The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015
No Country for Young Men
Boys make adults nervous. As a group, they are noisy, rowdy, and hard to manage. Many are messy, disorganized, and won’t sit still. Boys tend to like action, risk, and competition. When researchers asked a sample of boys why they did not spend a lot of time talking about their problems, most of them said it was “weird” and a waste of time.1
When my son David was a high school senior in 2003, his graduating class went on a camping trip in the desert. A creative writing educator visited the camp and led the group through an exercise designed to develop their sensitivity and imaginations. Each student was given a pen, a notebook, a candle, and matches. They were told to walk a short distance into the desert, sit down alone, and “discover themselves.” The girls followed instructions. The boys, baffled by the assignment, gathered together, threw the notebooks into a pile, lit them with the matches, and made a little bonfire.
The creative writing teacher was horrified at the thought that she was teaching a pack of insipient arsonists—or Lord of the Flies sociopaths. In fact, they were just boys. But, increasingly, in our schools and in our homes, everyday boyishness is seen as aberrational, toxic—a pathology in need of a cure.
Boys today bear the burden of several powerful cultural trends: a therapeutic approach to education that valorizes feelings and denigrates competition and risk, zero-tolerance policies that punish normal antics of young males, and a gender equity movement that views masculinity as predatory. Natural male exuberance is no longer tolerated.
The Risk-Free Schoolyard
Many games much loved by boys have vanished from school playgrounds. At some elementary schools, tug-of-war is being replaced with “tug-of-peace.”2 Tag is under a cloud—schools across the country have either banned it or found ways to repress it. When asked by a reporter why the game of tag was discouraged in the Los Angeles Unified School District 4, the superintendent, Richard Alonzo, explained, “Why would we want to encourage a game that may lead to more injuries and confrontation among students?”3 But safety is just one concern. Protecting children’s self-esteem is another.
In May 2002, the principal of Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, sent a newsletter to parents informing them that children could no longer play tag during the lunch recess. As she explained, “The running part of this activity is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game there is a ’victim’ or ’it,’ which creates a self-esteem issue.”4 School districts in Texas, Maryland, New York, and Virginia “have banned, limited, or discouraged” dodgeball.5 “Any time you throw an object at somebody,” said an elementary school coach in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “it creates an environment of retaliation and resentment.”6 Coaches who permit children to play dodgeball “should be fired immediately,” according to the physical education chairman at Central High School in Naperville, Illinois.7
The movement against competitive games gained momentum after the publication of an article by Neil Williams, chair of the department of health and physical education at Eastern Connecticut State University, in a journal sponsored by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which represents fifteen thousand gym teachers and physical education professors. In the article, Williams consigned games such as Red Rover, relay races, and musical chairs to “the Hall of Shame.”8 Why? Because the games are based on removing the weakest links. Presumably, this undercuts children’s emotional development and erodes their self-esteem. The new therapeutic sensibility rejects almost all forms of competition in favor of a gentle and nurturing climate of cooperation. It is also a surefire way to bore and alienate boys.
From the earliest age, boys show a distinct preference for active outdoor play, with a strong predilection for games with body contact, conflict, and clearly defined winners and losers.9 Girls, too, enjoy raucous outdoor play, but they engage in it less.10 Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, sums up the research on male/female play differences:
Boys tend to play outside, in large groups that are hierarchically structured. . . . Girls, on the other hand, play in small groups or in pairs: the center of a girl’s social life is a best friend. Within the group intimacy is the key.11
Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Minnesota, defines rough-and-tumble play (R&T) as a behavior that includes “laughing, running, smiling, jumping, open-hand beating, wrestling, play fighting, chasing and fleeing.”12 This kind of play is often mistakenly regarded as aggression, but according to Pellegrini, R&T is the very opposite. In cases of schoolyard aggression, the participants are unhappy, they part as enemies, and there are often tears and injuries. Rough-and-tumble play brings boys together, makes them happy, and is a critical part of their socialization.
“Children who engaged in R&T, typically boys, also tended to be liked and to be good social problem solvers,”13 says Pellegrini. Aggressive children, on the other hand, tend not to be liked by their peers and are not good at solving problems. He urges parents and teachers to be aware of the differences between R&T and aggression. The former is educationally and developmentally important and should be permitted and encouraged; the latter is destructive and should not be allowed. Increasingly, however, those in charge of little boys, including parents, teachers, and school officials, are blurring the distinction and interpreting R&T as aggression. This confusion threatens boys’ welfare and normal development.14
Today, many educators regard the normal play of little boys with disapproval, and some ban it outright. Preschool boys, much to the consternation of teachers, are drawn to a style of rough-and-tumble play that involves action narratives. Typically, there are superheroes, “bad guys,” rescues, and shoot-ups. As the boys play, the plots become more elaborate and the boys more transfixed. When researchers ask boys why they do it, “Because it’s fun” is the standard reply.15 According to at least one study, such play rarely escalates into real aggression—only about 1 percent of the time.16 But when two researchers, Mary Ellin Logue and Hattie Harvey, studied the classroom practices of 98 teachers of four-year-olds, they found that this style of play was the least tolerated. Nearly half (48 percent) of teachers stopped or redirected boys’ dramatic play daily or several times a week, whereas less than a third (29 percent) reported stopping or redirecting girls’ dramatic play weekly.17 Here are some sample quotes from teachers reported by the two authors:
• “My idea of dramatic play is experience created by an adult with a specific purpose in mind. In our learning environment, we perceive dramatic play as a homemaker in the kitchen [or a] postal worker sorting mail. Rough-and-tumble play is not an acceptable social interaction at our school.”
• “We ban superhero toys at school.”
• “Rough play is too dangerous. . . . playing house, going fishing, doctors, office work and grocery store keeps dramatic play positive.”
• “Rough-and-tumble play typically leads to someone getting hurt, so I redirect. When a child talks about jail, using karate, etc. I’ll ask questions and redirect.”18
Such attitudes may help explain why boys are 4.5 times more likely to be expelled from preschool than girls.19 Fortunately, there were champions of R&T among the teachers in the study. As one said,
Rough-and-tumble play is inevitable, particularly with boys. It seems to satisfy innate physical and cultural drives. As long as all participants are enjoying the play and are safe, I don’t intervene. Play is the basis of learning in all domains.20
Play is, indeed, the basis of learning. And the boy’s superhero play is no exception. Researchers have found that by allowing “bad guy” play, the children’s conversation and imaginative writing skills improved.21 Such play also builds their moral imagination. It is through such play, say the authors, “that children learn about justice . . . and their personal limits and the impact of their behavior on others.” Logue and Harvey ask an important question, “If boys, due to their choices of dramatic play themes, are discouraged from dramatic play, how will this affect their early language and literacy development and their engagement in school?”22
Carol Kennedy, a longtime teacher and now principal of a school in Missouri, told the Washington Post, “We do take away a lot of the opportunity to do things boys like to do. That is to be rowdy, run and jump and roll around. We don’t allow that.”23 One Boston teacher, Barbara Wilder-Smith, spent a year observing elementary school classrooms. She reports that an increasing number of mothers and teachers “believe that the key to producing a nonviolent adult is to remove all conflict—toy weapons, wrestling, shoving and imaginary explosions and crashes—from a boy’s life.”24 She sees a chasm between the “culture of women and the culture of boys.”25 That chasm is growing, and it is harmful to boys.
The Decline of Recess
Recess itself is now under siege and may soon be a thing of the past. According to a summary of research by Science Daily, “Since the 1970s, children have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play and a 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities, according to another study.”26 In 1998, Atlanta eliminated recess in all its public elementary schools. In Philadelphia, school officials have replaced traditional recess with “socialized recesses,” in which the children are assigned structured activities and carefully monitored.27 “Recess,” reported the New York Times, “has become so anachronistic in Atlanta that the Cleveland Avenue Grammar School, a handsome brick building, was built two years ago without a playground.”28
The move to eliminate recess has aroused some opposition, but almost no one has noticed its impact on boys. It is surely not a deliberate effort to thwart the desires of schoolboys. Just the same, it betrays a shocking indifference to their natural proclivities, play preferences, and elemental needs. Girls benefit from recess—but boys require it.29 Ignoring differences between boys and girls can be just as damaging as creating differences where none exist. Were schools to adopt policies harmful to girls, there would be a storm of justified protests from well-organized women advocates. Boys have no such protectors.
Boys playing tag, tug-of-war, dodgeball, or kickball together in the schoolyard are not only having a great deal of fun, they are forging friendships with other males in ways that are critical to their healthy socialization. Similarly, little girls who spend hours exchanging confidences with other girls or playing theatrical games are happily and actively honing their social skills. What these children are doing is developmentally sound. What justifiable reason can there be to interfere?
Of course, if it could be shown that sex segregation on the playground or rambunctious competitive games were having harmful social consequences, efforts to curb them would be justified. But that has never been shown. Nor is there reason to believe it will ever be shown. In the absence of any evidence that rough-and-tumble play is socially harmful, initiatives to suppress it are unwarranted and a presumptuous attack on boys’ natures.
Such bans are also compromising their health. Obesity has become a serious problem for both boys and girls, but rather more so for boys. According to a study prepared for the US Department of Health and Human Services, “The obesity prevalence for male children quadrupled from 5.5% in 1976—1980 to 21.6% in 2007—2008. For female children, the obesity prevalence tripled from 5.8% in 1976—1980 to 17.7% in 2007—2008.”30 Diet is a big part of the problem, but lack of exercise is as well. Strenuous rough-and-tumble play is part of the solution. And it is something most boys will happily do on their own—if their elders were not so busy discouraging it.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Zero Tolerance for Boys
On February 2, 2010, nine-year-old Patrick Timoney was marched to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension when he was caught in the cafeteria with a weapon. More precisely, he was found playing with a tiny LEGO soldier armed with a two-inch rifle. It was his favorite toy and he had brought it to school to show his friends. As he sat in the office, frightened and in tears, the principal, Evelyn Matroianni, called security administrators in the New York Department of Education for guidance. She confiscated the toy and summoned his parents to school for a conference. Patrick avoided suspension by signing an official statement and promising never again to bring a weapon to school. A spokesman for the Department of Education explained to reporters that the principal was just following the “no tolerance policy” that proscribes weapons at school.31
Zero-tolerance policies became popular in the 1990s as youth crime seemed to be surging and schools were coping with a rash of shootings. These policies mandate severe punishments—often suspension or expulsion—for any student who brings weapons or drugs to school, or who threatens others. Sanctions apply to all violations—regardless of the student’s motives, the seriousness of the offense, or extenuating circumstances. School officials embraced zero tolerance because it seemed like the best way to make schools safe, plus it had the advantage of consistency. Inform students of the rules and subject everyone to the same punishments regardless of particular circumstances. Yes, the occasional student will be punished too harshly, but why not err on the side of caution?
But in many schools the policy has been taken to absurd extremes. More often than not, it is boys who are suffering. Here are a few recent examples of zero tolerance at work.
• 2011: Ten-year-old Nicholas Taylor, a fifth grader at the David Youree Elementary School in Smyrna, Tennessee, was sentenced to sit alone at lunch for six days. His crime? Waving around a slice of pizza that had been chewed to resemble a gun.
• 2010: David Morales, an eight-year-old in Providence, Rhode Island, ran afoul of zero tolerance when, for a special class project, he brought in a camouflage hat with little plastic army men glued on the flap.
• 2009: Zachary Christie, six, of Newark, Delaware, excited to be a new Cub Scout, packed his camping utensil in his lunch box. The gadget, which can be used as a knife, fork, or spoon, prompted school officials to charge him with possession of a weapon. Zachary faced forty-five days in the district’s reform school but was later granted a reprieve by the school board and suspended for five days.32
It is tempting to dismiss these cases as aberrational. They are not. Punishing minor cases is not an unfortunate lapse: it is the heart of the policy. In defense of the schools, Jennifer Jankowski, a special education director at the school where Cub Scout Zachary Christie was suspended, explained to a reporter that “if Zachary or another student had been hurt by the knife, the district would have taken the blame. . . . There’s more to the school’s side than just us being mean and not taking this child’s interests into account.”33 She is right of course, but it is still hard to see why common sense cannot be factored into the mix. School officials should be permitted to consider the student’s motives, past behavior, and seriousness of the offense. But, of course, such discretion violates the take-no-prisoners logic behind zero tolerance.
Under the zero-tolerance regime, suspension rates have increased dramatically. In 1974, 1.7 million children in grades K—12 were suspended from the nation’s schools. By 2007, when the K—12 population had increased by 5 percent, the number of suspensions had nearly doubled to 3.3 million—nearly 70 percent of them boys.34 In 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 32 percent of boys in grades 9 through 12 had been suspended compared with 17 percent of girls.35
School suspensions, more than other punishments like detention, alternative classrooms, or community service, appear to accelerate a student’s disengagement from school. Not only do students fall further behind in their studies, many of them enjoy what is often an unsupervised vacation from school. Also, if students perceive a punishment to be excessive, capricious, and unjust, this weakens the bond between them and the adults who are supposed to be their mentors. According to psychologists James Comer and Alvin Poussaint, suspensions can make it “more difficult for you to work with the child in school—he or she no longer trusts you.”36
There is not a lot of research documenting a direct correlation between suspension and school failure, but one recent study by two economists, Marianne Bertrand (University of Chicago) and Jessica Pan (National University of Singapore) should give anyone pause. After controlling for reading and math scores, race, gender, and birth year, Bertrand and Pan quantified the damage: “We observe a negative relationship between school suspension and future educational outcomes.”37 For example, a single suspension lowers a student’s chances of graduating from high school by 17 percent and the likelihood of attending college by 16 percent.38 With so many boys at risk of academic failure, it would seem that suspensions should be reserved for the most egregious cases.
Zero tolerance was originally conceived as a means of ridding schools of violent predators and drug users. Who could object to that? But careful reviews of the policy show that most students are suspended for minor acts of insubordination and defiance.39 No one is suggesting that such misconduct go unpunished. But there are many other ways to correct bad behavior besides suspension—ways shown to be much more effective.40 Preventive programs appear to work best. In 2009, 2,740 at-risk Chicago boys in grades seven through ten took part in a life skills/ethics program called Becoming a Man: Sports Edition. Most of them had low grade point averages, had missed many weeks of school, and more than one third had been arrested. A carefully designed two-year University of Chicago study found that by the end of the program, their grades and school engagement had improved, prospects for graduation brightened (by as much as 10 percent to 23 percent). Compared to a control group, arrests diminished by 44 percent.41
In 2008, a task force for the American Psychological Association (APA) published a thorough review of literature on the efficacy of zero-tolerance policies. “Despite a 20-year history of implementation,” the report concluded, “there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions.”42 Put another way, they found no evidence that it worked. But the evidence that it harmed boys was unequivocal. Not only are young boys being shamed and treated as deviants for bringing the wrong toys to school, but suspension may be correlated with school disengagement, poor achievement, and dropping out.43
The APA authors also noted that fears of school violence have been greatly exaggerated. While all violence is unacceptable, “the evidence does not support an assumption that violence in our schools is out of control or increasing.”44 But might it be that zero-tolerance policies had themselves suppressed school violence? The APA found no evidence for that. After controlling for socioeconomic factors, the task force found that schools with zero-tolerance policies had more behavior problems than those using other methods. School climate was worse, not better, under zero tolerance. Furthermore, far from making punishment more predictable and fair, the policy was applied unevenly—with African American boys most severely affected. The authors also found a negative correlation between the use of suspensions and academic achievement.45 These uniformly negative findings raised a question: what had prompted schools to adopt such a draconian policy in the first place?
To understand the evolution of zero tolerance, and the increasingly harsh treatment of even minor behavioral infractions among young boys, we need to recall the widespread fear of youth violence that prevailed in the mid-1990s. On January 15, 1996, Time magazine ran a cover story about a “teenage time bomb.” Said Time, “They are just four, five, and six years old right now, but already they are making criminologists nervous.”46 The “they” were little boys who would soon grow into cold-blooded killers capable of “remorseless brutality.” The story was based on alarming findings by several eminent criminologists, including James Q. Wilson (then at UCLA). Wilson had extrapolated from a famous 1972 study of the juvenile delinquency rate among young people born in Philadelphia in 1945 and estimated that within five years—by 2010—the nation would be plagued by “30,000 more muggers, killers and thieves.”47 John J. DiIulio Jr., then a professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics, invoked Wilson’s findings and coined a chilling cognomen for the rising violent horde: superpredators.48 DiIulio believed that deteriorating social conditions were making matters much worse: Refining Wilson’s definitions and extrapolations, he forecasted that “by the year 2010, there will be approximately 270,000 more juvenile superpredators on the streets than there were in 1990.”49 In a 1996 book, DiIulio and two coauthors, William J. Bennett and John P. Walters, proclaimed: “America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ’superpredators’—radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys . . . the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known.”50
The fear of rising youth violence translated easily into fear of rising school violence, with support from additional research. Dewey Cornell, a forensic psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia, reports in his 2006 book, School Violence: Fears Versus Facts, “The perception that schools were dangerous seemed to be confirmed by a widely publicized report on school problems.”51 According to the report, when teachers in 1940 had been asked about “top problems in school,” they had listed chewing gum, running in halls, and not putting paper in the wastebasket. Asked the same question in the 1990s, teachers listed rape, robbery, and assault. The story of the contrasting lists and the contemporary school jungle culture entered the media echo chamber and was repeated thousands of times.
Then, in the late 1990s, the fears were horribly realized. In 1997, teenage boys murdered schoolmates in Bethel, Alaska; West Paducah, Kentucky; Pearl, Mississippi; and Stamps, Arkansas. The bloody crescendo came in 1999, in the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. Seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. They had planned the assault for more than a year, hoping to kill at least five hundred schoolmates and teachers with bombs they had placed around the school (which failed to detonate).
Suspicion of the masculine gender quickly went generic, extending to all boys. “The carnage committed by two boys in Littleton, Colorado,” said the Congressional Quarterly Researcher, “has forced the nation to reexamine the nature of boyhood in America.”52 Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, explained that the Littleton shooters were “not deviants at all,” but “over-conformists . . . to traditional notions of masculinity.”53
The public was ready for tough defensive measures, and zero-tolerance policies fit the bill. But there was a problem with the picture of escalating school violence and the approaching superpredators: it was not true. At the very moment that DiIulio, Wilson, and other crime experts were predicting a superpredator surge, youth crime was beginning to plummet to historic lows. Criminologists are still at a loss to explain it. Between 1994 and 2009, the juvenile crime rate fell by 50 percent. A 2009 bulletin of the US Department of Justice noted that, “Contrary to the popular perception that juvenile crime is on the rise, the data reported in this bulletin tell a different story.”54 Here are a few highlights of the DOJ report:
• Compared with the prior twenty years, the juvenile murder arrest rate between 2000 and 2009 has been historically low and relatively stable.
• The 2009 rape arrest rate was at its lowest level in three decades.
• The 2009 juvenile arrest rate for aggravated assault was at its lowest since the mid-1980s.55
Could it be that youth violence diminished because fear of the superpredators led to harsher policies and more arrests? The best evidence we have says no. Rates of juvenile crimes in states with high arrests were not significantly different from those with low arrests.56 What about school violence? The American Psychological Association task force study found no evidence that zero-tolerance policies had made schools more peaceable. More generally, rates of violent crime in school were low before zero tolerance and are even lower today57 (see Figure 11).
Figure 11: Percentage of Students ages 12—18 Who Reported Serious Violent Victimization at School During the Previous Six Months
Source: Indicators of School Crime and Safety, US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2010, “One percent [of students] reported violent victimization, and less than half of a percent reported a serious violent victimization.”58 School shootings are ghastly, mortifying events and extremely rare. Dewey Cornell, in his study of school violence cited earlier, considered the number of school murders between 1994 and 2004 and did the math: “The average school can expect a student-perpetrated homicide about once every 13,870 years.”59 Rates of serious school violence were even lower between 2004 and 2010.60
Following the December 2012 slaughter of twenty first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of women and 43 percent of men thought it “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that a similar shooting could happen in their own community.61 The reactions were no doubt shaped by the particularly demented and horrifying nature of shooter Adam Lanza’s deed, the national soul searching that ensued, and the fear of copy-cat incidents. It does no disrespect to the victims to note that homicidal school violence was a rare aberration in the 1990s when criminologists predicted the arrival of a horde of superpredators—and it is even rarer today.
Retreat and Reinforcements
The superpredator hypothesis was aggressively disputed by academics and child advocates almost as soon as it appeared in print. University of California, Berkeley, law professor and crime expert Franklin Zimring summed up the opposition in 1998: “His [DiIulio’s] prediction wasn’t just wrong, it was exactly the opposite. His theories of the superpredators were utter madness.”62
To their credit, both Wilson and DiIulio quickly recanted. As early as 1999, Wilson conceded that he was wrong about a juvenile crime wave—“So far, it clearly hasn’t happened. That is a good indication of what little all of us know about criminology.”63 DiIulio apologized for the mistakes and their “unintended consequences” and became a committed advocate of preventive measures rather than harsh punishment.64
And what about those widely reported surveys contrasting gum-chewing problems in 1940 with today’s hyperviolent schools? It turned out to be an urban legend. When Yale professor Barry O’Neill tried to find a reliable source, he found that not a single one existed. It had been concocted by a Texas businessman, T. Cullen Davis, in the 1980s. What was his source? As he told O’Neill, “I read the newspaper.”65
But the damage was done. The public would remain anxious about the specter of youth violence. Although Wilson and DiIulio renounced their theory about young male superpredators, a large group of activist gender scholars immediately took their place. Their theories were even more extravagant and far less empirically grounded. But the outraged criminologists, law professors, and child welfare activists who stood up to the superpredator myth left the new mythmakers alone.
On July 28, 2005, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), hosted Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. Parents were surprised to discover that the Center for Gender Equity, the UCSF group in charge of organizing the day, had planned distinctly different days for boys and girls. Girls were scheduled to participate in exciting hands-on activities: playing surgeon, wielding a microscope, and firing lasers. Boys would be spending most of the day learning about “violence prevention and how to be allies to the girls and women in their lives.” When a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle questioned the logic behind this plan, the director, Amy Levine, explained, “It’s about dealing with effects of sexism on both boys and girls and how it can damage them.”66
As Levine sees it, boys are potential predators in need of remedial socialization. Her view is the norm among gender activists. Consider how the Ms. Foundation explained its mission in a 2007 report, Youth, Gender and Violence: Building a Movement for Gender Justice: “At the center of this work must be a reimagining of what it means to be masculine, since violence appears to be built into the very core of what it is to be a man in US society.”67
From its beginnings in the 1990s, the gender equity movement has been leery of boys and has looked for ways to reimagine their masculinity. By 1996, the Ms. Foundation, the creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, found itself on the defensive. Parents and employers were insisting that boys be included. To preserve the feminist purity of the girls-only holiday, Ms. went to work designing a special day for boys. The first Son’s Day was planned for Sunday, October 20, 1996. October was especially desirable because, as the Ms. planners pointed out, “October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so there will be lots of activities scheduled.”68 Here are some of the ways Son’s Day was to be celebrated:
• Take your son—or “son for a day”—to an event that focuses on . . . ending men’s violence against women. Call the Family Violence Prevention Fund at 800 END-ABUSE for information.
• Plan a game or sport in which the contest specifically does not keep score or declare a winner. Invite the community to watch and celebrate boys playing on teams for the sheer joy of playing.
• Since Son’s Day is on SUNDAY, make sure your son is involved in preparing the family for the work and school week ahead. This means: helping lay out clothes for siblings and making lunches.69
And for boys not exhausted by all the fun and excitement of the day’s activities, the Ms. planners had a suggestion for the evening:
• Take your son grocery shopping, then help him plan and prepare the family’s evening meal on Son’s Day.70
Ms. made the mistake of sending their planning documents to a large number of child advocates. A few of them protested this little “holiday in Hell for Junior,” and Son’s Day was canceled. But Ms.’s attempt to inaugurate a boys’ holiday is illuminating. It shows how female advocates think when they imagine what would be good for boys. And Ms. was hardly alone.
Sue Sattel, a “gender equity specialist” with the Minnesota Department of Education and coauthor of an antiharassment guide for children aged five to seven, said, “Serial killers say they started harassing at age ten. . . . They got away with it and went on from there.”71 Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a major figure in the movement to get antiharassment programs into the nation’s elementary schools, has referred to little boys who chase girls in the playground and flip their skirts as “perpetrators” committing acts of “gendered terrorism.”72 Classroom curricula produced by the gender equity activists reflect their worldview.
Consider Quit It! This is a still-popular 1998 K—3 antiharassment and antiviolence teacher’s guide and curriculum, produced by the Wellesley Center, the National Education Association, and other like-minded groups. (The guide was first published when the initial Harry Potter novels were gaining a passionate following among young people—its title seemed to be a critical pun on the novels’ hyper-raucous, hyper-demanding, hyper-popular game of Quidditch.) The authors explain why boys as young as five need special training: “We view teasing and bullying as the precursors to adolescent sexual harassment, and believe that the roots of this behavior are to be found in early childhood socialization practices.”73
Quit It! includes many activities designed to render little boys less volatile, less competitive, and less aggressive. It is not that “boys are bad,” the authors assure us, “but rather that we must all do a much better job of addressing aggressive behavior of young boys to counteract the prevailing messages they receive from the media and society in general.”74
The curriculum promises to develop children’s cooperative skills through “wonderful noncompetitive activities.”75 The traditional game of tag, for example, includes elements that the authors consider socially undesirable. Quit It! shows teachers how to counteract the subtle influences of tag that encourage aggressiveness: “Before going outside to play, talk about how students feel when playing a game of tag. Do they like to be chased? Do they like to do the chasing? How does it feel to be tagged out? Get their ideas about other ways the game might be played.” After students share their fears and apprehensions about tag, the teacher is advised to announce that there is a new, nonthreatening version of the game called Circle of Friends—where nobody is ever “out.”
In reading Quit It!, you have to remind yourself that its suggestions are intended not for disturbed children but for normal five- to seven-year-olds in our nation’s schools. These are mainstream materials. Quit It! was funded by the US Department of Education. According to the National Education Association’s website, it is a “bestseller” among teachers. What motivates the girl partisans to sow their bitter seeds? The views of a prominent equity specialist shed some light on this question.
The Heart and Mind of a Gender Equity Activist
Katherine Hanson was the principal investigator for five National Science Foundation grants on gender equity. She was also director of the Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Resource Center from 1988 to 2000. For twenty-five years, the WEEA Center served as a national clearinghouse for and publisher of “gender-fair materials.” It was also the primary vehicle by which the US Department of Education promoted gender equity. As director, Hanson worked with schools and community organizations to “infuse equity” into all education policies, practices, and materials.76
In February 1998, an exultant Hanson announced that the WEEA Center had been awarded a new five-year contract with the Department of Education that offered “exciting new opportunities to become a more comprehensive national resource center for gender equity.”77 These included “developing a national report on the status of education for women and girls . . . an exciting opportunity for the education field, the Department, Congress and the nation to explore the successes, challenges, and complexity of gender equitable education.”78
Who is Katherine Hanson, and what are her credentials for educating Congress and the nation on gender equity? Judging from her writings, she shares the view of Nan Stein, Sue Sattel, and the Ms. Foundation’s would-be creators of “Son’s Day”: early intervention in the male “socialization process” is critical if we are to stem the tide of male violence.79 Underscoring the need for radical changes in how we raise young males, Hanson offers some horrifying statistics on male violence in the United States. To wit:
• Every year nearly four million women are beaten to death by men.80
• Violence is the leading cause of death among women.81
• The leading cause of injury among women is being beaten by a man at home.82
• There was a 59 percent increase in rapes between 1990 and 1991.83
This “culture of violence,” says Hanson, “stem[s] from cultural norms that socialize males to be aggressive, powerful, unemotional, and controlling.”84 She urges us to “honestly and lovingly” reexamine what it means to be a male or a female in our society. “And just as honestly and lovingly, we must help our young people develop new and more healthful models.”85 One old and unhealthful model of maleness that needs to be “reexamined” is found in Little League baseball. Writes Hanson, “One of the most overlooked arenas of violence training within schools may be the environment that surrounds athletics and sports. Beginning with Little League games where parents and friends sit on the sidelines and encourage aggressive, violent behavior.”86
History is one long lesson in the dangers of combining moral fervor with misinformation. So the first question we should ask is: Does Hanson have her facts right? Her organization, under the auspices of the Department of Education, sent out more than 350 publications on gender equity and distributed materials to more than 200 education conferences for more almost thirty years. In my book Who Stole Feminism?, I write at length about the tide of feminist “Ms/information.” Katherine Hanson’s “facts” are the most distorted I have yet come across.
If Hanson were right, the United States would be the site of an atrocity unparalleled in the twentieth century. Four million women beaten to death by men! Every year! In fact, the total number of annual female deaths from all causes is approximately one million.87 Only a minuscule fraction are caused by violence, and an even tinier fraction are caused by battery. According to the FBI, the total number of women who died by murder in 1996 was 3,631.88 In contrast, Director Hanson calculates that 11,000 American women are beaten to death every day.
I spoke to Hanson in June 1999 to ask about her sources. Where did she get the statistic about four million American women being fatally beaten each year? Or the information that violence is the leading cause of death for women? She explained that “those were pulled from the research.” What research? “They are from the Justice Department.” I inquired about her academic background. She told me she had been “trained as a journalist” and had done many things in the past, including “studies in theology.”89
For the record, the leading cause of death among women is heart disease (c. 370,000 deaths per year), followed by cancer (c. 250,000). Female deaths from homicide (c. 3,600) are far down the list, after suicide (c. 6,000).90
Male violence is also far down the list of causes of injury to women. Two studies of emergency room admissions, one by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics and one by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggest that fewer than 1 percent of women’s injuries are caused by male partners.91 Hanson’s other factoids are no less fanciful: between 1990 and 1991, rapes increased by 4 percent, not 59 percent, and the number has gone down steadily since.92
Hanson is convinced that “our educational system is a primary carrier of the dominant culture’s assumptions,”93 and that that “dominant culture”—Western, patriarchal, sexist, and violent—is sick. Since the best cure is prevention, reeducating boys is a moral imperative. She gratefully quotes the words of male feminist Haki Madhubuti: “The liberation of the male psyche from preoccupation with domination, power hunger, control, and absolute rightness requires . . . a willingness for painful, uncomfortable and often shocking change.”94
It would be comforting, but wrong, to assume that such male-averse rhetoric is a relic of the 1990s and no longer with us. The WEEA Center closed in 2003 and, according to Hanson’s biography, she is “currently a writer and artist in New York.”95 But the Ms. Foundation is still going strong and has not softened its tone. If anything, it has become more extreme. Here, for example, is a typical pronouncement from its 2007 report Youth, Gender & Violence: “The roots of gendered violence lie in the efforts of the privileged and powerful—mainly white, middle-class men—to maintain their own status.”96 Misandry is very much alive and boys everywhere pay the price.
Imagine being a male student of Jessie Klein, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University. Professor Klein has been immersed in the gender equity culture for two decades. Before going to Adelphi, she worked in the New York City Schools as a conflict resolution coordinator, social worker, teacher, and administrator. In her 2012 book, The Bully Society, she says, “Boys learn from an early age that they assert manhood not only by being popular with girls but also by wielding power over them—physically, emotionally, and sexually.”97 And she has a ready explanation for the school shootings:
The school shooters picked up guns to conform to the expected ethos dictating that boys dominate girls and take revenge against other boys who threatened their relationships with particular girls: their actions were incubated in a culture of violence that is largely accepted and allowed to fester every day. Transforming these hyper-masculine school cultures [is] essential to preventing . . . school shootings.98
Like Hanson, Klein has statistics to support her apocalyptic vision. She says, for example, that “in 1998, the FBI declared violent attacks by men to be the number one threat to the health of American women.”99 According to the Mayo Clinic, in reality the most serious threats are heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.100 Where did Professor Klein get her facts? Her source is an article in the American Jurist by a law professor from the University of Denver, Kyle Velte. But Velte gives no source. When my research assistant asked for the source, Velte explained that she no longer had it. There is no such FBI declaration. But what matters is that Professor Klein and Velte believe it and disseminate it. If you think that “violent attacks by men pose the number one health threat to women,” then it stands to reason that boys must be radically resocialized.
Klein also reports in her book, “Dating violence is another step on an escalating continuum of behaviors by which boys, schooled in traditional masculinity, demonstrate their power over girls.”101 But in the CDC’s 2009 study on youth risk behavior in grades 9—12, it found that 9 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys report being “hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend.”102
How much does it matter that equity experts in the federal government, WEEA, AAUW, Ms., Wellesley Center, Adelphi University, and the University of Denver believe a lot of nonsense about male brutality and think of little boys as insipient batterers and worse? None of these things would matter much if the activists promoting these views did not play a major role in American education. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in any educational institution that receives public funds. The WEEA Center’s mission was to “provide financial assistance to enable educational agencies to meet the requirement of Title IX.”103 Eager to avoid charges of discrimination that trigger the punitive provisions of Title IX, many schools and school districts have “equity coordinators.” These experts were trained on materials that reflect the mind-set of Hanson.
The fear of ruinous lawsuits is forcing schools to treat normal boys as sexist culprits. The climate of anxiety helps explain why, in 2004, Stephen Fogelman from Branson, Missouri, was suspended for sexual harassment for kissing a classmate on the cheek. He was eight at the time. The stunned parents explained that the boy had no idea what sexual harassment was and did not know he was doing anything wrong.104
Stories about little boys running afoul of sexual harassment codes are everywhere. In January 2011, Levina Subrata was astonished to receive a note informing her that her son was being suspended from his school in a San Francisco suburb for having “committed or attempted to commit a sexual assault or sexual battery.” During a game of tag he allegedly touched another student on the groin. Her son was six years old at the time.105
In Gaston, North Carolina, a nine-year-old was suspended for remarking, to another student in a private conversation, that the teacher was “cute.” In this case, charges were dropped once the case gained publicity. The distraught mother was gratified by all the supportive attention. “This is something that everyone needed to see,” she told a local television station. “Just to see what’s happening within our school systems.”106
Sharon Lamb, a committed feminist and a professor of psychology, was shocked to hear that her ten-year-old son and his friend had been charged with sexual harassment. A girl had overheard them comment that her dangling belt looked like a penis. “It’s against the law,” the teacher informed the mother. This moved Lamb to ask, “If the message to boys is that their sex and sexuality is potentially harmful to girls, how will we ever raise them to be full partners in healthy relationships?”107
In early October 1998, Jerry, a seventeen-year-old at a progressive private school in Washington, DC, received the customary greeting card from the school director on his birthday. It was affectionately inscribed, “To Jerry—You are a wonderful person—a gift to all of us.” Two weeks later, this same director would expel Jerry when he was accused of harassing a classmate, and school officials would urgently advise his parents to “get him professional attention.”108
A female classmate accused Jerry of verbally harassing her. On one occasion, the girl claims, he said to her, “Why don’t you give so-and-so a blow job?” She also alleged that he licked his lips in a suggestive way. He denied these allegations. Finally (and this may have been the last straw), someone overheard him ask another boy on the bus, referring to the other boy’s girlfriend, “Did you get into her pants yet?”
When these allegations came to the attention of the school authorities, Jerry was ordered off school property. Following a hasty investigation, he was thrown out of the school. All of this transpired in little more than twenty-four hours. Jerry’s parents agree that he deserved some kind of reprimand or punishment. But expulsion?
Why did the school react with such a severe punishment? Schools rightly fear lawsuits, and many feel they can no longer afford to tolerate the usual antics of teenage boys. “He’s being punished for being an adolescent boy,” said Jerry’s mother. And she is right.
Pathological versus Healthy Masculinity
Sex differences in physical aggression are real.109 Cross-cultural studies confirm the obvious: boys are universally more combative. In a classic 1973 study of the research on male-female differences, Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin conclude that, compared to girls, boys engage in more mock fighting and more aggressive fantasies. They insult and hit one another and retaliate more quickly when attacked: “The sex difference [in aggression] is found as early as social play begins—at 2 or 21/2.”110 The equity specialists look at these insulting, hitting, chasing, competitive creatures and see proto-criminals. And that is where they go egregiously wrong.
There is an all-important difference between healthy and aberrational masculinity. Criminologists distinguish between “hypermasculinity” (or “protest masculinity”) and the normal masculinity of healthy young males. Hypermasculine young men do indeed express their maleness through antisocial behavior—mostly against other males, but also through violent aggression toward and exploitation of women. Healthy young men express their manhood in competitive endeavors that are often physical. As they mature, they take on responsibility, strive for excellence, and achieve and “win.” They assert their masculinity in ways that require physical and intellectual skills and self-discipline. In American society, the overwhelming majority of healthy, normal young men don’t batter, rape, or terrorize women; they respect them and treat them as friends.
Unfortunately, many educators have become persuaded that there is truth in the relentlessly repeated proposition that masculinity per se is the cause of violence. Beginning with the premise that most violence is perpetrated by men, they move hastily, and fallaciously, to the proposition that maleness is the leading cause of violence. By this logic, every boy is a proto-predator.
Of course, when boys are violent or otherwise antisocially injurious to others, they must be disciplined, both for their own betterment and for the sake of society. But most boys’ physicality and masculinity are not expressed in violent ways. A small percentage of boys are destined to become batterers and rapists: boys with severe conduct disorders are at high risk of becoming criminal predators. Such boys do need strong intervention, the earlier the better. But their numbers are small. There is no justification for a gender-bias industry that looks upon millions of normal male children as pathologically dangerous.
My message is not to “let boys be boys.” Boys should not be left to their boyishness but should rather be guided and civilized. It has been said that every year civilization is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians; they’re called children. All societies confront the problem of civilizing children—both boys and girls, but particularly boys. History teaches us that masculinity without morality is lethal. But masculinity constrained by morality is powerful and constructive, and a gift to women.
Boys need to be shown how to grow into respectful human beings. They must be shown, in ways that leave them in no doubt, that they cannot get away with bullying or harassing other students. Schools must enforce firm codes of discipline and clear, unequivocal rules against incivility and malicious behavior. Teachers and administrators have to establish school environments that do not tolerate egregious meanness, sexual or nonsexual.
These are demanding tasks, but they are not mysterious. We have a set of proven social practices for raising young men. The traditional approach is through character education: to develop a boy’s sense of honor and to help him become considerate, conscientious, and gentlemanly. This approach respects boys’ masculinity and does not require that they sit in sedate circles playing tug-of-peace or run around aimlessly playing tag where no one is ever out. And it does not include making seven-year-old boys feel ashamed for playing with toy soldiers. Boys do need discipline, but in today’s educational environment they also need protection—from self-esteem promoters, roughhouse prohibitionists, zero-tolerance enforcers, and gender equity activists who are at war with their very natures.