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CONNECTING WITH BOYS - Closing the Asset Gap

By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain


By some measures, boys and men in the USA have it made. On average, men make more money than women. They’re more likely to attain positions of authority. They’re less likely to be victims of violence or abuse.

So what do we make of the following statistics?

  • Boys are more likely than girls to be incarcerated, be violent or commit homicide, and be victims of serious violent crime.
  • Boys are more likely than girls to have chronic conditions such as asthma, to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, and to drop out of school.
  • Boys and young men are less likely than girls and young women to volunteer and to be spiritually grounded.


In the recent flurry of media attention on the topic, explanations are varied and sometimes contradictory. Some people worry that paying attention to boys will undermine the important gains girls have made in recent decades. To establish that girls and women still draw the short end of the stick, they point to the statistics documenting the number of women who live in poverty or their unequal salary levels. Others counter that feminists have demonized masculinity; they suggest that boys need to harden up, not open up.


That’s how the pundits have framed the issues. But how do we as asset builders respond? The values our 40-asset framework measures are often at odds with the societal measures of success and status in which men have traditionally excelled. Our goal as asset builders is to help our children grow up to be healthy, well-rounded individuals. But from an assets perspective, our boys are struggling, reporting fewer assets on average than do girls. How do we build strengths in boys without taking away from the gains of girls?



An Asset Snapshot

Taking a closer look at the Search Institute Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors survey data provides an overview of the issues facing boys. Among almost 100,000 6th- to 12th-grade students surveyed in 1996-1997, we found: 

  • Boys, on average, report having three fewer of the 40 developmental assets—16.5 vs. 19.5 for girls.
  • There are 18 assets that girls are more likely to report having than are boys, but only three assets that boys are more likely to report having. (See chart on page 9.)
  • Fifteen of the assets more commonly reported by girls than boys are internal assets.

These data suggest that something troubling may, indeed, be going on with boys. After all, we know that both boys and girls who experience more of the developmental assets are more likely to make healthy choices. And those who report fewer are more likely to try high-risk behaviors and disengage from school.



Why the Gap?

It’s tempting to avoid asking this question. No one wants an unproductive debate over who or what’s to blame. Yet thoughtful reflection on possible factors can help shape our responses. Here are some possibilities:


Biological differences

Boys and girls have distinct developmental pathways through childhood and adolescence. They typically have different ways of learning and different interests. While these differences are shaped by culture, many are also grounded in biology.


Researchers are learning, for example, that boys tend to have their first developmental “crisis point” in the early elementary years, not in early adolescence, which is the case for girls. In addition, fine motor skills (needed to hold a pencil in school) and reading abilities tend to develop later in boys. Boys also tend to be more active than girls. Thus, a one-size-fits-all approach will serve neither gender well.


“Most schools do not recognize that boys and girls learn at different tempos and in different styles,” says Harvard Medical School’s William Pollack. “Children are still expected to sit quietly for long periods and learn visually. But boys do better if they can move around and handle things. In many schools that’s considered bad behavior or a conduct disorder; so instead of learning, boys are sent to the principal’s office.”


Social pressure

Though society is showing some signs of change, the dominant messages boys receive reinforce stereotypical masculinity. For example, a 1999 study of the influence of the media on boys by Oakland, Calif.–based Children Now (www.childrennow.org) found that “in spite of the complex and changing work and family experiences of real-life men, media portrayals do not reflect this complexity. Rather, messages and images remain strongly stereotypical.” 


In Real Boys, Pollack argues that males are pressured to follow what he calls “the boys code,” which involves “living behind a mask of masculine bravado that hides the genuine self.” One upshot of this enforced bravado is that we too often dismiss aggression and insensitivity with the platitude that “boys will be boys.” While we have expanded “acceptable” options for girls and women in such spheres as sports and business, we haven’t done as well at inviting boys and men to explore personal interests that emphasize relationships, caring, and creative expression. Cultural norms tell boys that such interests aren’t “masculine.”


Ironically, as society has learned to value more nurturing qualities (traditionally associated with femininity), it may also have become less tolerant of “normal” behavior in boys. A high level of physical energy and an urge to conquer were, in an earlier age, essential to survival. As Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently, pleads: “We need to love boys for who they are. Let’s not try to rewire them.”


A different measure of success

By and large, male success in this culture is weighed in economic and political terms. By these measures, U.S. culture is clearly biased against girls. The cultural role assigned women is preserving relational and emotional health—an important job that doesn’t earn money and so is undervalued. Thus attention in recent decades has appropriately focused on addressing such issues as inequities in income for women, glass ceilings that limit their power and influence, and how girls can be hurt by a society that too often objectifies and undervalues them. 


However, if the measure of success is a well-adjusted human being, as we at Search Institute believe, then we also need to ask whether and how U.S. culture is problematic for boys. The asset framework attempts a holistic approach to identifying what young people need to grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. That boys lag behind girls most dramatically on the internal assets suggests that cultivating relationships and a rich inner life is particularly challenging for them. It is also revealing that the asset with the greatest gap between girls and boys is interpersonal competence.



Strategies for Asset Builders

So, as asset builders, how do we respond? We want to celebrate boys’ innate qualities, while also setting appropriate limits and channeling their energy into productive outlets. This means finding ways to connect more effectively with individual boys, as well as entering the public dialogue about how society can better address gender issues. 


Here are some approaches to consider:

Avoid sensationalizing boys’ problems

Intensive scrutiny of a few dreadful incidents can lead to a crisis mentality that demonizes all boys. Tragically, a few boys have opened fire on their fellow students. However, the vast majority of boys are following a relatively innocuous pathway toward adulthood. 


Yes, there’s work to be done. Yes, there are areas of serious concern. But sensationalizing the issue sends boys the message that they are problems, rather than resources and gifts. It also makes adults feel powerless to make a difference—when their active engagement with boys is precisely what’s needed.


Don’t pit boys against girls

When looking at typical differences between genders, the temptation to pull out a score card to mark who’s ahead and who’s behind is tempting. But boys aren’t in their current situation because we’ve been paying too much attention to girls. Indeed, one can argue that we haven’t paid enough attention to either boys or girls.


Despite the tremendous emphasis on opportunities for girls in recent decades, there is still much work to be done. A 2000 study of youth development organizations by the Washington, D.C.–based Public Education Network (www.PublicEducation.org) found a “dearth of opportunities for young women. . . . We found both an absolute level of underservice to girls overall in communities, and too many instances of girls being treated as second-class citizens in coeducational programs.”


Offer alternatives to common stereotypes

If the dominant male images are one-dimensional, stereotypical snapshots, then we need to reframe what success and wholeness can mean. Seeing men in their own lives and in the media acting in ways that are both strong and emotional, driven and contemplative, will encourage boys to explore more dimensions of themselves. 


Move beyond one-size-fits-all thinking. If nothing else, the differences between boys and girls remind us that young people are diverse in every aspect of their lives. Tailoring our interactions to the individual needs of each young person will better help each learn and grow. Focusing separately on the developmental needs of boys and girls may sometimes also be appropriate. Michelee Curtze of Edinboro, Pa., offers separate classes for seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls in her school district. The young people work in small groups with volunteer community men- tors to identify issues they have growing up male or female and to find ways to address them. Not only do the boys and girls have a chance to talk about their lives, but they also build an important connection with a caring adult and positive role model. 


Tap boys’ interests

A basic tenet of asset building is to connect with young people around their strengths and interests. While boys can get fired up about everything from rock guitar to football to debate team, they often seem drawn to activities that emphasize physical or intellectual challenge or competition, not the relationship building or inward reflection that is so central to asset building. 


Still, a creative approach on the part of asset builders can yield results. If a boy is interested in computers, for example, consider tapping him to work on your initiative’s Web site. If sports is his passion, emphasize teambuilding over winning at all costs. If he enjoys working with his hands, then work alongside him and talk while you work. If he’s a video game aficionado, consider asking him how video games help him build assets (see “First-Person Perspective” on page 15).


Challenge boys to stretch themselves

Targeted efforts to address those areas where many boys struggle also seem warranted. The developmental assets data suggest that boys may need to be challenged with opportunities that help them develop relationship skills, nurture their inner life of values, and foster a sense of caring and service to others. 


Lee Manogg of Newark, Ohio, says that she wishes she had been more intentional in encouraging her son, who was not a “joiner,” to participate in after-school activities. “I let him convince me that he didn’t need to be involved in structured activities,” she says, “and I believe he still struggles to know how to approach a group and find his own way within it.”


Celebrating Boys

The challenge we face as asset builders, then, is to celebrate boys’ innate qualities, while also setting appropriate limits and channeling their sometimes abundant energy into productive outlets. Cultivating internal and relational strengths such as caring, interpersonal skills, restraint, and positive values will be crucial. Those same qualities offer a necessary foundation for deep relationships, civic engagement, and active parenting in a time when men and women are renegotiating roles and responsibilities in a changing world.


Books about Boys

Here are recent books on raising boys. Reader alert: These folks definitely don’t all agree!

  • Geoffrey Canada: Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
  • Michael Gurian and Patricia Henley with Terry Trueman: Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001. 
  • Christina Hoff Sommers: The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Dan Kindlon and Michael Thomspon: Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. New York: Balantine, 1999.
  • William Pollack: Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. New York: Holt, 1998.


Reprinted with permission from Search Institute. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain is Search Institute’s chief communication officer, Connecting With Boys, Assets: The Magazine of Ideas for Healthy Communities & Healthy Youth, Summer, 2001, www.search-institute.org. All rights reserved.