Unique problems of boys unrecognized, untreated: Study

By Tom Spears, Ottawa Citizen September 4, 2009 9:01 PM
OTTAWA Boys and girls both have their issues, but boys are the ones getting no support, a new study suggests.


More men than women are prime ministers and brain surgeons, making it easy to think boys have it made, says the study by psychology professor Judith Kleinfeld. She says we forget that men are also more likely than women to be broke, homeless and illiterate.


Kleinfeld said she thinks that the unique problems of growing up male are unrecognized and untreated.


Schools and counsellors make a special effort to help girls overcome depression and eating disorders, she says. So what about the boys?


Kleinfeld is a University of Alaska, Fairbanks, professor with four decades of experience studying gender and education.


Girls do have their troubles, she agrees: They suffer more depression, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.


"The difficulties of boys, however, which span far more areas, have been generally ignored. It is boys who are performing at strikingly lower levels in literacy," she writes in the journal Gender Issues. It is boys who are more likely to quit school early, to be in special education, to have behaviour problems and be suspended or expelled.


Boys are far more likely to skip their homework, arrive at school without books or pencils and cause a disturbance that gets them kicked out of class. Boys are more likely to commit suicide or to be arrested.


"Policy attention has focused on the supposed underachievement of females in mathematics and science but these gender gaps are small," Kleinfeld writes in her study. "In contrast, substantial gender gaps are occurring in reading and writing, which place males at a serious disadvantage in the employment market and in college."


This strikes a chord with Stefania Maggi, director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, who also studies gender in education and, like Kleinfeld, sees two sets of children with very different needs.


"What helps girls in literacy doesn't necessarily help boys, and vice versa," she says.


An example: girls are lagging behind boys in computer literacy. "They (schools) are trying to increase computer literacy in girls with the same strategy they've used in boys, and apparently it's not really working."


Second example: girls read far more. You can give a girl almost any book and she'll stick with it, while boys with shaky reading skills will give up if the book bores them.


"They are less engaged and less interested," and need reading material that suits them, she says.


Such as?


"Have you ever heard of Captain Underpants? I know, maybe the content is not appropriate for some people, but what is reading all about? All learning, I should say. What keeps kids in school is an interest for learning."


She cautions that gender differences alone "are meaningless" without factoring in the added stresses of social and economic problems. On society's top rungs, boys and girls don't show major differences. These develop, in complex directions, as one goes down the socio-economic ladder.