From the library: Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax

From the library: Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax September 10, 2017

From Pixabay;; public domain

Subtitled The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

And, yes, I’m typing this up as quickly as I can so that I can get it back to the library before I pass not just the due date, but the end of the grace period.

The book’s thesis, as you can guess, is that boys are in trouble.  At every age, from childhood to young adulthood, they’re falling behind their sisters.  They’re doing poorly in elementary and high school, they’re drifting through college, they’re aimless even after graduation, preferring to live at home, showing no career ambition, and leaving their potential girlfriends dismayed at how childish they are.

As it happens, this is the second edition of a book first written a decade ago, so whatever alarm-sounding Sax has been trying to do appears not to have been heeded.

Sax’s Five Factors are

  • Teaching methods,
  • Video games,
  • Prescription drugs,
  • Environmental toxins, and
  • Devaluation of masculinity.

Taking each in turn:

Teaching methods

Have changed dramatically in the past generation or two, in ways that have negative effects on boys.

Kindergarten has become first grade, in terms of its expectations, and for the typical girl, this is just fine.  But this comes before the typical boy is ready to start “seatwork,” so they are put in the “slow group” and set up for failure. Pointing to the high educational ranking of Finland, where kids start school at age 7, Sax says,

If kids start school two years later and are taught material when they are developmentally ready to learn, kids are less likely to hate school.

In addition, girls are more likely (and this seems to be genetically hardwired) to be motivated by the desire to please the teacher, and, in general, to have a greater desire to “get along with the grown ups” (p. 31).

Sax also explains the differentiation many languages make between knowledge-from-experience and scholarly knowledge; e.g., Kenntnis vs. Wissenschaft in German (my husband tells me he’s stretching the meaning of those two words, which just mean “knowledge” and “science,” respectively, to make a point, but fine); he then says that children now lack Kenntnis because they are missing so many real-world experiences; they are less likely to spend time outdoors and understand nature, less likely to learn carpentry or other “around-the-house” skills from their dads, and so on.  Sax believes that this contributes to ADHD, and that the lack of these experiences in nature in particular diminishes children’s motivation to learn, something that’s compensated for, in girls, by their greater desire to please the teacher by doing well in school.

In other ways, too, school has become less boy-friendly.  Lessons meant to teach empathy resonate with girls better than with boys.

It’s easy for most middle school and high school girls to answer a question like “How would you feel if you were X?” because the area of the brain where the feeling is happening is closely linked to the area of the brain where talking happens.  For boys, that’s not the case.  (p. 51)

Schools have also tightened all manner of rules in boy-hostile ways.  No more snowball fights.  Zero tolerance on violence, or depictions of violence.  (Sax differentiates between “personal violence” that directly threatens a specific individual, a sign that something’s amiss, and “generic violence,” such as a composition describing the Battle of Stalingrad; banning the latter unnecessarily stifles boys and their interests.)   Elimination of competition, which boys particularly thrive on.  (He cites as schools where boys particularly do well, schools in which competitive elements are ramped up — e.g., a sort of equivalent to the House Cup in Harry Potter.)

Sax also cites research that says that, while girls do better academically when their self-esteem is boosted, boys do worse, and tend to overestimate their abilities, and need to be taken down a notch, in order to understand that they do need to work hard — whether it’s training for a sports competition or studying for a math test.

Video Games

Sax connects up the very strong appeal of certain types of video games — the first person shooters — to boys, to the “will to power,” the desire to be in control.

Watch a teenage boy playing certain video games, particularly games in which the boy has to shoot and kill his way to victory, such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.  Such ideo games offer a quick and easy fix for these boys.  They give them the feelings of power and control they crave.  (p. 76)

Sax identifies some specific ill effects of video games.  Because “the successful player must continually be scanning up, down and sideways for new assailants,” they reward distractibility and increase focus difficulties.  The fact that video-game actions have no consequences — you can jump off a ledge without injury — increases players’ likelihood of taking risks in real-life.  Video games are connected to obesity, not just because they spend less time being active, but because they seem to actually have an appetite-stimulant effect.  And violent video games cause personality changes, increasing the likelihood that video game players will engage in real-life delinquent behavior.

Sax’s recommendations:  no more than 40 minutes on school nights, and no more than an hour on weekends, demanding that all other obligations are met first, and no games “in which the player is rewarded for killing police officers or noncombatant civilians.”

(Our family’s approach:  games in which the combatants are primarily robots — or at least have the appearance of robots, e.g., humans in “mech” suits — and when humans are shot, it’s in the bloodless nature of “set your phasers on stun,” are OK.  Frankly, my middle son does play more video games than I’d like, though this does, at least, take the form of a social activity, as the kids he plays with through his online account are friends from school.)

Sax also recommends getting boys involved in the real-life equivalent of their video games — not shooting, of course, but he points to a program in which older teens are provided a “racetrack” and the opportunity to race their own, real cars rather than playing Grand Theft Auto.  (My son also played paintball with a friend a couple weekends ago and raved about it; unfortunately, a return trip will depend on coordinating his schedule with that of his paintball-playing friend, who, as it happens, goes there with his dad, both of whom are fans of FPS games.)

Prescription drugs

you might think is a reference to boys abusing prescription narcotics.  But, remember, this was written a decade ago, and focuses on why “good kids” lose their way, not the bigger problems of families with addicts.  Sax’s claim is that the stimulant medications used in the treatment of ADHD themselves have a worrisome side effect, that, not necessarily during the period when the boy is taking the drug, but on weekends or during the summer when he takes a break from it, it changes the brain structure in a way that takes away motivation, by disrupting the development of the nucleus accumbens, the motivational center of the brain, or, more precisely, the part of the brain that’s responsible for translating motivation into action.  Sax writes,

If you damage the nucleus accumbens, the result is likely to be less motivation, less engagement, less drive to achieve in the real world. (p. 117)

Sax recommends being skeptical of an ADHD diagnosis — often the symptoms can be remedied in other ways, for instance, by finding a school that’s a better fit for the child — but if medication truly seems to be necessary, choosing a non-stimulant alternative, of which several exist.

The Environmental Toxins

that Sax refers to are synthetic chemicals, such as phthalates and BPA, as well as “environnmental estrogens” (I wasn’t clear on what these were), which he believes affect children’s development.  For girls, these speed puberty; for boys they delay puberty.  They feminize boys, and masculinize girls.  Environmental estrogens increase obesity, and diminish boys’ bone density, and cause birth defects of the penis, and lower sperm counts, and cause lower testosterone levels — which in turn reduces boys’ competitive drive.  He recommends that parents avoid any form of plastic with their food and drink, for themselves or their children — no plastic bottles for beverages, no boil-in-bag vegetables, no using a plastic cover in the microwave if the food might touch the cover, using glass baby bottles, and so on.

Are his concerns legitimate?  I don’t know.

Devaluation of Men

Sax’s fifth factor is less straightforward.  He says that what’s missing, in America in 2017, is a change in culture.  In generations past, there was a clearer sense of what it meant to “be a man.”  This was passed down from father to son, and within the community.  That’s gone now.  Instead, however much people enjoy sharing pictures of men rescuing Hurricane Harvey victims, the fundamental message that boys get is that there is nothing different, nothing that defines “being a man,” no ethos that motivates them to work, or serve others, which results in some men settling on gang violence as what it means to “be a man” and others simply not caring about the question, but, then, also not caring about anything much at all.

Do you buy it?

I took a quick look at Amazon’s reviews, and the critical ones generally seemed to say, “we know all this already,” but this book is hardly outdated — that is, the problem is no longer new, but neither has it been solved.

As to his five factors — well, I don’t know.  My boys are in many ways not “typical” boys.  My oldest is pulling straight As (it helps that gym isn’t factored into the GPA).  My middle son has only just started high school, but is already enjoying band, robotics, and debate team, though he’s got what they nicely call “executive function” challenges with getting his homework done.  My youngest is the sort of kid that got in trouble for not paying attention, because he was trying to sneak reading another chapter of his current kids’ fantasy series.  But right now, after having let it sit for a while, he’s back to building with Lego, and when I say, “building,” I mean that, not just following instructions on a set — and, by the way, he wants to be an architect.

It also seems particularly odd for Sax to have seemingly been the only one to have noticed a connection between discontinuing a stimulant medication and losing motivation.

So, readers, what do you think?  I’d particularly like to hear your perspective if you’ve got sons, either grown or still growing.


From Pixabay;; public domain

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