen to compromise masculinity, boys often repudiate these human qualities. If boys can be encouraged to embrace them, these qualities will develop, expanding their capacity for relationships and also their sense of themselves.

The implications of this for school were brought home to me by an incident involving one of my sons. He was in the second grade, and a sign on the blackboard read, don't be afraid to ask. One day, when the teacher chastised a boy for asking a question, my son called out, "Don't be afraid to ask," and promptly got into trouble. His first-grade teacher, recounting the story to me, recognized a sensitivity and honesty she had encouraged and valued. What often appears as boys' intransigence, as disruptiveness, indifference or confrontation, may instead be a refusal to engage in false relationship.

It is in the adamancy of this refusal that boys will be boys, turning away from rather than seeking to repair or smooth over such ruptures as girls tend to do. This may explain why more boys disconnect from school. It also suggests, as my work with girls has shown, that an effective strategy for preventing boys' psychological difficulties and educational problems would involve recognizing their sensitivities, building honest relationships and strengthening a healthy capacity for resistance.

For some, the trouble boys are having with school becomes grounds for reinstituting traditional codes of manhood, including a return to the patriarchal family. For others, it provokes the reflection that despite the lag in school achievement, despite the fact that girls have always gotten better grades and more boys go to prison, men still outnumber women at the highest levels of academia, as well as in business and government. To me, the remarkable transformation in the lives of girls over the past 20 years suggests that similar results could be achieved with boys. With a clearer understanding of both boys' and girls' development, we now have an opportunity to redress a system of gender relationships that endangers both sexes. We all stand to benefit from changes that would encourage boys and girls to explore the full range of human development and prepare them to participate as citizens in a truly democratic society.