“Children are almost always in the presence of adults. They’re not getting into trouble and out of trouble, and negotiating with their playmates. We’re depriving children of free play, and we’re seeing the consequence of that in college students,” says Dr. Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
Paradoxically, though “helicopter parenting” has turned out kids who are unable to cope with the slightest set back at college (a fight with a roommate or a bad grade, for instance). Parents have ceded their power to their kids because of their own discomfort with authority. Too many parents today are asking their children what they want—from meals to vacations—rather than setting the rules.
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A Lack of Role Models in Pop Culture
Another major cultural shift Dr. Sax cites among the causes of failing boys is the decline of masculinity. He argues that any woman can teach any boy math, language arts, science, and social studies, but what it means to be a man has to be taught by a community of men.
“We used to have such a community, and we used to teach this,” Dr. Sax says. “Fifty years ago there were many institutional and informal associations that brought men and boys together. Those bonds have been broken among English speakers in the United States.”
He added that even if a father never spoke to his son about what it means to be a man, 50 years ago the boy would be watching shows such as Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, or the Andy Griffith Show, or going to the movies and seeing men such as Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, or Gary Cooper.
“Those movies and shows taught boys that being a man means being courteous, being competent, being knowledgeable, being productive, and being caring. Even if the father was not a good role model, the culture was teaching the boy, this is what we expect of a man,” Dr. Sax says.
He was quick to point out that he’s not suggesting the 1960s were the good old days, saying every era has its challenges. Though Andy Griffith is a great role model for boys, the show itself depicts a racist and misogynistic era. Dr. Sax advises parents to watch the show with their boys, to explain the inequities.
Today, we have The Simpsons, in which Homer is a lazy bum who thinks about food and beer all day, and Bart is an idiot. Dr. Sax says he has a great deal of respect for the show and its understanding of cultural shifts in America, but that it is hardly Father Knows Best.
But The Simpsons is not an outlier. In his research, Dr. Sax went through 150 of the most popular television shows of 2015, and could not find one that portrayed the father as consistently competent. He specifically mentioned Disney shows, in which parents are clueless and the butt of jokes.
“That’s a really profound change in American culture,” Dr. Sax says.
Stott also noted the influence of television on boys, particularly the show Family Guy.
“All the boys love that show. It’s so shallow, and he’s a poor role model. I can see that playing into it,” Stott says.
Closing the Gap
Television shows from the 1950s and ’60s depict another important difference from modern life: Children are free to play on their own (both in and out of school) and often get into sticky situations. Indeed, many plots turn on the child doing something reckless and learning a valuable lesson as a result.
In today’s hyper-vigilant world, children have fewer and fewer opportunities to challenge themselves through play. No where is this more evident than at school, where the fear of litigation has turned playgrounds into outdoor gym classes, where adults closely supervise play, and many kids stand idly looking at their phones.
“Over the last forty years education changed in multiple ways, and schools became less friendly to boys,” Dr. Sax says. “Are kids allowed to throw snow balls on school grounds during school hours? No. We used to throw snowballs and the teachers would come out and join us. Today if a kid starts throwing snowballs a teacher comes running out to stop him.”
Dr. Sax says there is a better way that costs nothing. He suggests making the football field the designated snowball throwing zone, where both boys and girls can choose to participate, or holding a tournament with teachers setting up targets and letting the kids compete.
He added that boys’ behavior must be channeled and it extends to the classroom. For instance, he says many boys like to write violent stories. An acceptable story might be a generic depiction of violence that suits the period being written about (Roman gladiators, for example). Writing a story depicting personal or threatening violence is out of bounds.
“Boys understand in bounds versus out of bounds very well,” Dr. Sax says.
There’s been so much concern about gender parity in schools that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Dr. Sax says gender is complicated but it doesn’t mean gender doesn’t matter.
“What boys need to get excited about school is different from what girls need, and if you don’t understand that, you end up with what we have, which is a lot of boys who think school is just for girls,” Dr. Sax says. “If we don’t turn the tide we’ll have boys who are less likely to be engaged in the real world and more likely to be looking at their screens, and less likely to fulfill their potential.”
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