If you have an adolescent you get to see this tussle play out on a daily – often hourly – basis: the desire to be a cooperative and respectful child and the unconscious urge to do, to act, to behave in ways that are oft-inexplicable. Children commonly say “I dunno” when asked why they said or did a particular thing and they really don’t know, because many times the actions of an adolescent are impulsive rather than rational. And with boys? Even more so.
Truth be told, I know a lot of adults who have this same issue. Need a place to witness this for yourself? Go to a middle school or high school sporting event but don’t watch the athletes, watch their parents on the sidelines or in the stands. Most are enthused spectators but I’d estimate around 5% of parents are just nutjobs when it comes to cheering on their children, coaching them from the stands and trash-talking the other team (yes, even if there are parents from the other team sitting ten feet away). And it’s just as often the Moms as the Dads in my experience. Amazing.
Where am I going with this? Mostly I’m just reflecting on the challenges of adolescence and specifically the increasingly difficult journey of adolescent boys in contemporary culture. With school being more and more about sitting down, paying attention and performing well on tests rather than running around, doing physical activities and finding physical manifestations of the innate need for boys to rank-order themselves by ability, it’s getting to be a pretty tough place to succeed as a young man.
It’s no surprise to me that statistics show that boys are also failing to make the transition to adulthood, less likely to enroll in college, less likely to graduate, and less likely to find a good first job that helps them move on the road to a meaningful career than just about any previous generation. USA Today, for example, reports that 57% of college undergrads are now women, more than at any time in history. Grad school? 62% female.
Going back to high school, The Atlantic reports that boys are kept back in school twice as often as girls are. The same article points out that boys are 3x as likely to be diagnosed with “ADHD” than girls.
Why do I have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder in quotes above? Because I think that in a majority of cases it’s a bogus diagnosis. The real diagnosis is “you’re a boy, you physically cannot sit still.” The Centers for Disease Control reports that approximately 10% of children in the US are diagnosed with ADHD. 10%. Then again, researchers like Ramtekkar, Reiersen, Todorov, and Todd report that the issue isn’t that boys are over-diagnosed with ADHD, but that girls are under-diagnosed. Um, yeah.
Meanwhile I watch my son’s journey through school and think about my own too. Us boys need to run around, compete, do physical things, break stuff, hunt, fish, climb and find the edges and limitations of our physical selves through challenges and obstacles to overcome. Girls are more comfortable finding their way through the jungle of adolescence through social behaviors, something far more compatible with Western schooling. (in general, not all cases fit, your mileage may vary, there are exceptions to the rule, I’m being sexist, yadda yadda)
I see too many boys who either are skipping college or get out with massive ennui, a lethargic attitude towards adulthood, towards working, earning money, paying bills, and bettering themselves. Climbing the next rock face? Biking a century? Hitting the gym each and every day? Sure, those are cool.
But women are pulling ahead in so many areas, I worry about my boy and what his future is going to look like. We’ve got an entire generation of young men who are finding the world a far more difficult place than we, their fathers ever did, and it’s going to have some fascinating and likely alarming results.
What to do about it? I have no idea other than to try and instill a drive and desire for success in my son while he’s still navigating adolescence. For all of us, though, the critical thing is for us to be paying attention because the trends are already showing up and a very different future is just over the next hill…