A link between fidgety boys and a sputtering economy

Written by New York Times | Updated: May 4 2014, 22:30pm hrs
BoysBy kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys
The behaviour gap between rich and poor children, starting at very early ages, is now a well-known piece of social science. Entering kindergarten, high-income children not only know more words and can read better than poorer children, but they also have longer attention spans, better-controlled tempers and more sensitivity to other children.

All of which makes the comparisons between boys and girls in the same categories fairly striking: the gap in behavioural skills between young girls and boys is even bigger than the gap between rich and poor.

By kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys, according to a new paper from Third Way, a Washington research group. The gap grows over the course of elementary school and feeds into academic gaps between the sexes. By eighth grade, 48% of girls receive a mix of As and Bs or better. Only 31% of boys do.

And in an economy that rewards knowledge, the academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles. Mens wages are stagnating. Men are much more likely to be idleneither working, looking for work nor caring for familythan they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.

The New York Times reported last week that the United States had lost its once-enormous global lead in middle-class pay based on international income surveys over the last three decades. After-tax median income in Canada appears to have been higher last year than the same measure in the US. The poor in Canada and much of western Europe earn more than the poor here.

These depressing trends have many causes, but the social struggles of men and boys are an important one. If the United States is going to build a better-functioning economy than the one we have had over the last 15 years, we are going to have to solve our boy problems.

To put it another way, the American economyfor all its troubles (and all of the lingering sexism)looks to be doing pretty well when you focus on girls. The portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75% over the last quarter-century, in line with what has happened in other rich countries. Median inflation-adjusted female earnings are up almost 35% over the same span, census data showwhile male earnings, incredibly, havent risen at all.

We know weve got a crisis, and the crisis is with boys, says Elaine Kamarck, a resident scholar at Third Way and a former Clinton administration official. Were not quite sure why its happening, she adds.

Two of the leading theories involve single-parent families and schools. The number of single-parent families has surged over the last generation, and the effect seems to be larger on boys in those families than girls. Girls who grow up with only one parenttypically, a motherfare almost as well on average as girls with two parents. Boys dont.

But the trends seem too broad for family structure to be the only cause. Thats where schools come in.

Girls enter school with a lead on boys, and schools then fail to close the gaps. Instead, they increase. The behavioural advantage that girls have over boys in kindergarten, based on teachers assessments of their students, are even larger in the fifth grade.

By then, the average girl is at the 60th percentile of an index of social and behavioural skills, while the average boy is at only the 40th percentile, according to Claudia Buchmann of Ohio State and Thomas DiPrete of Columbia, the authors of the new paper. That gap of 20 percentage points is larger than the 14-point gap between poor and not poor children or the 15-point gap between white and black children.

These behaviour measures are subjective, of course, based on the views of teachers across the country in very different classrooms. Yet its clear that the measures reflect something real, because the behaviour differences later translate into academic differences. By high school, even advanced math and science classes now have more girls than boys. At college graduation ceremonies around the US this spring, women in caps and gowns will easily outnumber men.

The experts who study the subject disagree on the solutions. Some, like Buchmann and DiPrete, point out that boys still do quite well in the best-performing schools. When good grades bring high status, boys respond. To the researchers in this camp, the answer involves improving schools, which will have a disproportionate effect on boys, rather than changing schools to be more attuned to boys needs.

Others, like Christina Hoff Sommers, argue that todays education system fails to acknowledge the profound differences between boys and girls. It asks boys to sit still for hours every day and provides them with few role models in front of the classroom. Just as the dearth of female science professors hampers would-be female science majors in college, the dearth of male fourth-grade teachers creates problems for 10-year-old boys.

My own sense is that both sides have a pointand that their ideas arent mutually exclusive. Experimenting with all kinds of solutions will offer better answers than we now have.

The problems that stem from gender have become double-edged. The old forms of sexism, while greatly diminished, still constrain women. The job market exacts harsh financial and career penalties on anyone who decides to work part-time or take time off, and the workers who do so are overwhelmingly female. Thats a big part of the reason that the top ranks of corporate America, Silicon Valley and the government remain dominated by men.

But men have their own challenges. As the economy continues to shift away from brawn and towards brains, many men have struggled with the transition.

Boys are getting the wrong message about what you need to do to be successful, Buchmann says. Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys. In todays economy, being tough and being strong are not what leads to success.

The problem doesnt simply involve men trying to overcome the demise of a local factory or teenage boys getting into trouble. It involves children so young that most havent even learned the word gender. Yet their gender is already starting to cast a long shadow over their lives.

David Leonhardt