Excerpt from Swagger, by Lisa Bloom. Copyright 2012.
The Urgency of Fighting for Our Boys’ Brains
At this very moment, through no fault of their own, our boys are caught in the vortex of four powerful, insidious, often invisible forces that conspire to rob them of their future.
First, our heartbreakingly subpar schools. To say that twenty-first-century America doesn’t value education is like saying Donald Trump doesn’t prioritize humility. Class sizes grow, as kids sit on the floor or are crammed into “temporary” classrooms in hallways or bathrooms. School buildings crumble, leak, and emit toxic fumes. Junk-food school lunches make our kids sick and fat (while bloating the profits of giant food processing companies), dropping their test scores. Teachers are reduced to begging on charity websites for books for first graders. At even the best schools our kids graduate without knowing the basics of US history or the rudiments of science. Our kids already enjoy some of the shortest school days and school years in the developed world. And now we are witnessing a new sickening trend: in over one hundred counties in America, state budget cuts have pared the school week down to only four days. Hooray! An extra day every week to watch Fear Factor and play Xbox!
The minds of our children matter so little that we barely notice how many of them are now checking out of school. Only one in three Baltimore kids graduates from high school. For those who stay in, the news isn’t much better: one in five American high school seniors graduates illiterate. And every miserable bit of education news skews worse for boys. Boys underperform compared to girls in every grade and subject. They’re medicated, disciplined, suspended, and expelled far more often than girls are. In what should be in screaming, fist-sized headlines daily, nationwide the majority of our African American and Hispanic boys drop out of high school. Some of our schools are little more than holding pens, releasing antsy, angry, unskilled young men into our communities.
There, young men are pounded by the second force: the harshest economy facing graduates and dropouts since the Great Depression. Economists may debate whether or not we are officially in a recession, but there’s no doubt that our economy falters, as thirteen million are unemployed, nine million are underemployed, and millions more “discouraged” workers have given up on looking for a job altogether. For young men the numbers are even worse than the painful national averages. For them, the jobless rate hovers at 18 percent—four million young American men who want to contribute and earn an income and support themselves and their families, but who just can’t find a job. Like the rest of America’s jobless, they’ll likely resort to relying on public assistance. An astonishing forty-six million Americans today need food stamps (now issued on debit cards), a huge jump in the last two years. So many people run out of food at the end of the month that Walmart now opens many stores at 12:01 a.m. on the days the cards are loaded, to allow for the midnight rush of hungry Americans.
One hundred million Americans are now poor or near poor.
Traditionally “male” jobs? They are mostly gone, and they are not coming back. Most of the jobs lost since the Great Recession commenced in 2008 disappeared from the predominately male sectors such as construction and manufacturing. In 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot warned of the giant sucking sound we’d hear if the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, sending American jobs to Mexico, but even Perot could not have imagined the gargantuan vacuum created when millions of American manufacturing jobs were siphoned off to China, India, and elsewhere. Those jobs are now extinct in America. The giant sucking sound turned out to be a muted, steady bleed-out of the blue-collar male work force.
As they are negotiating their way through our miserable schools and jobless economy, our popular culture—the third soul-leeching, invisible force—seduces our boys with flashy, loud messages that manhood equals macho bravado, emotional numbness, ignorance, and thugdom. “Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to squeeze it,” raps NBA star Allan Iverson. “I’m a leader, not a reader,” said a once-leading presidential candidate in 2011, as if the two are mutually exclusive. As our sons turn away from books and school and knowledge and critical thinking, the alarming new idea that “reading is girly” has caught on among them. Glamorization of drug use has increased six-fold in rap and hip-hop music, a genre that once warned “don’t do it!”; now a full 69 percent of songs in these genres contain positive references to illegal drugs. “I got mushrooms, I got acid, I got tabs,” raps Eminem, idol to many boys, “I’m your brother when you need some new weed . . . I’m your friend.”
There is one road for boys who don’t overcome their failing schools, who aren’t exceptional enough to find a job where there is none, who absorb the message that real men express anger via gun violence or who use or sell drugs to escape or to make a few bucks, and that road has one dead-end terminus: our ever-expanding, bursting-to-the-seams prisons. Our prison population has skyrocketed to its highest level in US history, more than any other country on earth now or in human history, more than anyone could have imagined a generation ago, more than we have ever had by any measure—raw numbers, percentage of our population, you name it. Largely casualties of our misguided War on Drugs, which has caused the number of incarcerated Americans to quadruple since 1980: over two million of our people are locked up, 93 percent of them men and boys, with another nearly five million under an increasingly restrictive system of correctional control in lieu of or after incarceration. This fourth potent force, mass incarceration, deprives its subjects of a future by literally locking them in cages. Criminalizing human behavior like never before, our judges are required by law to mete out increasingly punitive, long sentences, even for children. Even after inmates are released, they remain under the heavy-handed control of the criminal justice system for years or for life, often unable to vote, get a job, secure housing, or support a family.
In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole, and more are locked up every day. We may be the last country on the planet to lock up juveniles—overwhelmingly boys—for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors.
New prisons are under construction as you read this, waiting to house the next generation of American boys.
* * *
Born into this user-unfriendly world, one not of their choosing and entirely beyond their control, our sons need us now more than ever. Ensnared by these four powerful forces—failing schools, an unwelcoming economy, thug culture, and a harshly punitive justice system—more boys and young men than ever are on the sidelines, cut out of a middle-class life, scratching their heads as to how that happened. Although women and girls suffer under these conditions too, there’s no question that, on the whole, these forces disproportionately hammer our boys.
To help them, we need to understand deeply the waters in which our boys swim. Parents, family members, teachers—all of us who care about boys—need to know. Closing our eyes and hoping for the best won’t cut it, not when our boys live in the real world. And so the first half of this book is an unvarnished, clear-eyed look at what our sons are facing, day in and day out, right now, as they navigate through boyhood and emerge as young men, yearning for a decent life.
Knowing matters. Without an awareness of each of these conditions and how they whipsaw our boys, we as parents may apply obsolete attitudes that unintentionally harm them. For example, we may think that although we didn’t finish school, we’ve still done all right, and although we’d all like our sons to graduate, if they don’t, they’ll probably get by. Wrong. The job market for young men has changed dramatically in the last decade, as I will explain. Or we may think that the older generation has always objected to kids’ music, and we’d sound like fuddy-duddies if we complained. Wrong. We’re not talking about a little racy innuendo; some of the biggest artists today advocate joining the Crips, punching your girlfriend, or murdering gay men. You need to know. You need to stare down the reality and critically discuss media messages with your boy. In these and so many other areas, knowledge is power when raising your son to manhood.
* * *
These are challenging times not only for boys but also for parents and nearly everyone in the bottom 99 percent of American families. Layoffs and foreclosures slam us directly or, if we still have jobs and homes, threaten us like dark clouds overhead that never seem to dissipate. Discouraged but soldiering on, we adapt and endure. Resigned, many adults grudgingly accept less for ourselves: a harder life than we expected, a less fulfilling job, living in a depressed neighborhood. We muddle through. We postpone our dreams. We adjust.
But when we become parents, something stirs. Mothers and fathers look at their sleeping babies, and they awaken. Although we’ll put up with doors closing in our own lives, we will not accept bleak futures for our children. Not a single one of us. It is deeply encoded in our parenting DNA to want—to clamor for—more for them, to sacrifice our time and effort and dollars to give them that better life. Immigrant parents leap across rivers and oceans and borders like Superman to give their children opportunities they never had. A party girl brings a life into being and suddenly she’s Wonder Woman, casting off her old ways, assuming the mantle of protector, insisting on the best for her son. A one-time slacker-dad internalizes Spiderman’s credo: with great power comes great responsibility. We rise to the occasion.
Singlehandedly, we may not be able to turn around our failing schools, our dumbed-down and punitive culture, or our stagnant economy. (Though we can and should push back at every opportunity.) But there is a great deal we as parents can do at little or no cost to give our boys the advantages they need right now to jack up their odds of finishing high school, going to college, and leading a decent, free life in which they can not only support a family but also contribute to their communities. Because parenting can’t wait. Our boys are growing up now, in conditions they did not create, and they deserve more than an adulthood defined by illiteracy, poverty, and reporting to a parole officer.
This book will show you how. There is much good news in the form of research-proven, parent-tested, teacher-approved solutions. These steps are mostly free or cheap, can be done anywhere by nearly any caring adult, and will significantly boost your boy’s chances of surviving and thriving notwithstanding all the hurdles our culture throws in his path. Powerful forces may be aligned against him, but his number-one role model has always been and always will be you: Mom, Dad, or the grown-up who has the guts to step up to the plate for him.
Give your boy a hug, don your superhero cape, and let’s begin.
A Preliminary Note: Why Boys?
Why is this book about boys rather than all our kids—boys and girls? Shouldn’t we be concerned about girls’ literacy, for example, and making sure that they too stay in school, fend off negative cultural messages, and become adults who find productive work so that they can support their families too?
Hell, yes, we should!
In fact, I didn’t intend to write about the dumbing down of our guys, at least not initially. I figured that would go over about as well as a Jane Austen reading in a strip club. I wrote my first book about my own team, we of the XX chromosomes, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World. There, I blast away at a culture that persistently rewards girls for looks over brains; detail our out-of-control female obsession with reality shows, celebrities, tabloids, and the beauty industry; and outline the real-world harms this causes to our psyches, families, neighborhoods, and world. For females in twenty-first-century America, it’s the best of times (we are killing it in education, for example) and the worst of times (25 percent of young women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize . . . are you kidding me?).
As I said all along, the problem of American ignorance applies equally to both genders. The distractions may be different (girls: Real Housewives, TMZ; guys: ESPN, Call of Duty), but the lack of focus, the disconnection, is the same. (In fact, I can now report that it may be even worse for guys, as we shall see throughout this book.)
At my speaking events around the country, parents would talk to me about the challenges of raising girls, but they would also tell me about the problems they were having with their sons: falling behind in school; addiction to video games; inability to communicate socially; music, TV, and films that encourage boys to become macho jerks; how hard it was for them to get their son to pick up a book.
I wrote an article, “How to Talk to Little Girls,” exhorting us to refrain from talking to young girls about how they look and instead encouraging us to engage their minds. To my surprise and delight, “How to Talk to Little Girls” went viral and became Facebook’s twelfth-most-shared article of 2011. Millions of people read it all over the globe. I did interviews in Ireland, Australia, and all over the English-speaking world about how to speak intelligently to our daughters. And during these interviews, and in the subsequent e-mails, tweets, and Facebook messages came: what about boys?
As the mother of both a daughter and a son, I could hardly ignore half the population. I began to research what’s going on with the male side of our country. And what I found really shocked me and upended some of what I thought I knew.
I gloated a little in Think about how much better girls are now doing in school compared to boys, for instance. But now I see the error in that. Because the more I read the studies, the more I spoke to parents and teachers, the more I came to see that this educational achievement gap and especially our boys’ stunningly low reading proficiency is a painful, festering problem that follows boys as they grow into men, affecting nearly every aspect of their lives. I now saw problems for boys everywhere, and I saw how dismal the future is for boys who aren’t thriving. I myself was guilty of a great deal of thinking that is now outdated in our new economic order. I realized that the information I was discovering wasn’t being reported much. (Don’t get me started on how idiotic most of our media is—oh look! Breaking news about Snooki’s latest drunken arrest!) I’d poured myself into my first book about how girls and women have gone off track. Now, I realized, I had to scrutinize the gritty problems facing our boys. And thus, this book was born.
Does some of Think apply to boys? Sure. Does some of this book apply to girls? Yes. Is everything a bright-line gender issue? Of course not. But there is no getting around facts like the beauty industry markets almost entirely to women (and its incessant ads make us feel ugly and flawed), and Grand Theft Auto is overwhelmingly played by boys (and depicts for them a manhood defined by fighting, guns and violence). The research is clear that boys are much harder hit in certain areas, such as illiteracy and juvenile detention. Often, children’s role models differ by gender: few girls model themselves on hard-core rappers or display the unhealthy swagger that infects our boys.
Gender still marks so much of how the world approaches us. (To those who break out of traditional gender molds, I salute you.) So a quick note about generalizations: as a lifelong feminist (my dad used to say I needed “consciousness lowering”), I bristle at gender stereotypes—false claims made about an entire group. “Women are lousy drivers.” “Men are better with money.” Uh, no. Statistically speaking, the reverse of each of those statements is true, as we shall see. Sadly, every day assumptions are still made about individual women and men based on sexist stereotypes, ignoring individual talents and merit. A woman is perceived as “softer,” less promotable, and less of a leader simply because of her gender. A man is told he wouldn’t be as good at caring for children because “women are naturally better caregivers.” Pernicious biases restrict individuals from demonstrating their own unique gifts, training, and skills.
I do not traffic in gender stereotypes, I assure you. I simply follow the research to see what it tells us about girls and boys, women and men, and report it to you straight. When I found a small but statistically insignificant bit of information, I left it out. We have enough silly stereotypes percolating around our culture without me adding to it. Instead, this book brings you clear trends about what’s happening for our boys. I aim to open a window into their world, supported by interviews, facts, and data, and to provide workable, boy-tested solutions.
And naturally, every child is different. Even in our thuggish, hypermacho culture, there are boys who are gentle, who love art and theater and dance, who are kind and compassionate. In our failing schools there are boys who read Shakespeare on their own and check out ten library books at a time. Despite the drumbeat of bad news for minorities, I met Latino and African American boys in East Harlem who are beating the private school kids in advanced robotics competitions. Although particular cultural pressures are at play for boys generally, your son—every boy—is unique and deserves to be loved and approached as he is.
He’s not a statistic; he’s one-of-a-kind. Of course. I get that. I have a son too.