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What Have We Done to Our Sons?

Column 27 on the Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS)

Copyright © 2004 by Jed Diamond

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What Have We Done to Our Sons?

If you are a parent, like me, who has a boy you know how difficult it is to raise him. I believe it does take a village to raise a child and most parents aren't getting much help. In our tribal past everyone in the village celebrated the birth of a child and were responsible for his upbringing. Even when I was growing up most people in the neighborhood knew the kids. If I was doing something I shouldn't, someone would usually notice and call me over for a little talk. My parents would hear about it before I even got home.

In many families there were grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins who lived in the same house or nearby. Now extended families are a rarity. Nuclear families, with a Mom, Dad and kids, are the rule and even they are breaking down. Divorce results in many children being raised by a single parent, usually the mother. Even in "intact" families the economic demands of our modern life-style require both parents to work. Children rarely get the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they need.

This is having a devastating impact on children. In the last 10 years there has been a lot of attention paid to the stresses on girls growing up. We are only recently beginning to recognize what is happening to our boys. "Girls, our new myths tell us, have life much worse than boys," says psychologist Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys. In-depth research shows that girls and boys each have their own equally painful sufferings. To say girls have it worse than boys is to put on blinders."

Boys who are having trouble now, grow into troubled teens, and become adults who are much more likely to suffer from IMS. "If there's one thing we've learned," says Dr. Dan Kindlon, of Harvard University and Dr. Michael Thompson, a preeminent child psychologist, authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys "it's that, unless we give him a viable alternative, today's angry young man is destined to become tomorrow's lonely and embittered middle-aged man."

Understanding what our boys are experiencing can better help us deal with IMS in our teenagers. It can also make us aware of the kinds of stresses many adult males experienced growing up. Understanding our boys can also alert us to the kinds of stresses that will form the character of the men of the future.

Schools Are Leaving Our Boys Behind

In 1990, psychologist Carol Gilligan announced to the world that America's adolescent girls were in crisis. "As the river of girl's life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing."[iii] A number of other popular books focused on the problems our daughters were experiencing in school. "Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence," said Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia. "Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn."

These concerns were taken up by women's groups and organizations concerned about the effect of society on the success of our daughters. As a result money was poured into the schools to make changes that would help the girls. Some researchers feel that the data supporting the view that girl's are being shortchanged is suspect and that many of the changes that are meant to be "girl friendly" in fact discriminate against boys.

Hoff-Sommers' The War Against Boys - click to buy
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Interestingly, it is a woman who has become one of the strongest advocates for boys. Christina Hoff Sommers has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brandeis University and was formerly a professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. "The research commonly cited to support the claims of male privilege and sinfulness is riddled with errors," she says. "Almost none of it has been published in professional peer-reviewed journals...A review of the facts shows boys, not girls, on the weak side of an educational gender gap."

I don't find it helpful to get into a debate of whether females or males have a worse time of it. My experience raising both male and female children is that each sex has unique strengths and unique difficulties. Having worked in the classrooms when my son and daughter were growing up, it seems to me that both girls and boys are getting shortchanged. Here I want to focus on the boys since a great deal of attention is already being focused on girls and educational programs seem to be geared more to the success of our daughters.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education and from several recent university studies show that boys are falling behind in their education. Girls get better grades.[vii] They have higher educational aspirations. They follow a more rigorous academic program and participate more in the prestigious Advanced Placement (AP) program.

Christina Hoff Sommers notes that "A 1999 Congressional Quarterly Researcher article about male and female academic achievement takes note of a common parental experience; ‘Daughters want to please their teachers by spending extra time on projects, doing extra credit, making homework as neat as possible. Sons rush through homework assignments and run outside to play, unconcerned about how the teacher will regard the sloppy work.' In the technical language of education experts, girls are academically more ‘engaged.'" She also cites studies that have found that "engagement with school is perhaps the single most important predictor of academic success."

It should not surprise us then that girls read more books. They outperform males on tests of artistic and musical ability. More girls than boys study abroad. Conversely, more boys than girls are suspended from school. More are held back and more drop out. Boys are three times as likely as girls to be enrolled in special education programs and four times as likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). More boys than girls are involved in crime, alcohol, and drugs.

We discussed in chapter 3 the huge difference in the suicide rate between males and females. Although the difference increases with age, it is significant during the school years. Between the ages of 5 and 24 males kill themselves nearly six times more often than females.

The Horatio Alger Association is a fifty-year-old organization devoted to promoting and affirming individual initiative and "the American dream." In 1998 they released a survey that contrasted two groups of students: the highly "successful" (approximately 18 percent of American students) and the "disillusioned" (approximately 15 percent of students.)

They noted that the students in the successful group work hard, choose challenging classes, make schoolwork a top priority, get good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, and feel that their teachers and administrators care about them and listen to them. According to the report, the successful group is 63 percent female and 37 percent male.

At the other extreme, the disillusioned students are pessimistic about their own futures, get low grades, have minimal contact with their teachers, and believe that there is no one they can turn to for help. We would certainly say the disillusioned group has become demoralized. According to the report, "Nearly seven out of ten are male." These are the young men who will suffer from the Irritable Male Syndrome. They will more likely become involved in violent or suicidal behavior, drop out of school, get involved with alcohol and drugs, have difficulty finding good employment opportunities, and have a very chaotic family life when they marry.

Although these statistics can just seem like numbers on the paper, they are very real to me. I work at a health clinic where I see the real people behind the statistics. Although we serve both males and females, I am always struck by the numbers of males that I see. I am rarely called to the school for problems with the girls. It is almost always with one of the boys. If you think about it I believe you will recognize real people you know behind many of these statistics.

Many of these boys are sinking below the surface and calling out for our help. Will we be there for them? If we pay attention to our young men, they will have a better chance to grow up to be responsible and loving adults. Whether or not we help them, they will grow up and the great majority will find a partner, start a family, and likely pass on their experiences to the next generation of young males.

Does this sound familiar? Drop me a line and let me know what you have experienced.

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This article first appeared on Gordon Clay's MenStuff Web site,

Need help now?

I offer two options for help: (1) Personal counseling with me and (2) My new internet-based program.

  1. If you think you may need counseling help, feel free to contact me at (If you're new, be sure and respond to my spamarrest notice so I receive your e-mail.) I offer immediate help in my office or by phone.
  2. Are you a man who is overstressed, frustrated, and angry? Are you a woman who walks on egg shells afraid you will set him off? Is your relationship suffering? This program is for you. To get help CLICK HERE.
Click here to check out Jed's IMS Aliveguide

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