Boys Adrift

by Leonard Sax, Basic Books, New York 2007

In Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, delves into the scientific literature and draws on more than twenty years of clinical experience to explain why boys and young men are failing in school and disengaged at home. He shows how social, cultural, and biological factors have created an environment that is literally toxic to boys. He also presents practical solutions, sharing strategies which educators have found effective in re-engaging these boys at school, as well as handy tips for parents about everything from homework, to videogames, to medication.


What’s troubling about so many boys I see in my practice, or the boys I hear about from parents and teachers, is that they don’t have much passion for any real-world activity….The boys I am most concerned about don’t disdain school because they have other real-world activities they care more about. They disdain school because they disdain everything. Nothing really excites them.

Girls and boys differ in terms of their desire to please the teacher. Most girls are at least somewhat motivated to please the teacher. Many boys don’t share that motivation.

There is more than fifty years of research on the importance, for child development, of multi-sensory interaction with the real world…This research demonstrated that children must have a rich interactive sensory environment- touching, smelling, seeing, hearing the real world- in order for the child’s brain and mind to develop properly. Without such real-world experiences, the child’s development will be impaired.

Boys who have been deprived of time outdoors, interacting with the real world rather than with computers, sometimes have trouble grasping concepts that seem simple to us. Louv quotes Frank Wilson, professor of neurology at Stanford, who says that parents have been deceived about the value of computer-based experience for their children. Dr. Wilson says that the medical school instructors are having more difficulty teaching medical students how the heart works as a pump, because these students have so little real-world experience. They’ve never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not have even hooked up a garden hose. For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through computers.

Team competition has another benefit for boys who are motivated by the will to win. Team competition socializes boys. It teaches boys to value something above themselves. It subordinates some of the ego and egocentricity that these boys often manifest.

I know many parents who are uneasy with the idea that their son needs a school with a more competitive format to get motivated. That idea clashes with the politically correct notions of the past twenty years, according to which competition is bad because it is harmful to self-esteem. But those notions were not empirically based. We now know that self-esteem has a value for girls that it simply doesn’t have for boys, while competition- particularly team competition- has a value for many boys that it doesn’t have for most girls. Some boys need the challenge and the risk of competition to care about the results. Parents and teachers and school administrators who don’t understand that fact may actually disengage boys from school.

We parents are to blame for some of this because it started out as a way to entertain our kids. We justified it by saying that they were developing their hand/eye coordination. They were home, we knew what they were doing, they were out of our hair and not causing trouble. Now they are in their twenties and we are scratching our heads wondering, “What’s their problem?”

One of the central questions we are trying to answer in this book is why we are seeing so many boys today who just don’t seem motivated…So far, we have identified three factors:

  1. Changes in the educational format over the past twenty to thirty years, in particular
    • The acceleration of the early elementary curriculum
    • The shift from Kenntnis to Wissenshaft
    • The abolition of competitive formats
  2. The advent of ultra-high-tech video games
  3. The overprescribing of stimulant medications.

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