Boys Adrift – Leonard Sax, MD, PhD


In his book, Dr. Sax mentions five categories which, in his opinion, have contributed to the lack of motivation and poor grades of many boys:

  • Changes in education
  • Video games
  • Medications for ADHD
  • Endocrine disruptors in the environment
  • The decline and disintegration of the masculine ideal

Many kindergarten programs teach basic reading and writing and Dr. Sax states that many 5 year old boys are neither mentally ready for such lessons nor capable of sitting for long periods and are already experiencing ‘turnoff’ mode in kindergarten. The average American boy spends an excessive amount of time playing videogames and watching TV and Dr. Sax cites brain research which revealed atrophy of the part of the brain responsible for motivation and concentration.  Noting a Harvard study, he reports that when ADHD medications are taken at an early age, the end result may be damage to the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain which translates motivation into action.

A typical boy in the United States today is more than twice as likely to break a bone compared with a boy thirty years ago, despite the fact that the boy today is less active. Doctor Sax states that Doctor Shanna Swann, a researcher at the University of Rochester attributes these changes to the food our children eat and the water they drink. Regarding environmental factors, Dr. Sax mentions polyethylene terephthalate, a substance used in the manufacture of plastic water bottles. The substance mimics the action of female hormones and Dr. Sax attributes the presence of polyethylene terephthalate to brittle bones, lower sperm counts and diminished motivation and drive, seen only in boys, not girls.

The role models for boys have changed.  Forty years ago TV shows such as Father Knows Best, My Three Sons and The Cosby Show portrayed strong, wise, kind, patient men all with respectable, full time jobs.  Today’s TV role models include Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men.

Many young boys are now raised by single mothers and are without a stable father in the home as a good role model.

An excerpt from Boys Adrift:

“When I meet with parents, I explain why we parents must work with and support the teachers at the school our children attend, rather than viewing teachers as adversaries.  When a parent picks up the phone to complain about a grade given by a teacher, the parent is undermining both the teacher’s authority and also the boy’s ability to learn some lesson from the low mark received.  Regardless of the outcome of the phone call, the parent has confirmed the son’s assessment that the teacher is unfair and/or incompetent and that the son is a victim.  Why is such behavior by parents so common today?  That’s one of the questions which I answer in the presentation for parents.”

The problem is even more severe when a boy commits some misdeed which warrants disciplinary action.  Thirty years ago, if a boy were disrespectful to a teacher, or if he were caught cheating on an exam, he would face disciplinary action from the school and he would likely face more severe disciplinary measures at home.  Today, when a boy commits the same offense, it is common to hear of a parent jumping in to defend the boy and to oppose the school’s action.  The parent adopts the role of attorney, trying to disprove the school’s case.  Such action by the parent sends a message of entitlement to the boy, profoundly undermining the school’s mission of helping the boy to make the transition to authentic manhood.

The first step is to give parents some perspective, to see the bigger picture.  The first mission of school is not to ensure that your son has the highest possible GPA.  We review recent longitudinal studies showing that the best long-term predictor of success, on multiple parameters, is not GPA but character.  Are you responsible?  Are you honest?  Do you exhibit self-control?  Those parameters are, empirically, much better predictors of income, health and happiness at age 32 than any measure of cognitive achievement. The first mission of school therefore is to help form and improve your son’s character, which means, above other things, teaching him what it means to be a gentleman.



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