Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax
Apr 20, 2013
But now, almost a decade later, that number has grown substantially. Now there are nineteen boys countered by only two girls. That's a little more unusual.
Three of those boys are mine, of course. So I think it's only natural that I would be interested in a book about some of the problems facing boys today--not only because I have three of my own but also because, from the looks of things, unless the stars change their alignment, boys are all I'll have in the future, too. (And that's fine with me--spending all my time around boys has made me become fiercely attached to them...)
And I'll tell you what, you can't spend the majority of your day around boys and not realize that some frightening trends have taken shape over the last thirty years.
I read this book for several reasons: I'm worried about my own sons growing up in a world of poor role models and dangerous hobbies and wanted some ideas for how to combat these growing problems; I wanted to better understand and help the boys I work with on a weekly basis (through church, piano lessons, and preschool); and last, my sister-in-law insisted it was a book I needed to read, and I have never regretted any of her recommendations.
I'm sure all of you know at least one boy who fits at least some of these characteristics: hates school, unmotivated, not interested in the world around him, refuses to work, receives no pride or pleasure in a job well done, lives in a virtual fantasy world, and/or has no goals or aspirations for life. Dr. Sax describes several such boys in the opening chapter of Boys Adrift.
He then introduces and expounds on the five factors he believes are driving this "growing epidemic": Changes at school, video games, medications for ADHD, endocrine disruptors, and lack of positive role models.
First, changes at school. By this, he means the way schools have evolved over the last 30+ years to be more accessible to girls than boys: kindergartners are now being taught the same curriculum as first graders from several decades ago, the structure has become much more rigid and stationary and less hands-on and interactive, and most of the competitive elements are gone. I found it so interesting that he never once mentioned homeschooling in this section, which I personally think would solve most of the education problems he mentioned. Instead, he advocated all-boy private schools, which, I have no doubt, probably do exhibit some major advantages but which also, let's face it, are probably not a viable option for most of us. This section definitely made me rethink a lot of things, including the way I teach piano to several of my boy students.
Second, video games. I'm about as opposed to video games as you can get, and this section only added fuel to my fire. He said that video games cause boys to disengage from the real world--neglecting experiential play in favor of virtual success and power. Video games are addictive and a time-waster. Plus, scientists have found that playing video games turns off blood flow to the DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which subsequently interferes with the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain in charge of drive and motivation. So it seems video games actually do make boys more lazy. I'm glad that, at this point, our family has been able to avoid video and computer games. Mike used to have a few games on his iPod, too, but he has since deleted all of them. We do have a TV (which I have a love/hate relationship with), so I'm glad video games are one daily battle I don't have to face.
Third, ADHD medications. This chapter was fascinating and, at the same time, terrifying. It literally made me feel sick. I really do believe that, like Dr. Sax suggested, ADHD is mis-diagnosed and over-medicated. He mentioned that currently the common course of action with a boy who exhibits some indicators of ADHD is to try a low dose of medication and see if it helps. If it does help, then he must have ADHD. But the problem is, and Dr. Sax cited a study to prove it, when people without ADHD are given an ADHD medication, they exhibit the same kind of improvements as people who are diagnosed with ADHD. So there are many boys who get put on medication in kindergarten because they can't sit still, but what would have really helped them is just holding them back a year and then enrolling them in a school with lots of hands-on activities. Once they're on medication, it interferes with the nucleus accumbens (like video games) and makes it very difficult to later take them off the medication because of the changes that have happened in the brain. Dr. Sax is not saying that ADHD is not a real diagnosis, but he does present a very convincing argument that far more boys are diagnosed with it than actually have it.
Fourth, endocrine disruptors. This is another scary one, and one that I feel like I have less control over. Sure, I can put a ban on video games and avoid ADHD medication, but how do I live in this world of plastics and chemicals and pollution and keep them safe from endocrine disruptors? Endocrine disruptors are the chemicals in plastic water bottles like bisphenol A or phthalates that "accelerate puberty in girls" and "delay or disrupt the process of puberty in boys." There is also growing evidence that they may be a cause of ADHD.
Fifth, lack of positive role models. Dr. Sax says that all enduring cultures have one thing in common: men teach boys how to be men. Our culture is straying away from this. Boys are learning how to be men from television or video games but not from their own fathers or other mentors. I think this is one of the reasons I have banned most superheroes from our house: they are not providing the kind of positive role models I want for my boys.
After expounding on the first four factors, Dr. Sax described a phenomenon he called "Failure to Launch," which basically refers to men who can't make it on their own; they live with their parents, they work a few hours a week, they have no interest in relationships. Dr. Sax shared a letter from a successful man who said he was "only a marital separation away" from living such a life. He said he would need very little to be satisfied in life but that he worked hard in order to provide a nice life for his family. He said, "Take my dear ones away and I need none of it." After I read this letter, I asked Mike if he thought it described him--not that he would be a bum on the streets if he didn't have a family but just if it's his family that provides him with the drive he needs to succeed. He said that the few times the boys and I have visited my parents without him (usually because he has a lot of work to do), he lives a very simple life: he eats cereal and frozen pizza and spends the majority of his time away from home (whereas when we are here, he can hardly wait to come home so he can play with the boys). I just think it's so interesting that so many men today are choosing not to get married or have a family, and that it could be those very things that would help them have the motivation to be successful.
Incidentally, after I started this book, I told Mike he really needed to read it, too. So he also listened to the whole thing, and it was so nice to have someone to discuss it with, especially the someone who is also responsible for raising our three sons.
I am convinced that this is a book every person should read: single, married, parents, everyone. I know that sounds really over-arching, but I can't think of a single person who wouldn't benefit from reading this: maybe you're a teacher with a classroom full of boys taking Ritalin, or maybe you're dating a guy who can't decide on a career, or maybe you are that guy who wants to live in his parents' basement forever, or maybe you help with Cub Scouts at church, or maybe you have a little neighbor boy who drives you crazy...we all interact with boys/men on some level, and I really believe that reading this book would help all of us identify problems and figure out solutions that would help curb this epidemic of "unmotivated boys and underachieving young men."
P.S. This is also another candidate for my re-read of the year. Now if I can only convince one of my book clubs to read it...