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Why Do So Many Boys Not Care About School?

by Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »

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Over the last 40 years, the United States has seen a remarkable change in the academic success of boys and girls. In 1970, 58% of college graduates were young men; now close to 60% of college graduates are women, and this gender gap continues to grow. There will always be boys who will thrive in school, but more and more, it's girls who do well academically and boys who are losing ground.

Two-thirds of the D's and F's given out in school go to boys. Boys are one-third more likely to drop out before finishing high school. Eighth grade girls score higher in both reading and especially in writing than boys do, and by 12th grade that gap has widened. Indeed, the average 11th grade boy in the U.S. writes at the level of the average 8th grade girl.

A few years ago, medical schools in the U.S. began accepting more young women than young men; soon medicine will be a female-dominated profession. I could go on and on with these statistics, but you get the point: on average girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, college and graduate school.

Why is that? Experts disagree on the reasons. If you read Christina Hoff Sommers' The War Against Boys, you'll blame feminism for feminizing schools; if you read Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters or Michael Gurian's The Minds of Boys, you'll think it's the brain differences between boys and girls that educators don't take into account; if you read Peg Tyre's The Trouble with Boys, you'll conclude that classrooms are unfriendly places for boys, and that teachers' techniques don't work for them. If you read other experts, they'll tell you that the "boy crisis" is overblown.

What we do know is that this is happening not just in the U.S. but in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Once parents and educators removed the psychological barriers to higher education that used to exist for girls, that is, once we leveled the playing field, girls outstripped boys in school.

How can you motivate your son to do better in school? You may be asking yourself one of the questions that so many parents ask me: "My 7-year-old son hates school. It's a fight to get him to school every morning. "How do I motivate my 15-year-old son to care about school?" "My son is bright, but he's just cruising through school. He never makes an effort to do his best work."

I think you have to start by figuring out why your son hates school or doesn't think it's important. In my opinion, there are five different types of boys who aren't doing well in school.

The Struggling Boy. The vast majority of boys who get poor grades in school are not "underachieving." They are making their best effort and are struggling academically because they are of below average intelligence and the work is extremely hard for them, or they are of average intelligence in a very hard-driving school district. It is humiliating to know that you struggle with academics that other boys find easy; it's frustrating and makes you want to run away. These struggling students need teachers who can make learning fun, and they require the ongoing respect of teachers and their parents in order to stay motivated. These boys need to hear the old saying, "As long as you're trying your hardest."

The Learning Disabled Boy. Priscilla Vail, an expert in learning disabilities, used to say that one-third of boys have "funny brains." We know that boys have more variable brains than girls do, and that this affects their school performance. Two-thirds of children in special education are boys. Many of these boys have real learning disabilities. (Some are there for emotional or disciplinary reasons.) We used to call boys with learning disabilities "stupid" or "lazy." Now, we're able to focus on the areas of their brains that do not work as well as others. However, we do not have a cure for learning disabilities; they do not go away, and they are demoralizing for any boy.

The Cruising (or Good-Enough) Boy Student. These boys often feel that school is hard, and pretty boring, and that they do enough homework, and that there are other things to be interested in: girls, sports, a part-time job, cars, etc. It's not that a boy like this has a particular passion, it's just that--well, he doesn't like school all that much and doesn't see how it is related to his future.

The only ways to motivate a "cruising/good-enough" boy: 1) Continue to hold high expectations for him, and express your ideals and some sense of disappointment, or 2) Use incentives to induce him to change his priorities. (Getting a car? He must maintain a B average to drive it). Some parents react negatively to the idea of "bribes," but I call them incentives; they work in business, they work for kids.

The "Otherwise Engaged" Boy. There are boys who develop interests outside of school that are so compelling that school can no longer hold their interest. The satisfaction--not to mention the applause--that talented, athletic boys receive playing football, for example, or the sense of usefulness that other boys get from paying jobs, editing the school newspaper, being part of a band, or--gulp--computer games (or online businesses) are far greater than anything mere grades can offer them. Though it's exciting when a boy discovers a passion he wants to pursue, it can present many challenges to their parents.

The Allergic-to-School Boy. In my book, The Pressured Child, I talk about children who seem to be allergic to the school environment. There are some boys for whom the physical experience of being in a class all day, the psychological experience of having a teacher controlling everything, the frustrations of having to sit still, the humiliation of grades--or any one of a thousand annoying things about the school environment--are simply intolerable. If your boy is allergic to school in this way, it is going to be a struggle to keep him going until he finishes. He'll need teachers who understand and can work with boys who hate school without taking it personally. They have to be willing to modify homework demands and try to see the school environment through a boy's eyes--if he will let them.

Does your boy fit into one of the categories above? I welcome any ideas or questions you have about motivating boys in school.

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CBN.comWhen it comes to kids and homework, I recommend that parents resist getting involved. It’s their responsibility, not yours. It’s common these days for parents to work themselves into a “quality time” frenzy—supervising their kids’ homework on a nightly basis, making sure that every assignment is done correctly and on time. Sometimes these parents actually “go back to school” themselves, heroically reading the textbooks and trying to learn the subject matter so that they can tutor their kids, or, if all else fails, do their homework for them.

Don’t do that! Don’t try to be a hero. Your job is to monitor progress, to coach and encourage from the sidelines, and to hold your student accountable—but that’s about it. Of course you care a great deal about how well your teen does in school, but you should also care enough to allow your teen to do it on his or her own. That’s the only way they will truly benefit from their school experience.

While there are always exceptions, most teenagers—if they are left alone and not overly pushed by their parents—will do OK in school and require little supervision and extra motivation. Don’t worry if your teenager isn’t getting straight As or winning academic-achievement awards. It’s not likely that you can turn your average student into an overachiever by nagging or pushing. In fact, the more you get involved, the greater the likelihood the student will do worse, not better. Remember, it’s her job to get her education.

Most kids are motivated to do well in school by a combination of two things: ambition and anxiety.

Despite what some think about today’s teenagers, most are pretty ambitious. They like challenges and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes from getting good grades and pleasing their teachers and parents. Career ambitions or just a desire to excel at whatever they do may motivate others. Some kids are ambitious by nature, and others develop it gradually over time. It can be encouraged in teenagers by modeling it for them and by providing them with lots of affirmation rather than nagging. Your teenager probably is more ambitious than you realize, even if that ambition is not channeled directly into schoolwork.

Anxiety—or fear—is also a significant motivator. Most students fear what might happen if they don’t do their schoolwork. They might be embarrassed in front of their classmates or put their future at risk or lose a scholarship or make their parents angry.

Ambition and anxiety work in tandem. One of the other usually provides the motivation necessary to make students out of most kids. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if your teenager seems to lack both ambition and anxiety? What if he or she just doesn’t care?

The answer is not to make their performance your problem, but theirs. Sometimes parents and teachers worry and fret about a student’s poor grades while the student could care less. Unless your teenager cares as much (or more) than you do, he or she won’t be motivated to change or to take responsibility for performing up to his or her capabilities.

The best solution is to make school performance something that your kids care about. You can’t give them ambition they don’t have, but you can increase their anxiety level by tying school performance to the privileges that they enjoy and/or expect. Most kids care a lot about having time with their friends, having money to spend, having a car to drive, participating in sports, or having additional freedom. If their bad grades translate into a loss of privileges, they’ll start caring about their school performance. They’ll start feeling some anxiety.

Most kids won’t take kindly to this exercise of your authority. They will probably fight it tooth and nail at first. They’ll act like they really don’t care what you do to them and refuse to change just out of spite. They’ll act like victims and try to blame you for ruining their lives. Don’t fall for it. Just follow through and be patient. Eventually they will learn that you are serious and that if their situation is going to improve, they will be the ones who have to do the improving.

Of course, to make such a system work, you’ll need some way of monitoring how your student is doing, preferably on a weekly basis. There is simply too much time between report cards. What you need to know is whether or not your son or daughter completed the work that was assigned to them for the week, whether or not they are getting an acceptable grade. Some parents make arrangements with teachers and administrators to use a simple form at the end of each week (brought to the school by the student on Friday), which asks teachers in each class to give a progress report, along with a signature to discourage student dishonesty.

Your objective is not to micromanage your teenager’s life but to communicate clearly that they are in total control of their lives. They have responsibilities that they can choose to accept or ignore. The choices are theirs, just as the outcomes of their choices are also theirs. That’s how real life works.

This may not be necessary for your kids. Keep in mind that some underachieving students may have significant learning disabilities that should be properly diagnosed and treated. But the best response for the vast majority of kids who lack the motivation to apply themselves at school is to simply back off and let them take responsibility for their own school performance. Make it matter to them. In most cases, they will turn things around on their own, and they will learn a valuable life lesson in the process.

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Wayne Rice is the founder and director of HomeWord’s Understanding Your Teenager parenting event. Besides conducting dozens of UYT seminars each year and his work as a consultant for HomeWord, Wayne is a frequent speaker at youth, family and leadership conferences and other events for youth, youth workers, and parents.

Excerpted from Wayne Rice’s book, Cleared for Takeoff. Printed by permission of HomeWord.  For additional information on HomeWord, visit www.homeword.com or call 800-397-9725.

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