Boys Adrift Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

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The topic of this book is primarily boys. Not to assume that girls don’t have problems, but to emphasize that many of the problems that boys have and that girls have should be considered separately. Not being sexist is not equivalent to assuming that there are not important differences between boys and girls and how they should be raised. I recommend this book and the author’s approach which proposes solutions in addition to presenting problems.

Dr. Sax starts his book with statistics demonstrating that males in our country are underperforming females and underperforming the males in their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations. He sees a significant percentage of young males who are lacking motivation and proposes five factors which have contributed to this situation.

The first factor is the changes that have been taking place in schools. I could not agree with this more wholeheartedly. Normal development is being ignored both in what is being expected and in the activities which children are doing and not doing which are necessary for their development.kindergarten

Kindergarten has become first grade. In 2008, the kindergarten curriculum at most North American schools, both public and private, looks very much like the first-grade curriculum of 1978.

This is being done without evidence that teaching reading sooner for all children makes them better readers, tends to cause them to enjoy reading more, or encourages life-long learning.

Among the most striking findings in the report are the differences in the developmental trajectories of girls compared with boys. The researchers found that the various regions of the brain develop in a different sequence and tempo in girls compared with boys. In some regions of the brain,…the pace of the girl’s development is roughly two years ahead of the boys’….It now appears that the language areas of the brain in many five-year-old boys look like the language areas of the brain of the average three-and-a-half-year-old girl….Timing is everything, in education as in many other fields. It’s not enough to teach well. You have to teach well to kids who are ready to learn, kids who are developmentally “ripe” for learning.


Professor Deborah Stipek, dean of the school of education at Stanford University, has found that kids form opinions about school early.

Critics of American education often point out, quite accurately, that the United States spends more money per pupil than most other developed countries and yet accomplishes less….Finland, incidentally, consistently scores at or near the very top of all of these international rankings. What’s the most distinctive characteristic of public education in Finland? Very simple. Children in Finland don’t begin any formal school until they are seven years old….If kids start school two years later and are taught material when they are developmentally prepared to learn, kids are less likely to hate school….Doing something earlier doesn’t necessarily mean that you will do it any better. In fact, it may mean that you do it less well in the long run.

Dr. Sax proposes that there is an important distinction between knowing something from experience (Kenntnis) and just knowing about something (Wissenschaft).

It’s all Wissenschaft. American education, today more than ever before, is characterized by a serious lack of understanding of, and respect for, Kenntnis….There is more than fifty years of research on the importance, for child development, of multisensory interaction with the real world.

The evidence suggests that boys who play lots of video games are no less likely to read for fun than boys who don’t play lots of video games. Video games have displaced a major activity in the lives of young boys, but that activity isn’t reading; it’s playing outdoors….That may be one reason why boys today are four times more likely to be obese compared with boys a generation ago.

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While competition is not best for everyone, Dr. Sax states that removing all competition has removed a motivation for those boys who thrive on competition. He reports that “team competition can engage some boys who otherwise do not care much about school. Individual competition is seldom as successful and is almost guaranteed to disengage many boys”.

The second factor presented by Dr. Sax is video games. While he presents many factors, here are a few of his most important statements.

A series of studies over the past seven years has demonstrated clearly and unambiguously that the most time our child spends playing video games, the less likely he is to do well in school – whether he is in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college.

In the real world, what you need is not high-tech virtual weaponry, but patience.

Researchers at Yale University recently reported that playing violent video games such as Doom clearly and unambiguously causes young men to have a more violent self-image and to behave more violently; this report has not received coverage in the media, to the best of my knowledge. A comprehensive review of the research on video games recently demonstrated that playing violent video games leads directly “to aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, and cardiovascular arousal, and to decreases in helping behavior”.

The third factor he attributes to the change in male behavior is medications for ADD/ADHD.

Boys in 2007 are thirty times more likely to be taking these medications compared with boys in 1987.

According to an international comparison published in 2006, children in the United States are now at least three times more likely to be taking psychiatric medications compared with children in any European country. And it often doesn’t stop with just one medication. One-third of American children who are taking psychotropic medications today are actually taking two or three or four medications, not just one.

Dr. Gabrieli’s team somehow obtained permission to give powerful ADHD medications to normal children. These researchers also obtained permission to withhold ADHD medication from boys (and a few girls) who undeniably did have ADHD. Then Dr. Gabrieli’s team tested both groups, on and off medication, to see how well both groups could learn with and without the medication. There was an audible gasp in the audience when Dr. Gabrieli showed us the crucial slide: medication for ADHD improved the performance of normal kids by the same degree that it improved the performance of kids with ADHD.

What these parents don’t know – and what the doctors also may not know – is that even relatively short-term use of these drugs, for just a year of perhaps less, can lead to changes in personality.

The fourth factor that Dr. Sax credits with contributing to this change in male behavior is endocrine disruptors. Many of these are chemicals that leach out of plastic drink containers.

The girls whose breasts had developed early had high levels of phthalates, about six times higher than the levels in girls whose breasts had not yet developed; an average of 512 parts per billion in girls with premature breast development, compared with 86 parts per billion in normal girls….But the American endocrinologists did none of those things. Instead they decided simply to redefine what’s normal. The experts decided that a girl who needs to wear a bra at age eight should no longer be considered an anomaly.

There is now substantial evidence that the very same endocrine-disrupting chemicals that accelerate puberty in girls may delay or disrupt the process of puberty in boys.

He’s a normal American boy – which has come to mean, he’s a boy who can break his bones just by tripping and falling. By their fifteenth birthday, almost two-thirds (63.7%) of boys have now had at least one broken bone, compared with 39.1% of girls. The risk of fracture for boys roughly doubled between the 1960s and the 1990s.

The fifth factor that Dr. Sax sees as contributing to this change is societal changes in which fathers, grandfathers, and other significant male adults are not teaching and providing good role models for boys to become men. He gives examples of enduring cultures which pass on in gender-separate situations what it means to be a man or woman in that society.

Dr. Sax goes on to give suggestions of how improvements can occur in all of these areas. We all talk about how things have changed, but we are also unaware of many changes and their significance. As humans, we have been demonstrated to be relatively blind to gradual changes, find it hard to remember what it was like before, and are notorious for altering our memories without being aware that we have done so. There are some behaviors and cultural traditions which are good to preserve for their contributions to society (or find worthwhile substitutes for them) while we celebrate the decline of others such as sexism and racism.