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How to catch a falling son

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By Christina Tynan-Wood

Five reasons boys fail

Dr. Leonard Sax puts forth five possible reasons our boys are failing: boys’ dependence on video games, teaching methods that don’t account for how boys learn, an increasing reliance on stimulants like Ritalin that are designed to help young boys focus but — according to his research — sap their motivation and drive when they are older, chemicals in the environment that disrupt hormones, and the devaluation of masculinity in schools that disenfranchise boys.

I inhaled his book Boys Adrift. It made complete sense. I’ve long been a believer in encouraging the “boy” aspect of boys. Despite the not-so-subtle suggestions starting in kindergarten that I put Cole on Ritalin, he and I refused. But the section on video games seemed to hold exactly the answer I was looking for. Cole loves video games – a love bordering on addiction.

According to Sax, the video game addiction is an indicator of the “will to power” personality. This term, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the desire to control one’s environment. Sax argues that the “will to power” is among the basic, immutable personality traits, trumping other basic impulses like the will to please. In video games, you experience control — often of a vast, complex world that requires lightning-fast reflexes, nuanced decisions, extensive memory, and ruthlessness. In fact, games are one of the few places Cole achieves what brain researchers call “flow” — where your mind is so engaged you lose track of time.

I had long been responding to this aspect of his nature without having a name for it.

In the fourth grade, for example, his language arts teacher warned me he was failing so I called a meeting. She handed me proof: a test where he’d been asked to write a response to a prompt. She had given it an F.

It was good — and not just the grammar and spelling: he could write a lead, build suspense, and tell a joke. “What’s wrong with this?” I asked. “This is good writing — even for an adult.”

She handed me the rubric she had been teaching from. It stated a sentence had to be six words long. “He used a two-word sentence. I am not trying to teach good writing,” she informed me, the irony apparently lost on her. “I have to teach him to write to that rubric so he can pass the EOGs (end-of-grade tests).” I pulled him out of this school shortly after.

At home, Cole looked at the test and shrugged. “I don’t care what she thinks,” he said. “She calls adjectives ‘sparkle words.’”

“It’s not writing,” I agreed. “And she’s not half the writer you are. This is a word game. And these are the rules.” I handed him the rubric. “I thought you were good at word games. She thinks if you can’t play this game you won’t be good at the EOGs either.”

He glanced at the rubric and nodded. I left it at that. And he went back to his computer game. But he got A’s after that – and top marks on the EOGs.

He may not be interested in pleasing teachers, but he’s always up for winning a game.

School is for girls

“What should I do?” I asked Sax.

“There is only one solution,” he told me. “Enroll him in an all-boys school where the teachers know how to handle this personality.” Not only are the schools he endorses same-sex, but the teachers at the boys schools understand that boys respond to competition and sometimes need to lead. They get the concept of will to power and use it as a teaching tool.

Unfortunately, there is no such school where we live and I can’t afford boarding school. I pointed this out.

“You will have to move,” he answered without hesitation. I could hear him typing and looking up the school closest to us, which turned out to be three hours away – and full. I thought he was joking, so I laughed. There was an awkward silence.

“This is your son,” he said. “I moved so my daughter could go to the right school. You have no choice. If I thought there was another way, I would not have founded the National Association for Single Sex Education.”

I have changed Cole’s school a half-dozen times without success. Although the debate on the pros and cons of single-sex education continues, I’m willing to believe Sax might be right about my son. But Cole likes his school – in no small part because there are girls there – and none of us want to move. I made a note of this idea as a possible last resort. But I searched on for a solution that fit our lives.

Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, saw no easy solution either. “I hate to say this about your son,” he said. “But, at this point, he is not likely to achieve his dream of studying engineering at a good school.”

“I dropped out of high school,” I countered. “But I went on to a good college – after a semester at a community college – and have achieved most of my dreams.” I explained that I went to an experimental high school designed like a college. It lost funding in my junior year and closed but I couldn’t face the prison-like atmosphere of my only other alternative. So I got a GED at 16.

Whitmire listened with interest to my story. But he insisted, “You didn’t want to study engineering. And you didn’t have the experience your son is having. He is learning that he can’t do this. It sounds as if your journey had the opposite effect.”

Whitmire has spent years examining the appalling number of boys who don’t do well in elementary through high school and then go on to do poorly in college, if they go at all. This trend has been going on for decades. At this point, in some colleges, he told me, girls outnumber boys by two to one.

The problem, he says (along with Sax and many others) is that academics have been pushed into children’s lives earlier. Kindergarten is what first grade used to be. Girls are often ready to read at this age. Boys? Not so much. So from his very first school experience, a boy senses school isn’t for him, a feeling that worsens as the years drag on. Schools, which once left girls falling behind in math and science, have been revamped to be more verbal. This has helped girls. But boys aren’t as verbal and tend to tune out when there’s too much talking. Homework is another problem: in general, girls do it, boys don’t.

In fact, it was the failure to turn in homework that accounted, for the most part, for Cole’s current grades.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at