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Culture Wars Invade the Lives of Boys
By Rosemary Bray McNatt

November/December 2000

It's the testosterone, stupid! Or is it? To pick up more than one of the dozens of books on the care and feeding of boys is to wade into confusion. It's hard to imagine more conflicting in-formation on a subject. Boys need their mothers. Boys need to separate from their mothers. Boys need single-sex schools and other opportunities to be male-identified. Boys need to learn to share the brave new world with brave new girls. Boys without fathers are doomed. Boys with fathers are doomed. Boys in general are doomed, thanks to a culture of violence that exacerbates the influence of male hormones.

As if parents weren't exhausted already.

Humanity has debated the differences between men and women since we have been capable of debate. But in this postmodern landscape, the debate has gotten more intense. We live in a more chaotic world where media romanticize violence with more skill and realism than ever and parents live in fear of the next school shooting. And all of us are looking for explanations.

As justice-seeking people, we liberal religious folk have good theological and ethical reasons to care about the gender debate. Much of the way we seek to live has its roots in the Enlightenment affirmation of humanity's inherent worth and dignity. But as we consider the latest outbreak in the gender war--which seems to have moved from the bedroom and the workplace to the classroom and the playground--we might do well to bring with us more than one of our seven principles.

Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor turned popular writer, is the author of the most intense salvo: The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (Simon and Schuster, 2000; $25). Now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Sommers throws down the gauntlet from the book's opening pages. She writes that it has fallen to her to tell "how we are turning against boys and forgetting a simple truth: that the energy, competitiveness and corporal daring of normal, decent males is responsible for much of what is right in the world."

Three guesses about whom or what Sommers blames for this wholesale rejection of maleness. Surprise: If you guessed feminism, you'd only be partly right. True enough, there is virtually no contemporary feminist theorist who doesn't come in for some of Sommers's arctic scorn. She devotes at least two chapters to trashing the Harvard researcher and psychologist Carol Gilligan, whose books on moral reasoning among women and girls (most notably, In a Different Voice) brought to light the paucity of psychological research done on women.

Sommers regards all of Gilligan's research as fatally flawed, with inadequate sampling and a lack of peer review. (Gilligan, along with several research associates and peers, has responded to Sommers's claims. For more details on this contentious exchange, see the August 2000 Atlantic Monthly.) Sommers also blames Gilligan, among others, for setting the women's movement on the path to unrepentant male bashing. Gilligan, she says, has pushed "the myth of the emotionally repressed boy," a myth that "has great destructive potential. If taken seriously, it could lead to even more distracting and insipid school programs designed to get boys in touch with their feelings."

Sommers's distaste for these school-based programs has roots in a justifiable concern about boys' school performance. Eighth-grade boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to be held back a grade. By high school, 67 percent of all special education students are boys. Boys receive 71 percent of all school suspensions and are up to 10 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Though statistics such as these may have been a revelation to some of Sommers's readers, they are old news in the African American community, for example, where educators and others are working to improve the lives of boys and girls together.

It takes a careful reading of Sommers's book--and her footnotes--to discover her pervasive ideology, one that takes feminism as only one of many targets. Though a card-carrying conservative and veteran of the culture wars since the mid-1980s, she manages to camouflage her larger critique until late in the book. It is not until she turns her attention to the moral life of boys that she tips her hand, writing that

the story of why so many children are being deprived of elementary moral training spans three or four decades of misguided reforms by educators, by parents and by judges. Reduced to its philosophical essentials, it is the story of the triumph of Jean-Jacques Rousseau over Aristotle.

It's not just the feminists, you see: it's the Enlightenment itself, along with the dreaded 1960s, that bears the responsibility for the state of American boys today. Sommers continues:

Aristotle regarded children as wayward, uncivilized and very much in need of discipline. . . . Rousseau believed the child to be originally good and free from sin. As he saw it, a proper education provides the soil for the flourishing of the child's inherently good nature, to bring it forth unspoiled and fully effective.

Just in case you don't get it, she adds:

What happens when educators celebrate children's creativity and innate goodness and abandon the ancestral responsibility to discipline, train, and civilize them? Unfortunately, we know the answer: we are just emerging from a thirty-year experiment with moral deregulation. The ascendancy of Rousseau as the philosopher of education and the eclipse of Aristotle have been bad for all children, but they have been especially bad for boys.
No loving parent could disagree with Sommers when she writes that "to know what is right and to act on it is the highest expression of freedom and personal autonomy." But a responsible life of freedom for our children is not the sole province of overwrought philosophers. For girls and for boys, for men and for women, the unfolding knowledge of who we are born to be and what we are truly made of can never be wholly a philosophical question. For her careless rhetoric, her stealth attack on progressive values, and her failure to offer a single constructive suggestion for those of us in the trenches, Christina Hoff Sommers deserves a time out.


One of the anti-boy conspirators named by Sommers is William Pollack, the author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Random House, 2000; $25). Yet Pollack makes it clear that he worries about the inner lives of boys and young men, based on research and long experience. Pollack is not a philosopher; he is a clinical psychologist who has worked with boys and their families for years. He cites the same alarming statistics as Sommers about the plight of boys in America's public schools. Yet he doesn't blame Rousseau, the women's movement, or a vast left-wing conspiracy.

If Pollack blames anything, it is what he calls "The Boy Code," the societal rules that judge "the behavior of boys against outmoded ideas about masculinity and about what it takes for a boy to become a man," a code supported by several myths--including the overwhelming role of testosterone in a boy's development. Pollack takes these myths on without ignoring the real differences between boys and girls. Like all human beings, he explains, boys are a blend of both nature and nurture. He reminds us of what we know from the work of the new neuroscientists: how our earliest caretakers affect our brain structure. Little boys, more emotionally expressive than little girls in the first year of life, take a radical turn by elementary school. Pollack suggests that it's the Boy Code that, by shaming boys into less expressive behavior, causes them to shut down.

But just as problematic as shame, he writes, is how soon boys become autonomous from their mothers. If there's one idea in Pollack's book that will gladden the hearts of mothers, it is this one, repeated in several ways through its chapters:

In healthy mother-son relationships, there simply does not seem to be anything as too much love. . . . Most mothers and their sons are capable of creating strong, healthy relationships based . . . on interdependence, the recognition that each of us is also responsible for our own actions and selves.

Neither does Pollack slight the vital role of fathers. "Fathers are not male mothers," he writes. "Fathers tend to develop their own loving style of teaching, guiding, and playing with their boys." Still, he urges fathers to support the mother's less active, more soothing parenting style, though he encourages the father to intervene when he might have more insight into what's happening with a son.

One of this wise book's most valuable chapters, on boys, sadness, and depression, offers balanced advice about distinguishing a boy's typical silences, during which he is most likely working things out for himself, from a sadness that, unchecked, could lead to a more dangerous depression.

While Real Boys is an excellent guide for parents and others who worry about the boys in their lives, it is perhaps more wisely used as part primer, part tune-up manual. Pollack has placed his 20-plus years of research in the service of the real mothers and fathers who love their real sons, and amid widespread hysteria about the violent potential of young men, has presented readers with real support.


The culture's reaction to black male children as threatening, pathological, and possibly criminal is a burden few white parents have to shoulder. The need to protect both the souls and the bodies of young black boys is the topic of Boys into Men: Raising Our African American Teenage Sons (Dutton, 2000; $23.95) by thera-pists Nancy Boyd-Franklin and A.J. Franklin with the help of Pamela Toussaint.

The Franklins are parents to two young men, and their book is generously sprinkled both with anecdotes from their own parenting and with proverbs from cultures across the African diaspora meant to illustrate the principles on which they have relied. The Franklins see spirituality as a support for both boys and their families, and they give special attention to at least one principle of traditional African religion, best expressed as "I am because we are; and because we are, I am."

They also emphasize of education and the special risks faced by African American boys in public schools, particularly disparities in discipline and overrepresentation in special education classes. In addition, they give tips for parenting African American boys in predominately white communities, in the course of which they point to the enduring usefulness of historically black social organizations such as Jack and Jill.

Free from fear-mongering yet honest and realistic about society's tangled view of young black men, Boys into Men will give insight, hope, and comfort to anyone raising or working with African American boys: "Raising African American sons is one of the greatest challenges on the face of the earth," the authors write. "Worrying goes with the territory. But if we are to make a difference for our young men we must follow the words of the Ashanti proverb . . . 'You must act as if it is impossible to fail.'"

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