What Boys Really Want

All that stuff you've heard about how girls are ignored and oppressed and boys get all the attention in school? It's just a "myth," says philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers in her new book, "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men." Girls are actually flourishing, says Sommers--boys are the ones in trouble. They're trailing their sisters in the classroom and they're at greater risk for learning disabilities, drug abuse and crime. In this all-girls, all-the-time milieu of ours, boys have not only been ignored, she argues, they've been dismissed. And now, on top of all that, they're viewed as defective by misguided feminists and psychologists who are trying to mold them into the other sex. "Boys badly need our attention," Sommers warns. "It is late, but not too late."

A brazen attack against leading child researchers like Harvard psychologists Carol Gilligan and William Pollack--both of whom have shaped current thinking on girls' and boys' development--Sommers's book has sparked a furious debate. Since 1992, when the American Association of University Women released its report "How Schools Shortchange Girls," educators have worked at bolstering girls' self-esteem and their academic performance, particularly in math and science. Some of that attention has been interpreted as anti-boy, especially by conservatives who are now lauding Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "The War Against Boys," writes National Review editor Richard Lowry, "is a stinging indictment of an anti-male movement that has had a pervasive influence on the nation's schools." Sommers's critics, on the other hand, including some of those she targets, say that she has set up a straw-man argument and is doing a serious disservice by pitting girls against boys. Gilligan argues that progress for girls isn't necessarily a step backward for boys. "I don't see this as a zero-sum game," she says. "Research on girls is a big advance in research on the human world."

While the debate plays out in intellectual and political circles, parents are left to wonder: how are girls and boys actually doing? A new report released by the Department of Education shows that boys are indeed faring worse in reading and writing--and they have been since at least the 1980s. Female high-school seniors are more likely to participate in academic clubs and student council and to enroll in college. High-school boys still do better in math and science, although the gap has shrunk. They score higher on the SATs. And, ultimately, they advance further in the working world, holding greater positions of power and making more money.

The statistics, however, don't tell the whole story. Girls may do better in the classroom, but they are twice as likely to suffer from depression after the age of 15. And although they don't succeed nearly as often at killing themselves, they attempt suicide more frequently than boys. Girls are also at far greater risk for eating disorders--anorexics often have 4.0 grade-point averages, but 0.0 self-esteem. The adolescents in Gilligan's studies were doing well in terms of accomplishments--"often brilliantly," she says--but they also "spoke of losing confidence in themselves." The human voice, says Gilligan, is a critical piece of the conversation about success.

That applies to boys as well, and several new books--reflecting the growing interest in male development--are now revealing their inner lives. "The No. 1 question I get is 'How do I get my son to talk to me?' " says child psychologist Michael Thompson. Thompson, who coauthored the 1999 best-seller "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," has written "Speaking of Boys," a compilation of questions and answers about raising sons. "Our Boys Speak," by John Nikkah, presents diary entries, poetry and essays. And in "Real Boys' Voices" by Pollack (a follow-up to his 1998 "Real Boys"), boys discuss their terror of being labeled gay and why it's easier to talk to Mom than Dad.

Pollack is especially concerned about what he calls a "Boy Code," which he says values stoicism while making boys ashamed of expressing emotion. "We have to get them to break down, to talk to us," he says, "treat them to become whole again." That's the kind of thinking that Sommers targets, charging that it pathologizes males. "Our boys are not racked with emotional turbulence," she says. "They don't need to be rescued from masculinity." While some of his analysis can seem sweeping and alarmist, Pollack says it is the boys' own comments that are driving his conclusions. "Most guys don't feel like they can be their own person," says Teddy, a 16-year-old Midwesterner. "They're afraid of being called a wimp... or of being embarrassed by the way they really are."

For parents, the most useful philosophy may be simply this: a war between boys and girls serves neither. It's time to crusade for the needs of both.