Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In American communities across the religious and political spectrum, we are seeing a major phenomenon: boys adrift. More and more young boys and men are lost and unmotivated. Today, there are families in which the daughters attend college, graduate with honors, and then move on to successful careers. Their brothers, often with the same IQs, attend college for a shorter period (or a much longer period), sometimes graduate, and then move back home with their parents. Of course, in some communities, these boys will go to yeshiva and possibly get married rather than move back home with their parents. Regardless, girls are achieving and boys are underachieving. Why is this and how can we stop it?

In his book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, pediatrician Dr. Leonard Sax explains the phenomenon and breaks it down into four different reasons. While he brings scientific proof for each one, we might find some of them a bit difficult to digest.

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Changes in education. I’ve written about these changes before, particularly in articles about boys and reading, but Dr. Sax explains it from the perspective of the changes from previous generations. Kindergarten in the United States has changed significantly over the years. Instead of finger paint, duck-duck-goose and splashing in puddles, the focus of the kindergarten curriculum in most schools is about reading and writing. Kindergarten has essentially turned into first grade. But, why would this affect boys differently than girls?

Research shows that girls and boys brains develop in different sequences. Sax writes, “The language area in the brain of a typical 5-year-old boy, according to a large National Institute of Health study published in 2006, looks very much like the language area in the brain of a 3½-year-old girl. Many 5-year-olds are simply not ready to sit for hours, learning to read and write – not because they’re dumb, but because they are BOYS.” And when kindergarten is their first experience of school and they are “bad” at it, this leads to a lack of motivation all the way down the line.

So, what can we do? Engage young boys in immersive learning experiences in which they move, interact with nature, and are not forced to sit quietly. This will provide them with positive learning memories and ultimately motivate them later in life.

Video games. For many people in our communities, video games are not an issue. The time spent, the feeling of control, and the violence are not detrimental to boys in many communities because video games are simply not played by boys or girls. Those who do have video games in their homes should know that boys are particularly vulnerable to becoming addicted since they provide a sense of control that boys might not otherwise have in their lives. Girls, on the other hand, are more interested in their friends at this point than in their screens.

Playing more than eight hours of video games a week can cause the part of the brain that controls motivation and concentration to atrophy or shrink. This in turn can contribute to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which leads us to our next category.

ADHD medication. ADHD is diagnosed in boys at a significantly higher level than girls. Those with ADHD are often prescribed Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta and other medications to help them focus and sit still. But, as Sax writes, “Recent research from Harvard University and other prestigious research institutions suggests that when these ‘academic steroids’ are administered at an early age, the end result may be damage to the nucleus accumbensThe nucleus accumbens plays no role in cognition. The function of the nucleus accumbens is to translate motivation into action.  If a boy has a damaged nucleus accumbens, he’ll look fine and he’ll feel fine. But he’ll be lazy – particularly if he stops taking those medications.”

Of course, for some children medication is the only option. And while Sax might be generally against the medication, I do not think that it is always negative. However, it’s important to understand the other results of the medication and to take those into account (and attempt to mitigate them as well).

Endocrine disruptors. Through his research and the research of many of his colleagues, Dr. Sax has identified some detrimental chemicals in our water and in the food we eat. Many of the clear plastic bottles that we drink from contain polyethylene terephthalate, a substance that mimics the action of female hormones. Being exposed to a lot of polyethylene terephthalate can cause lower testosterone and cause more brittle bones. In addition, it can diminish their motivation and drive along with their need to compete.

Research shows that this plastic can have significant deterimental effects on women later in life, particularly in greater chances of developing breast cancer, but it does not affect their motivation and drive when they are young children.

Are there other factors that might be affecting boys? Absolutely. Might the boys you see around you be just as motivated, if not more, than the girls around you? Of course. Should you worry about your son if he is not exhibiting these characteristics? No way! Dr. Sax is pointing out a phenomenon across America, if you aren’t experiencing it, then no need to stress! If you are experiencing it, then there are some pretty easy ways to combat it, you just need a little bit of knowledge to start.

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