Our Schools Are Failing: We Need to Engage Boys Where They Are

Megan Rosker agrees with David Brooks that we need to understand how boys best learn and work together to collectively insure their success.

New York Times author and commentator David Brooks writes about the need for educators and parents to embrace more diversity in their understanding of how to educate children in his recent post “Honor Code.” In today’s world, we have a culture that heavily favors qualities most often found in girls. Schoolchildren are asked to sit longer, focus and concentrate more, and read earlier. They are told not to roughhouse or play violent games on the playground. In many schools, there are no longer competitive sports because we don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt. Kids gather in the friendship circle, hold hands, sing and share their feelings. If my five year old daughter could design a school, this is what it would look like. (It would also be painted pink with rainbows and everyone would eat jelly toast and play tea party and there be absolutely no boys, especially her brothers!) If our idea of a proper school lines up this closely with my daughter’s vision of a utopian education we have a problem. Yet this is what I see — that we have gone too far in embracing a culture that doesn’t embrace our boys.

When we tell our boys too often to stop bring gross and playing rough we are telling them the instinctual way they want to play is wrong. When we tell them to  stop being loud and stop playing space alien where everyone dies because they have been shot in the eye with a poisonous dart, we aren’t embracing the fact that for many boys this is the kind of imaginative play they love. What’s wrong with that? Why do we have so much trouble actually embracing the diverse type of learning and play that boys want and need?

We pay lip service to wanting diversity, but as Mr. Brooks points out we actually have a very homogenous educational atmosphere. We expect all students to act and learn in a similar manner and if not, we want to intervene until they do. This is not diversity.

If we actually created a school that was founded in the principles of diversity, people would rise and fall on their merit. Instead, we are setting up our children to believe that they rise and fall on whether they adhere to the policies of the group, the culture, the whole. We are leaning heavily in the direction of our children acting and learning as one gender. Is this the right way to educate kids?

We have reached a point of being fearful of children succeeding or failing. We don’t want our collective kids to shine in the classroom or on the sport field because if one person is succeeding it also means there are those who are failing. We are petrified of the reality that not everyone can win and what if it is our kid who is losing. We fear the judgment of our friends and neighbors because we know with that judgment we will undoubtedly judge ourselves and question ourselves as parents. We worry our kids will grow up to hate us if we don’t ensure their success. We seek our children’s approval by giving away success. We fill their bookshelves with awards for arm wrestling, the tri-state area hopscotch competition and participants awards for bowling, the kazoo choir and completely two weeks of summer camp.

But what if we are wrong? What if they grow up weaker, feeling entitled to success they haven’t earned? Kids, especially boys, need competition; they need to succeed on their merit so that they know what they have to uniquely offer the world is worthwhile. It is a huge detriment to our children to continue to create a homogenous educational culture that is heavily weighted with feminine traits. It isn’t fair to our sons. As women, we rebelled when men didn’t embrace our strengths, when society shunned our intellect and leadership. Now we have flipped the coin and are spending a great deal of our time repressing our sons in a very similar way that young girls were repressed prior to the feminist movement in the west.

What is so difficult about embracing that each gender, each individual, learns and plays differently? Our boys are not succeeding in school. It is time to consider their needs and how they learn. While it may initially make us uncomfortable to think that we are actively repressing our sons, it is in their best interest to start talking about this elephant in the classroom and as Mr. Brooks says “schools must engage people where they are.”  We need teachers, school leaders and parents who are willing to embrace the idea that boys aren’t rambunctious cretins, but in their masculinity they have a greatness to offer the world.

 Read also: How Could We Possibly Forget About the Boys?

photo of boys playing in meadow by Shutterstock

About Megan Rosker

Megan Rosker is the mom of three young children, a former teacher and ed and play advocate. She writes about how to change education and the culture of childhood in America. Her advocacy has been featured in the New York Times and she is the recent recipient of the Daily Points of Light Award.


  1. Until we begin looking at differential treatment from an early age and show just how our individual environments create different mental/emotional/social conditioning; how average stress is made up of layers of mental frictions that take up real mental energy, and how differential treatment creates real advantages for girls today, we will continue to be at a loss to explain the growing Male Crisis. Please do not buy into the genetic models, for they will only make it much worse for Male students.
    The problem is more complex than school curriculum or boy chemistry. The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females beginning as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment through adulthood. This is creating the growing Male Crisis in the information age. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males beginning as early as one year. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, verbal interaction and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. This increases over time and continued by society from peers and teachers to others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance from parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; higher average stress that hurts learning and motivation to learn; more activity due to need for stress relief; more defensiveness and wariness of others further hindering emotional and social growth; and higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write. It creates much lag in development creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues on through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and more escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also the giving of love based on achievement that many Males thus falling behind academics then turns their attention toward video games and sports, risk taking to receive small measures of love/honor not received in the classroom.

    Since girls by differential treatment are given more positive, continual, and close mental/emotional/social/ support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased in more differentiated over time.

  2. I agree that boys should be allowed to be themselves. As the father of two daughters, I’ve seen for myself that the “uni-sex” notion is wrong. But I also believe that a lot of people fail to recognize that individual boys are different and that those differences should be respected (without compromising standards, of course). Speaking of homogeneity, that wrongheaded principle has been operative for generations in the traditional approach to mandatory boys’ P.E., which was designed to meet the needs of athletically inclined boys only. No fitness programs were provided for the nonathletic boys, despite the claim that the purpose of P.E. was to promote physical fitness. (Why am I saying “were” and “was”? Despite the movement to reform mandatory P.E. by providing genuine fitness programs, the old P.E. — which historically has often encouraged some of the worst bullying in the schools — is still the reality in many school districts today.) I agree that boys should be allowed to engage in rough play and competitive sports as an elective activity. But some boys have no interest in sports. Must they be forced to participate in them or otherwise be dismissed as “feminized males”? There are many ways in which boys can become physically active (bodybuilding, other exercise programs, etc.) without participating in sports.

    I believe some changes need to be made in the schools. Sure, I believe in competition. I also believe that self-esteem cannot be bestowed without accomplishment. But many of the people who express a concern about boys being shortchanged in the schools seem to be stereotypical in their own expectations of the way they think all boys should behave. They seem to have a “one size fits all” approach. With all due respect, I also find it hard to believe that many schools don’t have competitive sports programs. That’s certainly not been the case in my state (Texas).

  3. I like it but you know, it talks about the problem, not the solution.

    How do we set up a safe system of competition or allow roughhousing and make sure nobody gets hurt? Who is going to design a system that both allows some to win and some to lose while keeping in check the egos of the winners and looks and builds up the ones who lose?

    There is another coin here, not just the gender one. The fact is we need to eliminate some of the practices written about here, that is one side, but on the other side we don’t know how to do it well. The way we do it now is the best we got, although I don’t really like it either. It is more complicated to build a system like the one recommended here, and we have a lot of people we’re talking about. The kind of flexibility and attentiveness and oversight is not easy to come by to make education more boy and girl friendly at the same time.

    • Teach kids to identify their strengths and weaknesses, encourage them to work on both. That kid who doesn’t win the race? He may be awesome at art, let them know it’s valuable instead of just praising sports.

      Teach them ways to raise their self esteem, instill a sense of good sportsmanship in each other (so winners can encourage the “losers”), make team based sports or activities, mix it up so everyone “gets a turn” with the good group. When it’s based on individualism then the individual may feel left out, so mix it up with teamwork so they can feel good with a team.

      I wouldn’t hardcode it as male n female based learning, I think it’d be a great idea to have multiple ways for learning but not limited by gender/age but by competence. There will be boys and girls who prefer to learn or do things in the way the other gender does more than their own.

      Who is going to design it? We all should. I loved playing soccer but bullying made me feel useless, fix the bullying and that’s one way to fix the problem. Don’t make a massive deal over the winners whilst ignoring the losers, make sure parents don’t go off at the players if the team loses, remind kids the game is for fun first and that you may have lost but it doesn’t mean you’re a loser. No one wins all the time, that is what needs to be taught. Expectations of either winning or losing, instead of winning some, losing some is a problem, teach people to get up n try again, keep trying because that is more important than winning.

      Giving up is the big problem, that needs to be trained out of people. I gave up at many things over my self esteem, gave up before trying in many cases and thus I never had the chance to improve my self esteem or realize my capability. Once I got training n therapy, hell just a lil positive encouragement, I started to try again and learned I’m actually good at stuff. Finding what you are good at is a very important goal!

      • The question I would raise, though, with all due respect is why all children should be forced to participate in sports in the first place. Why is this necessary? Should all children be forced to play band instruments, take ballet lessons, or participate in games of chess; or isn’t this a matter of personal preference? The point is not to detract from anyone’s enjoyment of sport, but simply to not subject nonathletic students to pointless humiliation and bullying. The assumption seems to have been made for generations that participation in sports is absolutely vital for boys and that those who choose to not participate in them are somehow deficient. I respectfully but adamantly disagree.

        • Gustavus says:

          I think that there needs to be SOME physical activity for everyone. It might be a process to determine what each individual student likes, and that’s all right.

          Of course some students learn differently from the norm amongst other members of their sex. That’s fine. Perhaps we could have classrooms orientated toward a certain style of learning, and students who don’t succeed in this model get counselling to help them find a classroom better suited to their learning style. I would like to teach at an All Boys school, but I believe that the ideal form of single-sex education in fact abandons the notion of teaching only one sex; instead, we take the specialisation that comes with this model, and apply it in a classroom full of students who will benefit from it (regardless of sex).

          Singe-sex education, to me, should serve as the catalyst which totally turns our education system on its head. Catalysts aren’t the end-product, mind you, so while I think that some single-sex classrooms should still exist after the revolution in education, again, it’s not the answer…just a BIG step in the right direction.

  4. Fantastic. THIS!


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