On Kept Princes, the Bell Curve and Our Boys
Adam is a peacock. He struts through the halls showing his feathers whenever he can. When I walk into a classroom where Adam is, his back is noticeably straight; he sits with seeming attentiveness and some designation of self-worth. He is not tall, but his solid frame gives him the appearance of height. He is capable of having different kinds of conversations than you might from boys his age. He has a biting sense of humor, sees irony all around him and is willing to share his insights.
But with all of Adam’s outward appearances of competence and confidence, he is actually quite weak in school. He struggles to complete assignments, and is often unclear about what to do and how to do it. He really needs much support inside and outside the classroom but is unwilling to ask for it. He has a particularly tough time in math.
Adam does not typically get in trouble, but he has one bad habit that lands him in my office on a regular basis: he talks back to teachers and can be confrontational. This year, his math teacher is getting the brunt of Adam’s mouth.
Struggling in math places young boys and adolescents in a double bind. Their struggles are not just academic but a particular kind of gender dilemma as well. Boys are supposed to be good at math. Math and science define them as men. In struggling with these subjects, they have to contend with both the insecurities and failures of the academics and the perceived failure of masculinity. Adam is asking himself, “Is there something wrong with me because I can’t do this? My friends all seem really confident in math. Am I like one of those girls who is constantly crying in the hallway because she just failed her math test?”
Adam’s teacher is not helping Adam’s cause. He rushes through problem sets; he does not check for understanding. Adam is left too embarrassed to ask for support or help. The teacher assumes Adam is getting it because he is not raising his hand. Moreover, the other boys frown on students who slow down the class with “stupid” questions. The teacher does not do enough to silence this form of male-on-male humiliation. Adam, therefore, does not see him as an ally. He takes his feelings, his anxiety and his need to male posture, out on his male math teacher.
“You are the worst teacher in this school,” Adam says calmly but with a knowing laugh. What Adam does not know is that I happen to be positioned just outside the door to his classroom and am listening intently to the conversation. The teacher’s classroom management skills lack assertiveness and purpose, so I am regularly observing the crucial first 10 minutes of class to give him feedback.
“Everyone knows you can’t teach, and I’m failing because of it.”
“Adam, can you please take a seat,” the teacher says with a rising tone of agitation. Things are going downhill quickly this morning. “Everyone please take out your homework so we can go over the problems from last night.”
“I didn’t do the f-ing….”
End of conversation.
I enter quickly. Some boys sit petrified; others stare at Adam to see his reaction, while a third group pulls out materials without making eye contact. Adam does not even wait for me to say it. He just picks up his backpack and heads down to my office.
It is now me, Adam and his mother sitting around a conference table. She has had to leave work in the middle of the day. She is not angry or even irritated, just expressing, without words, feelings of exhaustion and helplessness. The first three times Adam was sent to my office for speaking back to adults, she was firmer and more convincing. Adam’s parents also do not fit the socioeconomic make up of many of the school’s families. Both work, they barely make enough to pay their bills, and their children are given huge scholarship dollars to attend the school. She looks like she wants to hide beneath the table.
“Adam, the teacher is not the reason you are doing so poorly in math,” I start. “You need help and support, which he has offered to you a number of times. You don’t show up to his help sessions, and you refuse to put real effort.”
“I can do the math,” Adam says as if it is biblical truth.
“Then show me.” I take out paper and write the problem I saw written on the white board that morning. Adam picks up the pen, adjusts his glasses. He starts the first step of the problem, scratches over a number, picks his head up and looks into the sky as if he is either thinking or praying. Unfortunately, right now, I know that neither will do him much good. I know he cannot do this problem. His mother quickly interjects.
“Mr. Ablin, you know he is quite capable. He can do this work, I’m sure.” Adam is now turning red. She tries to touch his face to comfort him. Bad move. He jerks back his head and has an expression on his face of wanting to die at that moment. “Everything is going to be great, sweetie. Don’t worry. I know. Your dad and I think you’re going to be something special.”
Adam’s mom is merely articulating what young boys and adolescents face as the fundamental gender dilemma: that they are somehow going on to greater things, to conquer the world. Boys are destined. Hard work and determination are an afterthought. I believe that boys, as young as infants, spend a good part of their childhood being admired and praised as much or more than loved and engaged emotionally. They are inheritors of the kingdom, and because of it, they are told that there is something almost automatically linked to success in their DNA. They are kept princes.
They are kept princes because most of these boys will eventually discover that this is not the way the real world works. Outside of the bubble lies failure, falling down, struggle and finding yourself around people who are as good or much more talented and hardworking. In other words, the ground begins to move very quickly underneath them. And boys do many, many things over the course of a day at school to try to keep this ego construct intact. They act out in class, they are less likely to follow rules, they draw everyone’s attention and energies to them in all sorts of positive and negative ways. When measured, they receive more than triple the amount of attention from teachers in classrooms than girls, simultaneously creating another gender problem.
So, Adam, under the gazing eyes of the perpetrators of this mythology, his mother and his father in abstentia, is struggling under two burdens. One, he cannot do the math problem; two, if he admits it, if he makes himself vulnerable and open to addressing his difficulty with math, so that the entire male mythology needs to be rewritten. What he fears is that what he has been told about his very nature, even his very biology, is false, which it is.
Do I think Adam can, ultimately do the math? Absolutely. But he has to do the math. Boys’ sense of their self-worth depends largely on what they accomplish. There is nothing written in some big book somewhere that boys need to be accomplished in math in order to lead a meaningful life.
And the data no longer supports claims of male superiority—in fact, much more startling realities exist. American males occupy the top 10% of the bell curve in terms of math achievers; however, through awareness and increased access, women have thankfully closed this gap, showing over the past 40 years that the arguments over DNA versus effort, interest and self-perception is essentially over. Girls and women have shown a clear ability in math and math-related fields. Our lack of focus on the entire biological ecosystem of school has left boys at the bottom half of the bell curve of not only literacy skills but math as well, by percentages as high as 26% to 29% in both disciplines (Halpern, Wai, Saw, “A Psychobiosocial Model,” in Gender Differences in Mathematics).
In fact, by maintaining and supporting the myth of the kept prince, we perpetuate all sorts of other kinds of potential harm and havoc in our societies because of the deferential and overly admiring/posturing toward boys. Where does male anger, resentment, rage and aggression come from? What are the origins of male superiority? If you are told you are superior from environmental and cultural cues all the time for no reason, then the results are clear and fairly self-fulfilling. Males are much more likely than not to hear black-and-white assessments such as “school is just not for him” or “he just doesn’t ‘do’ school.” The lashing out over failed promises and crumbling male self-perception are real, dangerous and damaging to all of us. With almost 90% of violent crime in this country perpetrated by men (according to the CDC), we are looking at a culturally generated human health crisis. Upwards of half of the American male prison population has undiagnosed learning disabilities. By not teaching boys to be accepting of help, vulnerable and open to support, we limit their access to potential economic aspirations and put them at risk and vulnerable as adults.
What are the results of all this predestination for our boys? Largely, it is confusion and isolation and frustration. As it was for Adam, exposure of this myth is frightening and scary. A boy’s sense of reality is so conflicted that frustration mounts. And, for many young men, it means veering away from all sorts of endeavors because they may meet obstacles and challenges which are not overcome with ease and a sense of preordained certainty. For boys, the danger is that the entire narrative of male identity, built up so carefully but falsely over the years, is a fraud—and then, who am I? How do I define myself? How can I be so exposed and called out for not being what I was meant to be? Whoever told Adam that he was first going to have to work his tail off to do well or even just adequately in math? Quite the opposite. Our kept prince has no clothes.
Boys need to be guided and nurtured by the evidence they provide, their accomplishments or failures based on what they produce, not what we think they should produce. I witness this all the time in schools. Teachers are much more likely to say to boys than girls, “You are more capable than what you are showing me.” Who says? Why are boys presumed to be able or capable of doing anything in school or in life for that matter without demonstrating it? Instead, teachers need to say, “You rushed through this and it shows. Try it again.”
This is also why, I believe, boys love being on sports teams. Sports and being on a team become, in a positive way, narrative and myth busters. Coaches measure their players in small successes and failures, and what you see is what you get. There are few presumptions, at the outset, about whether boys will be successful or not. Sure, some kids are bigger or faster or have more refined motor skills, but for coaches, attitude, hard work, determination and, yes, grit are much more accurate indicators of success.
Boys are held accountable for what they do. There are few, if any, free passes. You miss a practice, you are in the doghouse and do not get to play. You work hard and show teamwork and improvement, there are clear accolades for your efforts and you get to play more. And the boys love it. When I ask them about their experiences and we get past the clichés, boys talk about being able to prove themselves, they like how hard work leads to success that they can see, and they can feel it is something real, not a made-up fantasy.
And parents? The supportive ones let their boys fall down, demand that they show up at practices on time and consistently, and if they are going to sit on the bench all season, it is a good lesson in character and realistic expectations. The challenging parents are constantly looking to reinforce the myth of inherited greatness. They want their child to be the exception, because their boy certainly must be somehow exceptional. The rules do not apply because, look at him, isn’t he already wonderful and worthy and talented? Why aren’t they getting playing time or starting? So what if he missed a practice? And the toughest: What do you mean he didn’t make the team?
In these circumstances, boys find themselves torn in a thousand directions, not wanting to be disrespectful to their parents, wanting to fit in on a team and be accepted, and not wanting to challenge the myth that they are special, chosen, always worthy. The results are a false sense of personhood, of self. By defining the male identity by the myth of the kept prince, we steal his dignity and replace it with a facade, ready to crumble at the first real test or obstacle. When we put him in a gendered box in school, at home and throughout his environment, we do not allow him to build a set of tools to bring his real aspirations to life, no matter what they may be.
Parents and teachers need to ban the dead-end language of smart and gifted and capable from their vernacular, particularly when it comes to boys. It creates what Carol Dweck at Stanford calls a static mindset and reinforces a type of gender bias that stays with them for a lifetime. It is an unfair burden that limits young boys from seeking help when they need it and, instead, gives them a sense of grandiosity, which is false and ultimately debilitating.
Teachers can also do more to take control of their classrooms, exert more confidence and not let outside influences interfere with their work with our Adams. We can certainly begin by not holding our boys in such high regard where they cannot even see the ground underneath their feet. We should take some of the wisdom of coaches. Let them scrape their knees, get upset, work hard enough where we can see them sweat and then bear witness to their true growth as a cause of celebration.