At the first meeting of my new How to Talk to Your Kids class, parents took turns introducing themselves. Lo and behold, every parent had boys and only boys (except for one mom who also had a baby girl; she hastened to explain that her daughter was “easy” and it was her son she was concerned about).

Next time, I’ll call the class How to Talk to Your Sons.

The parents of boys report a common set of problems. Their sons are lazy. They procrastinate. They don’t talk and they don’t listen. They don’t ask for help and they resist advice.

The boys approach their studies with attitudes of defiance and bravado. They under-prepare for tests and then shrug off the poor grades.  School is stupid, reading is boring and why do we have to learn this math, anyway? They seem immune to learning from their mistakes. They study even less for the next test, not more.

Of course, not all boys are like this, and plenty of girls fit the profile. Still, this constellation of typically male character traits and attitudes plays less and less well in our evolving economy and culture. David Brooks wrote:

To succeed today, you have to be able to sit still and focus attention in school at an early age. You have to be emotionally sensitive and aware of context. You have to communicate smoothly. For genetic and cultural reasons, many men stink at these tasks.

In elementary and high school, male academic performance is lagging. Boys earn three-quarters of the D’s and F’s. By college, men are clearly behind. Only 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees go to men, along with 40 percent of master’s degrees.

Thanks to their lower skills, men are dropping out of the labor force. In 1954, 96 percent of the American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today, that number is down to 80 percent.

Brooks was responding to Hannah Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, in which she suggests that men are suffering from a lack of adaptability.

Women, Rosin argues, are like immigrants who have moved to a new country. They see a new social context, and they flexibly adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants who have physically moved to a new country but who have kept their minds in the old one. They speak the old language. They follow the old mores. Men are more likely to be rigid; women are more fluid.

Here are five facts I’ve learned from my male students:

  1. Boys want to do well. My male students often greet me with an attitude of bravado or “I don’t care,” which masks the shame, self-doubt and fear they are feeling. When they begin to succeed in their schoolwork, boys wind up caring a lot and becoming interested in the material.
  2. Boys thrive on extra doses of support and enthusiasm. They need what Martin Seligman calls Active and Constructive responses to their successes.
  3. Boys stonewall to shut out painful, threatening messages. Parents often believe that their sons tune them out because the boys “don’t care.” The opposite is true; boys are frightened and wounded by harsh words, and they stonewall as an attempt to shut them out.
  4. Boys often need specific, concrete help. Sitting down next to your son and helping him start that term paper or showing him how to make flash cards for his Spanish test, is worth more than ten lectures on “working harder” or “you’ll never amount to anything in life.”
  5. Boys are highly emotional. They need lots of compassionate listening and validation to help them understand and process their emotions. If we want our sons to become effective communicators and empathetic partners, we need to take extra care to cultivate these qualities in them.

[photo of a boy acrobat riding on the shoulders of an adult troupe member at a street fair in Barcelona]