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The Doctor's Corner

Dr. David Harley B.A.,M.A.,M.A.,Ph.D.

Dr. Harley completed a Master’s degree in Philosophy specializing in analytical philosophy and philosophy of mind as well as a Master’s degree in History specializing in early 20th century intellectual history.  He completed a Ph.D. degree in Education at the University of Toronto specializing in educational theory in general and the educational theory and practice of the noted British philosopher Bertrand Russell in specific.  His thesis research employed the assistance of Bertrand Russell’s daughter to track down ex-teachers and ex-students from his experimental school Beacon Hill.  He was awarded a Canada Council Doctoral Award as well as a Canada Council Post Doctoral Award.  He has over 30 years of direct experience as an educational consultant, principal, school administrator and researcher.

The purpose of his blog is to present various opinions, articles and book reviews related to the current state of education and the changing challenges presented to students, teachers and parents. 

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. Leonard Sax, M.D.,Ph.D., New York: Random House, 2015, 322 pages.

This book begins with several very strong statements regarding the growing crisis facing boys in the 21st century:

“…the number of boys under eighteen arrested for drug abuse offenses has increased by more than 50% in the past ten years; boys under eighteen are still five times more likely to be arrested for drug abuse violations than are girls under eighteen.”

“…today’s boy is much more likely to be struggling in school than his father was.  Boys are increasingly alienated from school.  Recent investigations have shows a dramatic drop over the past twenty years in boys’ academic performance in American schools.  According to the United States Department of Education, the average eleventh-grade American boy now writes at the same level as the average eighth-grade girl. Similar gender gaps have been documented in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  And the percentage of boys going on to college, and graduating from college, is falling.  The U.S. Department of Education now projects that in the year 2011, there will be 140 women graduating from college for every 100 men---very nearly a 60/40 female-to-male ratio”

“The high school dropout rate in the United States is now close to 30%, and the great majority of dropouts are boys.  More and more boys, discouraged by years of failure in elementary school, middle school, and high school, are asking:  “Why should I stick around for any more of this?”

He does not state it here, but it is important to add, that the vast majority of diagnosed learning and behavioral issues are assigned to males with females occupying a comparatively insignificant portion.

What factors explain this and what can be done to address the issues occupies the remainder of the book.

Back in the 1960s the dogma of “social constructivism” was introduced whereby it was argued that there were no inherent differences between boys and girls, males and females that could not be explained exclusively as arising from social expectations and role playing.  As such, boys and girls were regarded as presenting a tabula rasa or blank slate prior to socialization on which gender roles and identity could be written.  Biology was regarded as having no significant role and armed with this belief it was viewed as being unnecessary to make any allowances for different needs, abilities and goals of boys and girls. With the passing of time and the study of genetics, these assumptions have been disproven as having no basis in scientific fact.  Evidence has been compiled that seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt the existence of genetic influences that determine behavioral tendencies in predictable ways.   Boys and girls are indeed different and as such have different needs and require different strategies to cope with and direct behaviors.  They do not always respond in the same way and contrary to fundamental laws of physics, the behavioral laws of education do not include same cause and same effect.

The realization of the fact that these hardwired tendencies result in specific needs and approaches led to the realization that single sex schools might offer a valuable alternative.  This resulted in legislation being introduced and passed in America in 2001 legalizing single-sex education in the American public school system.  Since then, single-sex education has grown significantly in popularity in America as well as in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland.  Studies conducted in the US indicated significant improvement among males in single sex education environments.  Studies with females indicated overall improvement but not on the same scale as males.  Other studies done in Australia and Korea show similar results.  It is worthy of note however, that single sex education had a long history in the private sector before being accepted within the public school system.  It is also important to note that single sex private schools became less popular as a result of the common perception that single sex environments were somehow ‘unnatural’ or old fashioned.  In the march of educational progress, it could be said that the baby was indeed thrown out with the bath water.

In perpetuating the mythology that males and females are the same, the biological differences have been largely ignored.  However, research has shown the existence of anatomic differences in the organization of male and female brains as well as indicating fundamental differences between male and female brain tissue.  One of the more striking findings is that females have much more acute hearing than males such that “If a forty-three-year old man speaks in what he thinks is a “normal tone of voice” to a seventeen –year old, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing.”  Research has shown that men have a thicker retina that women due to males having more M cells Other research suggest that females generally interpret facial expressions better than men.  There are differences in the brain cells themselves as well as average brain size.   The list goes on.  None of these differences indicate any inherent inequality or differences in ability over time, but they do go towards showing that developmental differences are real and that hard-wired tendencies evolved over the course of human evolution that can determine developmental tendencies, abilities and sequencing.

In studies done among young children, it has been shown that boys draw verbs and girls draw nouns.  Boys draw action using colors such as black, gray silver and blue in keeping with the M cells (receptor cells) in the retina whereas girls draw pictures of people with lots of color in keeping with the P cells (receptor cells) in their retina.  These differences can give rise to frustrations especially in the junior division where 95 per cent of teachers are female and especially if students are being judged in terms of color sensitivity:

“Mathew will soon discover that he’s not very good at trying to copy Anita, that is, trying to draw pictures of people, using lots of colors.  Mathew will quickly decide that he is no good at art.  Only five years old, Mathew has decided that “art is for girls”.  Other experiences he will have …will teach him that he’s no good at anything else that’s going on in a twenty-first-century “gender neutral” kindergarten.  The teacher wants him to sit still and be quiet and listen, while he wants to run around and jump and yell.  After a few weeks he’s not going to see the point of going to school at all.  That’s when the tantrums begin.

And again:

“Today we know that innate differences between girls and boys are profound.  Of course not all girls are alike and not all boys are alike.  But girls and boys do differ from one and another in systematic ways that should be understood and made use of, not covered up or ignored.”

With regard to brain development, other interesting facts are presented.  For example, areas of the brain associated with fine motor skills and language development mature six years earlier in girls than in boys but areas associated with targeting and spatial memory develop in boys four years earlier than in girls.  The fact that boys mature more rapidly than girls in some areas but mature more slowly than girls in others seems to support common sense notions previously denounced as gender bias.

“Sex differences in childhood are larger and more important than sex differences in adulthood.  By thirty years of age, both females and males have reached full maturity of all areas of the brain.  When people over thirty years of age think about their own experience as adults, they may not see enormous sex differences in how women and men learn new material or master new tasks.  So some adults assume that if they are not seeing big differences in how women and men learn to do new things, then there probably aren’t big differences in how six-year-old girls and boys learn.  That assumption is wrong.”

There is far too much of interest in this book to do justice to the wealth of examples provided or the references to scientific studies.  However, sections dealing with the differences in brain function and development are of special relevance in terms of behavior, attitude and academic functioning.  Together, all of the information provided builds a compelling case to indicate that present educational theories and practices assuming gender neutrality have created a system that favors females and promotes their success while creating substantial obstacles for boys.

The Dean of Education at Stanford University is quoted as saying that boys who do not do well in kindergarten tend to develop “negative perceptions of competence” that are very “difficult to reverse as (they) progress through school”.  The lack of ability to do certain things well and the resulting frustration introduces many boys to school in a negative fashion that determines much of their subsequent behavior afterwards. 

“Matthew was inattentive and easily distracted in class.  He was now firmly convinced that school was just one big bore, an annoyance to be endured for a few hours each day until that wonderful moment when school let out and he could go home and do all the fun things he enjoyed.”

So Matthew ended up seeing a psychiatrist and diagnosed with ADHD and Depression and placed on three medications.

“Matthew’s story is all too common today.  A report published in 2003 found that the proportion of young children on anti-depressant medications has more than tripled in the past ten years…I have to wonder how many of these young children, boys especially, are depressed because they are trapped in a school that just is not geared to their needs.  And they have no way out.”

Suffice to say that there are no differences in terms of what boys and girls can potentially learn.  But in order to achieve these results teaching methods must be adjusted to take into account fundamental gender differences.  The early years appear to be where the majority of damage is done in terms of marginalizing boys within schools - damage that of course has disastrous effects going forward.  In simple examples of reading, one expert stated that in their State at least 80% of the books for early readers fell into the category of ‘girls’ fiction.  Given that this in conjunction with the fact that the majority of teachers in kindergarten up to Grade 3 are women, it is easy to see how reading would have little appeal and that this in itself would have far reaching implications.  It is clear that books that would interest boys are very different from those that would interest girls and between attempts that do not recognize this as well as issues of political correctness, small surprise that boys have trouble concentrating and do not develop an interest in or capability to read.  This again is nothing to do with an inability to learn to read or find enjoyment in it but rather a lack of motivation derived from a lack of intrinsic interest in the subject matter.

With respect to learning differences, there are also acute differences in how boys and girls respond to stress, threat and intimidation.  According to studies, stress improves learning in males but impairs learning in females.  In one example given, a boy confronted by a teacher who had lost her temper and shouted at him resulted in a marked improvement in his behavior and an apparent increase in respect demonstrated towards her.  Similar actions directed towards female students evoked completely different responses causing the student to exhibit withdrawal and feelings of ongoing resentment that impaired the relationship.  Again, this seems to support the commonly held position that boys test limits and respect defined boundaries where girls tend to be compliant and seek acceptance from teachers.

In the final analysis, the desire to be all things to all people has been one of the main set backs of mass education.  Attempts to address different learning styles and needs have failed to pass the acid test of transcending rhetoric to demonstrable results.  The inherent tragedy in all of this is the wasted potential of boys turned off by school and education who could have flourished had they been able to shed the negativity and channel their interests and abilities constructively.  The preservation of self-esteem is clearly not achieved by eliminating failure or relaxing standards, but rather by preserving the integrity of success within a meaningful context of appropriate challenges and results.    The irony arises that in an age stressing diversity, there seems to be an inexplicable inability to acknowledge genuine differences.  Perhaps instead of trying to account for the growing number of boys being diagnosed with growing numbers of learning and behavioral disabilities, failure, dropping out of schools and declining post secondary attendance, we should stop looking for the source of these problems in the boys themselves and focus instead on the schools and the governing philosophies of education in which they find themselves.

I strongly recommend this book for the information that it contains as well as the stimulation that it provides to see these issues from a different perspective.  Perhaps it is not so much boys who do not fit as much as it is a system that does not fit boys.

Presentation Introducing the 2019 Graduates at the Robert Land 40th Anniversary Gala held at the National Club, Toronto on Saturday April 6th, 2019 by Dr. David Harley

If as Shakespeare put it that brevity is the soul of wit, I stand before you witless.  Since giving up teaching for administration I rarely have an opportunity to inflict suffering upon an unsuspecting audience and so clearly this is one of those openings that must be taken advantage of.

A few years ago the Ontario Ministry of Education sent out a poster to all high schools.  The poster depicted a diverse group of happy teenagers with the caption “Every Student has the Right to Success”.  The statement was made without argument, qualification or clarification but was rather in the form of an edict.  Suffice to say, whereas most of us would agree that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, few would want to admit to it as a guarantee in life.  In fact, the very suggestion seems to assume success as something that is given rather than earned.

Today, we celebrate not only the successful operation of Robert Land Academy over 40 years but also the success of our current to be graduates and the realization of their post secondary aspirations.  In both cases, these are stories of success earned and not given.

I first heard of Robert Land Academy 39 years ago when its founder Scott Bowman was in attendance at a class at McMaster University where I had been invited as a guest lecturer.  I later taught Scott in my capacity as an assistant in a course that he subsequently took.  He was rather unforgettable in that he wore a uniform on the campus and as such did not match the regular dress code of the day.  In conversation, he talked about a school that he had recently started up and so it was that I first came to see it in operation in 1981.  Needless to say, it was a very different place than it is today.  It is equally needless to point out that the school and the service it provided would not have survived for 40 years had it not delivered on its promises and had it not been supported in its efforts by many dedicated staff over four decades.   

Scott and I had many conversations about education and I put it to him that I would like to see an academic programme in place at the school equal in rigor and demands to the physical programme then in place.  I had at that time no way of knowing that 24 years ago I would be given the opportunity to put that wish into practice when I was hired to take over the academic functioning of the school.  Scott is not here today but enjoying his retirement and one assumes that he would take H.G. Wells seriously when Wells said “Leaders should lead as far as they can and then vanish.  Their ashes should not choke the fire that they have lit.”  The fire that he lit 40 years ago is still burning and it falls to us to keep it lit.

Bertrand Russell stated that “It is because modern education is so seldom inspired by a great hope that it so seldom achieves great results.”  The great hope that inspired Robert Land Academy was that boys could be given a second chance to turn their lives around, realize their potential and find meaning and happiness in their life.  The strength of Robert Land Academy has been in its ability to grow, develop, respond and improve by remaining sensitive to the changing needs of the boys that it services and the changing challenges in the environments from which they come.  However the central characteristics of the boys we serve remain constant:  Strong Willed, Highly Intelligent, Manipulative and Short Sighted.  The main issue---helping them to develop the self-control and self-direction required to channel their energies and abilities.  The main lesson ---- teaching them that personal freedom does not consist in doing what you want but in being able to control yourself to do what you need to do.  In this way you can realize goals and ambitions and having the knowledge necessary to formulate strategies and alternatives.  A fusion of emotion and intellect provides the under lying framework  and their successful integration forms the mental health necessary for individual fulfillment and happiness.

Those of you who have attempted gardening may have experienced the joys of growing tomatoes.  Tomato plants will grow rapidly and spread all over the ground.  A minority of the tomatoes will ripen and are edible while the majority touch the ground, receive no sunlight and are discarded or rot.  Those who have the wisdom to use a wire support system known as a tomato cage will find that the plant will grow upwards and that the majority of the tomatoes are able to ripen and be edible.  As tomato plants require structure, support and guidance so do young men.  It is the failure of modern educational practice to not realize this and to not acknowledge and direct the specific male gender characteristics that are at once sources of strength as well as sources of inherent weakness.  In short, restrictions--- environmental and otherwise can encourage growth whereas allowing freedom of growth and can result in inhibiting it.

Oscar Wilde stated that “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”  The irony in this comment belays the point that Wilde was making that learning and knowledge are not inculcated through a system of the passive acceptance of facts but rather through a dynamic experience involving the integration of emotion and intellect.  During my childhood this was referred to ‘digesting’ material and I think that would you agree that there seems to be chronic indigestion out there today.  Robert Land Academy provides a program that addresses the needs of the entire boy so as to move from a two dimensional education to a three dimensional educational experience.  The irony becomes the fact that what appears to at first restrict freedom and the opportunities for self-fulfillment turns out to be the means whereby they can be ultimately achieved.

The ancient Greeks introduced the notion of the person as a complex entity made up of parts into Western civilization.  An analogy they employed was the chariot, the charioteer and the horse.  A successful balance of the three was made possible by balancing strengths against weaknesses.  A very strong horse with an inexperienced charioteer would spell disaster as would a strong horse, an experienced charioteer and a defective chariot.  The fastest chariot would be the one that matched a skilled charioteer, a strong horse and a sound chariot.

Needless to say, many young men possess strong horses and delude themselves with the feeling that wherever they are pulled by them is the direction that they wanted to go in the first place.  The separation of horse and driver requires at first the realization that they are not one and the same.   The introduction of direction and its pursuit requires the introduction of purpose.

We have before us tonight a group of young men who have their chariot under control, are heading in the right direction and are directed by purpose. 

University and College applications are in and responses with acceptance are appearing on an almost daily basis.  It is too early to claim 100% post-secondary acceptance but we are well on our way and expect this years success to be no less than our previous ten years.  At present all but 4 of our graduates have already received offers of admission.  The happiness that has come with the first offer has now been replaced by anxiety over which university or program to eventually accept.  This is a good problem to have.

Our class of 2019 consists of the following boys and I shall indicate the field of study that they are pursuing after I call their name:

Callum Beer                                     Social Sciences

Kevin DeOrellana                            Engineering

Abraham Doupe                               English

Yige Gan                                          Architecture

David Gao                                        Psychology

Daniel Hudson                                 Social Sciences

Feng Li                                             Engineering

David Neves                                    Fire Fighting

David Solomon                                Computer Science

Aiden Strasser                                 Mathematics

Wenxuan Sun                                  Engineering

Jing Hong Zhang                            Cultural Sciences

I would not want to embarrass anyone specifically here by comparing their marks before coming to Robert Land Academy to their marks now.  But I can say that none were accepted on the basis of what they had done but on the basis of what it was believed that they could do.  While not giving names, let me give you some anonymous examples:

presently with 89% had a 23.6% average upon entry failing 6 courses out of 8

presently with 94% had 64% upon entry

presently 88% with 68.7 upon entry

presently 87% with 69 upon entry

presently 88% with 63% upon entry

presently 92% with 29% upon entry failing 6 of 8 subjects

presently 81% with 54% upon entry

presently 74% with 36% upon entry

I will limit the list to this in order that the guilty can claim innocence.  However, I think that the point is well made that the program works. 

The Robert Land definition of success is not graduating from high school.  Who among you has ever known anyone to frame their high school diploma and hang it on the wall?  Success consists of graduating from high school with choices and with the freedom to pursue your own path.  It is controlling yourself and to that end your destiny.  It is being the captain of your own ship.  That is success.  It is also the key to individual and human happiness.

Gentlemen, your success is your own but we claim some share of having make it possible.  It is up to you to carry through with what you have now started and it is up to you to confront challenges and difficulties with determination and resolve.  Keep control of your chariot and keep your eyes on the road ahead.  We will continue to live up to our challenges by ensuring that the Academy continues to live up to those of other young men like you. 

On a final note, I would ask our graduates to be to think about your parents.  Oscar Wilde said “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”  In each of your cases I can remember that your respective parents were much more enthusiastic about you attending the academy than you were.  I trust that you can now go beyond forgiveness to gratitude.   I further hope that in the future each of you will have at least one son just like yourself and that Robert Land Academy will be here to accept them.

Drop The Worry Ball: How To Parent In the Age Of Entitlement. Alex Russell with Tim Falconer, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014. 247 pages.

This book was brought to my attention by a parent who told me that they had found the book helpful and had attended a presentation by the author (a practicing psychologist)  in Toronto.  After reading the book, I would agree and would recommend it to any parent either currently struggling with an adolescent son or proactively seeking guidance as to sound parenting practices.  Despite its value, it was also a reminder of the fact that ideas about education are rarely new.  The merits of the book are not so much in its originality but rather as a current restatement of educational ideas of authors no longer in fashion.  It is interesting to note that the author makes references to educational theorists whose names now rarely surface and who even more rarely are read, noteworthy of whom is Jean Jacques Rousseau ---an 18th century French philosopher  often associated with progressive education movements of whom I will have more to say later.

The first chapter argues that one of the main problems in modern parenting is the fact that parents rarely allow children to suffer the natural consequences of their own actions and constantly intervene to protect them from themselves.  The result of this, it is argued, is that children do not learn but displace the responsibility to a parent or supervising adult.  One of the most popular books during the 19th century in England for enlightened liberally minded parents was Herbert Spencer’s On Education in which the same argument was made.  In the 1920’s the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled On Education:  Especially in Early Childhood in which he stated that wherever possible children should be confronted by the natural consequences of their own actions.  Of course both authors limited such actions within the parameters of reason i.e. circumstances that were not life threatening or injurious.  Bertrand Russell gives an example of allowing his son to eat too much ice cream to the point that he was sick as an example of how the natural consequences of an action could reinforce through direct experience guidance provided by adults.  In this case, Russell was also arguing against what he regarded as unnecessary authoritarianism in parenting in favor of promoting independence of thought and action.  For Russell, fostering independence of thought and action in a child necessitated parents stepping back and allowing for the process of learning to take place as opposed to developing growing dependence on adults and external authority.

The book under review makes the same argument.  As a practicing psychologist the author states that:

“I regularly see parents who take their care-giving obligations to lengths that are actually a disservice:  the mother who repeatedly provides alternative food choices and is surprised that her daughter is a stubbornly picky eater; the father who made it his mission to help his son with his homework and can’t understand why the boy now “doesn’t seem to care about school” and expects Dad to deal with the whole business; the mother who, hoping to show how understanding she is, overlooks her son’s bad behavior, language and manners and is dismayed that he’s oblivious to the consequences of his actions”

“They lie awake at night worrying about report cards, university admissions, careers, The Future…

Strikingly, this is exactly what their kids aren’t thinking about.  The more parents take on these concerns, the more their children are oblivious to them.  It’s not always clear which come first --- the obligated parent or the disengaged child --- but they certainly perpetuate one another.”

Within this model, the ability to make mistakes and learn from them assumes that experiencing consequences both good and bad are essential to growth and personal development.  This means that failure as much as success form valued components of the process.  This of course should lead us to seriously question much of the prevailing educational philosophy that denies that failures exists and focuses only on success.  The prevalent current model of “Building on Success” might be more accurately described as “Building on Nothing”.   As both success and failure can be considered as polarities of the same learning curve, the one cannot exist independent of the other.  Therefore success without the possibility of failure is meaningless

The book argues that parents who continually direct, organize, reprimand and prohibit their children become “custodians of reality”.  As such children will let parents do the worrying and focus on appeasing their parents and having fun.  As such “…kids won’t pick up the worry ball unless and until parents put it down.”  So from attempting to intervene to prevent mistakes, the author goes as far as to say that “…we should actually cheer for non-catastrophic, painful failure.”

This dropping of the worry ball imagery is followed by an equally compelling image of sitting on the park bench watching your child play not as a participant but as an engaged spectator.  Again, the author’s message stresses the importance of distancing parenting in such a way as to encourage autonomy and responsibility for one’s own actions.  The author is careful to draw the line between disinterestedness and monitoring from a distance:

“That’s why I encourage parents to err on the side of benign neglect.  Think about how your parents raised you.  How much more freedom did you have than your own children?”

“Don’t hover around your kid all the time….Don’t let your anxiety fire you up so that you’re off that bench showing yourself and the world what a good parent you are.  Just sit on the bench and sip your latte.”

“This will be a hard thing to do and sometimes you will feel like a bad parent.  But you will be doing the right thing for your kids and ensuring that they succeed in the jungle gym of life.”

There follows a very interesting chapter entitled Obligated Parents and Entitled Kids.  An important argument is presented to the effect that the more parents feel obligated to accommodate a child the more the child will feel entitled.  As he puts it, bad parenting can often arise as a result of “being too patient, too reasonable, too available and too accommodating.”

“Obligated, over-involved parents tend to raise entitled, disengaged kids.  It’s an epidemic, with cases ranging from mild to extreme.   The more disengaged or inappropriate a child is, the more active and involved parents tend to become….the more active and involved parents get, the less engaged and responsible children behave.”

The book makes for good and instructive reading and I have ended up quoting directly from the book much more than I typically do in reviews because paraphrasing seems to diminish the impact of the specific examples provided.  However, the overall argument of the book is fairly simple and as I have mentioned has a long tradition within Western intellectual writing going back at least to the 17th century English philosopher John Locke and passing through to the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell. The argument being that children learn as a result of direct interactions with reality not mediated by adult interference and that suffering negative results from actions is as constructive an experience as experiencing positive results.  The view that children can mature more effectively through consequences rather than relying only upon adult authority is intimately associated with the growth of liberal democratically oriented societies.  It is interesting to note the fact that this philosophy also underlies Montessori methods and play therapy.

Rousseau is an interesting figure in the history of education given that being associated with writings that fueled the French Revolution he is often represented as a proponent of ‘free’ education.  However, he was far from that.  His seminal work on education was called The Emile and then as now it is sometimes quoted and never read thereby fully qualifying to be a classic.  However, a reading of the book describes how the guardian of Emile focuses his entire life on the upbringing of the perfect male child.  To this end, Emile is placed within a wholly contrived environment in which his range of options are limited not by choice but availability.  Adult authority is therefore implicit in that situations are engineered or contrived to create predetermined outcomes.  As such, adult manipulation is everywhere inherent in an environment devoted to the purpose.  Such an overwhelming task resulted in Rousseau himself disposing of his infant offspring to a foundling institute in Paris not known for promoting longevity among its clients.  Rather than do an imperfect job, it appears that he chose to entirely abrogate the responsibility.  With regard to independence, Rousseau was fortunate to find a noblewoman of substantial means to support him and as such his personal freedom was underwritten by an aristocracy that he attacked.

The problem with the distancing argument as basis of parenting lies in the manner of interpretation and application.  Drop The Worry Ball provides numerous examples of sage advice by the author to clients with positive results.  I would have been interested to hear more accounts of similar advice given that did not have the desired effect but assume that this would be self-defeating.  The problem with many issues involving children is that they are often a long time in the making and as such do not readily respond to any quick fixes or in some cases any fixes at all.  Much of the advice given in this book has more value as a pro-active parenting strategy than a reactive one.  By the time that parenting strategies have been addressed and corrected, the damage is often done. Unlike other areas of human endeavor, most parents regard themselves as educational experts until proven otherwise.  That expertise is based upon examining their own childhood with a view to perpetuating what they liked and removing those elements that they remember distastefully oblivious to the fact their negative experiences may well have resulted in positive reactions.  Rather than improving upon their own experience, they are puzzled, shocked and horrified to find disappointing results.

Much of modern parenting suffers from the same issues that affect much of current society in that there is a great deal more emphasis placed upon feeling rather than thinking.  A general lack of tolerance for opinions other than our own or within an identified group of orthodoxy has as its foundation a feeling that something is true.  The stronger the feeling, the more the conviction that one is right and others wrong.  The appeal to reasoned facts and an understanding of alternative opinions or interpretations is not widely evident.  With the emphasis upon diversity, there seems to be a focus on everything but a respect for a diversity of opinions and an attempt to understand them. 

Parenting is much less a matter of feeling your way through things as it is thinking your way through things.  Our first response to a situation is often to give in to our child to secure happiness or peace in the present.  However, good parenting often consists of thinking rather than reacting and definitely in resisting initial impulses.

Having said that, it must be clarified that parenting should never be presented as an exact science or a science at all, but more as an art where actions are considered within existing contingencies and where the quality of the effort as opposed to the amount of effort determine the outcome.  Much of what passes as informed opinion is grounded in beliefs that arise from things that support our existing beliefs.  Those beliefs are often grounded in self-interest and emerge from what we want to believe as opposed to what we know.  As some contemporary wit stated it “I will see it when I believe it”. It is also more convenient to blame others or portray ourselves as victims than to take responsibility for our own actions and to scrutinize the beliefs giving rise to them.  Parenting also relies upon consistency and given the state of many marriages this is something to be sought rather than merely assumed to be in place.  Many parents agree to disagree and in so doing child rearing becomes a battleground of contesting approaches doomed to have disastrous but predictable outcomes.

The overprotectiveness of children is associated with over mothering.  In 19th century England, upper class boys were removed from protective nannies and mothers and sent off to board schools giving rise to books such as Tom Brown’s School Days.  This was regarded as a necessary measure needed to prepare them for a less than receptive adult world.  Poor families did not need to go to these measures because the work and effort required to subsist spared nobody.  The luxury of a childhood emerged only with wealth and leisure.  With changes in family dynamics and a discrediting of paternalism in all its forms, it would seem that we might have now entered an age of maternalism in which the primary parenting influence has been taken over by the mother.  The result of the expansion of extending this approach to the care of infants and adolescents could be argued to be a consequence of men’s diminished role in parenting, the erosion of the family unit and the lack of positive male role models. 

Be that as it may, the messaging and parenting within the family do not exist in a vacuum and there are many more challenges from without than in previous generations. 

Present educational policies and philosophies undermine consequences by producing an artificial environment that conforms to students and yields to demands for special treatment and exemptions.  Advocacy for children is based upon the same premises as the criminal justice system in that lawyers define guilt and innocence in terms of intricacies within the law.  What was once trial by combat to determine guilt or innocence by brute force is now trial by argument in which one side attempts to outwit the other regardless of the guilt or innocence of their client.   Advocacy for one’s child more than often is motivated by a desire for special treatment or an exclusion from the consequences that apply to others.  Much of the flawed educational practices and philosophies currently in place are not just the result of being poorly thought but also responses to parental pressures of advocacy to bend rules or make exceptions.

Schools used to be based upon a competitive meritocracy to screen students for desirable careers and post-secondary options.  Prior to this, those options were largely determined by those who had money rather than the superior ability or indeed ability at all.  Attempts to eliminate competition from within schools is as ill advised as eliminating it from sports. In the final analysis, it not only destabilizes the activity but also denies the fundamental nature of society and the individuals who make it up.  Competition is not just a want, it is also a need.  Competition does not vanish by suppression.  However, it does benefit from being directed into positive venues.  Competition cannot be successfully repressed but it can be constructively sublimated.

Other families in the immediate community often present challenges.  Instead of providing support they can often provide examples that threaten or undermine positive parenting models.  Whereas families traditionally looked to each other for support, that common ground is no longer apparent or to be taken for granted.  This factor combined with the alternative reality promoted through media in all its forms, makes information more available in quantity while totally bypassing any considerations of quality.   Much of the available messaging can be confusing and destructive to any mind seeking answers amidst confusion.

Parenting is hard work and a huge responsibility but it is also the important bridge between one generation and another.  The shortcomings of our children weaken their prospects for personal happiness and fulfillment but also weaken the society at large and jeopardize its future.  Given the current state of affairs, there is some justification for concern as the challenges ahead of our children continue to grow both personally and collectively.   Again, it is important to stress the quality of that effort and not merely the quantity of it.  The struggle to provide children with what they need as opposed to what they want is both stressful and difficult requiring constant vigilance.

Dropping the Worry Ball is a good introduction to the art of parenting and to the general topic of thinking about how to be a good parent.  It is easy to read and you will find it constructive and worthwhile.

Book Review: Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. Leonard Sax, M.D.,Ph.D., New York: Basic Books, 2007. 267 pages.

Despite the fact that Boys Adrift was published over a decade ago, it remains pertinent today as raising issues that continue to remain unaddressed and of growing importance.  The author possesses the distinct advantage of not only having a medical degree but also a Ph.D. in psychology which in this case serves to demonstrate a competent handling of research data while at the same time resisting the temptation to over-medicalize behavior. 

As of the time of writing the book, the author notes that one third of all men in the United States between the ages of 22 to 34 were still living at home with their parents representing a 100% increase over the previous 20 years.    He goes on to say “I’ve seen hundreds of families where the girls are the smart, driven ones, while their brothers are laid back and unmotivated.   The opposite pattern --- with boys being the intense, successful child while his sister is relaxed and unconcerned about her future — is rare.”  He then goes on to say that as of the time of writing there are 2 boys for every three girls attending college and that in some larger colleges the ratio is 2 girls to each boy.  He provides the following statistics of male attendance at colleges:

1949          70%

1959          64%

1969          59%

1979          49%

1989          46%

1999          44%

2006          42%

I could find no data to update this to 2019 but can only assume that the numbers have continued to deteriorate.  Based upon the patterns indicated however, a rough estimate would place the current numbers at between 38% and 40%.

Having stated the problem, he goes on to examine the causes.  Sax goes on to identify five causes.  These are (a) changes at school (b) video games (c) medications for ADHD (d) endocrine disruptors and (e) a lack of appropriate male role models exhibiting responsible behaviors and the values of civility.  Each of these requires attention and raises interesting issues.

Sax maintains the changes made to school environments have resulted in taking less account of gender differences and promoting a system more favorable to the inherent characteristics of females. He argues that gender related behaviors were viewed in the progressive 1960’s and onwards as being merely the result of social conditioning.  However, current research contradicts this assumption and supports the view that many of these behaviors are genetically predetermined.   Girls, he maintains, are generally less aggressive and more likely to be compliant with adults.  Boys tend to be more aggressive and prone to test limits and defy authority.  He makes reference to the fact that boys are diagnosed with ADHD three times more than girls.  He cites a 2006 University of Pennsylvania study that “…girls’ greater self-discipline and self-control- perhaps deriving from their greater motivation to please the teacher-appears to be a key distinguishing factor that has enabled girls to survive and thrive in the accelerated world of twenty-first century education.”

The other issue that he raises is the decline in learning by doing and direct experience as opposed to learning through books or interacting with a computer screen.   In simple terms this can be stated as knowing through experiences as opposed to learning about something.  The emphasis upon the latter as opposed to the former “…may seriously impair development---not cognitive development but the development of lively passionate curiosity.”  And again “The end result of a childhood with more time spent in front of computer screens than outdoors is what Louv calls “cultural autism".  The symptoms?  Tunneled senses, and feelings of isolation and containment…(and) a wired know-it-all state of mind.  That which cannot be Googled does not count.”

The second major contributing factor Sax identifies as being video games.  He argues that video games have replaced playing outdoors with the result that boys are four times more likely to be obese than boys of one generation ago.  As completion has been reduced or removed from most school settings, it has re-emerged as a primary attraction of video games in which there are clear winners and losers and opportunities for public glory.  Physical education and team sports have given way to non-participation and watching others. This lack of inclusiveness provides little outlet for male competitive drives within a real environment.  Video games, on the other hand, can provide an outlet for male aggression and role playing as well as feed a sense of maleness but within an alternative reality not grounded in the here and now.

The third factor identified is medications for ADHD. The inflated and inappropriate attribution of the diagnosis together with the rampant prescription of medications to curb behaviors has created a near epidemic.  This has happened as a result of schools pushing for a diagnosis and medications to control behavior and sanctioned by psychologists too weak to resist the pressure.  Also because “…primary care physicians  --- pediatricians and family physicians --- are not usually well-versed in the diagnostic subtleties involved in distinguishing ADHD from other explanations for why a boy might be “hyper” in the classroom.  Too often primary care physicians --- particularly in affluent suburban communities ---may suggest a trial of medications “just to see if it works”.  Bad idea.”

And again:

“…these medications may damage a crucial area of the brain responsible for drive and motivation. What’s not to like is that young children are being medicated to make the teacher’s job easier---not because it’s in the best interests of the child, but because it simplifies classroom management.”

The fourth factor identified by Sax is endocrine disruptors.  Endocrine disruptors are environmental chemicals that interfere with the endocrine or hormone systems in the body of both humans and animals.  These chemicals consist of drugs, pesticides, compounds used in plastics and consumer produces as well as industrial by-products and pollutants.  They are associated with causing a wide range of cancers as well as with learning disabilities including extreme cases of ADHD, cognitive and brain developmental issues as well as sexual development problems including the feminization of males and masculinization of females.  Research in these matters is ongoing as well as steps being taken to remove or reduce certain chemicals.  Being aware of the issues and the identified toxins makes some constructive reaction possible as does the mobilization of public opinion and enhanced government regulation.

The fifth and final factor discussed is the loss of positive role models.  Sax argues that not all traditional gender roles should be dismissed as gender stereotypes and that the deconstruction of images of ideal husbands and fathers has resulted in more men becoming self-centered and irresponsible.  He cites the fact that in the USA a little over one third of all children are born to unmarried mothers.  The decline of married couples with children is not confined to any one racial or ethnic group in America where only one in four households is made up of a married couple with one or more children.  The image of the responsible, mature and presentable father prevalent in television series through the 1950’s and 60’s has given way to the Homer Simpson stereotype:

“To become a man, a boy must see a man.  But that man doesn’t have to be his father.  In fact, ideally, it should not be only his father.  Even if your son has a strong father or father figure in his life, he also needs a community of men who together can provide him with varied models of what productive adult men do.”

In addition to the lack of positive male role models there is also the growing disconnect between the generations in which the influence of guidance of adults is replaced by other teenagers.  The immediate affect of this is to succumb to immediate pleasure and avoid any personal responsibility.  All traditions, he maintains “…embrace the truth that children and teenagers must be taught by adults, not by one another.”  Between the pulling away from adults by children as well as the lack of assuming responsibility to guide, influence and direct, the relationship between the generations has broken down.   

In the final section of the book the author concludes with outlines of possible solutions for the problems that have been identified.  These solutions involve some basic responses in terms of diet, exercise, changes to the prevailing educational philosophies and practices, sensitivity to gender differences, as well as the delivery of lessons in single sex classrooms as an option in addition to co-educational models.  However, identifying the problems as he does provides an obvious set of solutions even though those solutions may be problematic and in some cases even impractical.   Setting a good example for children and being a good role model is one example, especially in a society in which values have become so questionable and exposure to negative influences so pervasive.

I urge anyone interested to order a copy of this book.  It is well worth reading and I think attacks the problem well by first identifying it for what it is and then looking objectively for causes and contributing factors.   Many medical practitioners place emphasis on symptoms rather than causes.  In some cases this is accompanied by the assumption that there is some underlying physiological root cause yet to be identified.  In other cases, as long as the symptoms can appear to be addressed through medication the matter is considered as having been successfully dealt with.  Sax explores the sociological implications and causes of behavioral patterns and challenges much of the political correctness of gender identity in the interests of truth gathered from empirical research.

The Ten Commandments of Education

The Ten Commandments of Education

One

You shall not consider your level of boredom to be an index of relevance

Two

You shall not consider your feeling that something is true to be the same as knowing that it is true

Three

You shall not consider that a reluctance to do something is the same as having an inability to do it

Four

You shall not consider selfishness to be individualism

Five

You shall not believe that you can only express your uniqueness by conforming to fashion

Six

You shall look no further than yourself to explain your failures

Seven

You shall always look to others to explain your successes

Eight

You shall not consider being able to access information as being the same as knowing it

Nine

You shall not escape responsibility by doing nothing

Ten

You shall always be ignorant of that which you do not know