Engaging our boys

Waxing Lyrical column by J. Kathleen Thompson

As a teacher, I remember some distinctive patterns of gender representation in school life.

Not only did the girls appear more engaged in the classroom—task-oriented and dominating classroom discussions, etc.—but they were often the battery behind the things that required an extra degree of volunteer spirit or civic commitment: student councils, grad, yearbook or social justice committees, fundraising activities, drama clubs and the like. It led me to join the legions of teachers, parents and concerned citizens who wonder, “What’s going on with our boys—have we lost them?”

According to Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, we have. In a recent column entitled “The Lost Boys: Video Games More Fun than Growing Up” (Aug.27),  she cites research which has found that while young women are busily cultivating the skills and attitudes to achieve in this world—being focused, engaged, tenacious, diligent—and are fasttracking through school, post-secondary education into well-paying professions, boys seem to be content to be under-employed, parked in their parent’s basement, and living somewhere out in cyberspace.

Speculation is rife about what is causing this “slump” in many boy’s motivation and achievement. Michael Reist, Canadian educator and author of Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys (Dundurn, 2015), suggests that it may have something to do with how our acculturation processes deny boys important facets of their emotional and social development.

A narrowly prescribed concept of what it is to be a man (strong, silent, unemotional, athletic, competitive) teaches boys to suppress, ignore, scorn or medicate those traits stereotypically considered less masculine (the creative, the caring, the sensitive) resulting in highly-conditioned behaviour that often does not correspond to who the boy truly is, and later manifests as depression, aggression, anti-social behaviour and withdrawal.

To guard against delimiting our boys’ worlds, Reist endorses environments which sanction a broader definition of “manliness” and role models who embody the courage, patience, creativity, socio-emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, etc. that are the hallmarks of confident, well-integrated individuals.  Providing the moral support the child needs to pursue their unedited interests—like wanting to care for others, learn dressage, create a comic strip, read, study Latin, paint, start a community action group or a catering company, sing, dance or write a Druid tale—lets them know we value them for who they really are.

And while a variety of these activities and groups may be available and culturally condoned during childhood, it is vital that these activities continue to be encouraged into adolescence, when whole areas of human life become out of bounds for boys or require great personal courage to enter.

When I taught choir and voice, I always admired the adolescent boy who strode into my choir room or music studio while knowing that the mere act of showing up to sing for him was a defiant one. And how, with time, this act of defiance becomes routinized and singing (or any activity once viewed with suspicion), becomes something that a typical Canadian male student does.

This was my experience in Victoria, when, as the practice of singing became normalized, the boys began to outnumber the girls in my secondary school choirs. The barrier which prevents boys from experiencing the right to feel out loud had been broken. Such is the power of acculturation.

As we size up the variety of offerings for our children’s development this year, consider those which permit them to experience other dimensions of their being. We have already seen the positive results of opening up the range of possibilities for our girls. By encouraging the same breadth of experience and range of behaviour for our boys, we will see them flourish in a world that requires a repertoire of abilities and an enthusiasm for the diversity of human endeavour.

 

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