By Michael Gurian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. 248 pp. $26.95.
Review by J. Steven Svoboda.
Why has Michael Gurian, author of over twenty books mostly relating to children and/or gender, devoted a book to boys and purpose? In answer to that natural question, the author lists “some of the core issues of male purposelessness”, including schools not trained in caring for and motivating boys; media “attack[ing] males as defective and dangerous (and, quite often, just plain stupid) without also providing a variety of strong role models”; families lacking male role models or not understanding their critical importance; and “workplaces helping young women secure employment, but assuming young men will do just fine at landing a job, even though millions are not finding useful work.” The author also tabulates Dr. Tom Mortenson’s stunning statistics on the impact a lack of purpose can have on boys. As just two examples, for every 100 women between ages 20-24 who commit suicide, a shocking 624 men of the same age kill themselves, and for every 100 women aged 18-21 in correctional facilities, we put an astonishing 1,430 men behind bars. Perhaps most astonishingly to many, Judith Kleinfeld of the Boys Project observes, “Even white males of high earning college educated parents are increasingly falling behind equivalent females.”
Gurian adroitly notes that a whole range of forces such as extended family members, schools, faith communities that have supplemented and reinforced parental efforts in years past are currently “in flux or breaking down.” Medication of boys for behavioral issues is soaring at the same time that boys’ relationships to their fathers deteriorates and more boy-friendly aspects of education such as competition, outdoor learning, apprenticeship, and coaching are on the wane.
The author scatters throughout the book suggested sets of questions for parents to ask their sons. These questions usually seem a bit unrealistic to actually ask one’s son though they are thought-provoking: “When does a boy become a man?” “Is your school a good place for you as a growing boy?” Gurian usefully recaps material in several of his other books when he reviews brain differences and biochemical differences between boys and girls.
Gurian unapologetically states that often boys need to feel like heroes to their family members and friends. He outlines ways we can support this quest. Later the author originally parses the letters of the word heroic as standing for the following six qualities: Honorable, Enterprising, Responsible, Original, Intimate, and Creative. The author also shows us that boys, particularly the more aggressive ones, absolutely depend for their proper development on firm, hierarchical supervision. High-testosterone males in particular “need intense authoritative structure, supervision, and discipline in order to change their behavior from primitive to civilized. They need authoritative males who have clearly gained respect and status already to ‘take them under their wing’ and show the young male how to seek real status, real power, real purpose, and real worth.”
Gurian delves into the reasons why the male brain tends to pursue “large, project-driven groups (such as Boy Scouts…) that potentially hone their skills and teach them right and wrong via maps of purpose and paths of seeking truth, justice, and self-worth.” Boys are often searching for ways to gain respect and will take huge risks and reject structures such as schools when they feel disrespected in the school.
The repeatedly referenced Biblical story of Joseph and the dreamcoat isn’t really sturdy enough to bear all the weight the author tries to place on it. While I appreciate Gurian’s emphasis on support outside the nuclear family, I find pretentious his claims to having “introduced this [three-family system] concept twelve years ago in [his book] The Wonder of Boys and refined it in [his books] A Fine Young Man and The Minds of Boys.” He somewhat pretentiously and self-servingly labels his statements in the books as “insights” and describes them as offering “wisdom.”
Gurian largely avoids providing specific notes for many of his particular points, such as a citation of a study showing that even in Jordan, “many boys are growing uplacking college or life skills” and Jordanian women are “marrying down.” His similarly unsupported statement that 40 percent of boys are now overweight or obese would be more meaningful if he had included the corresponding figure for girls.
On the positive side, Gurian is to be commended for delving headlong into the often controversial topic of values, going so far as to suggest ten specific values that three-family systems should consider aiming to teach to boys: the values of legacy, give and take, failure, independence, identity, self-reflection, ethical action, self-discipline, self-doubt, and faith. Regarding the value of self-reflection, the author notes that recent brain science is just now confirming that “many of the parts of the brain that are involved with self-reflection also control ethical and moral decision making.”
Gurian strongly supports having boys work outside the home for a wage as soon as they can, emphasizing that after-school activities do not substitute for the experience of earning money in employment for which showing up properly groomed and on time is a requirement. The author pointedly observes that “a lot of the time boys used to spend doing… values development, work, and moral learning… from extended families and institutions—is now spent in ‘media time.’” Moreover, “[m]edia use is beginning to affect boys’ abilities to become fully functional men.” Sometimes, parents are discovering, all that is needed to start a marked improvement in their sons’ behavior and school performance is to disconnect the television and video games.
The author surveys educational innovations in Finland that are substantially improving boys’ success in school, including often delaying the beginning of instruction until age seven, two years after kindergarten begins here. Test scores show that “Finnish children catch up to and pass children in other countries, such as the United States, that pressure young children to read, write, and do other multitasking, fine motor skills, and other cognitive tasks that might not be a fit for millions of young brains in their school system.” Even such simple steps as re-labeling educational tasks in a more boy-friendly way can make a difference. For example, one teacher named Mrs. Travis has a sign on her desk reading, “Travel with Mrs. Travis Down Language Arts Boulevard” and students physically move and walk between her lesson stations. Another sign on her desk says, “Travis Automotives: Specializing in Complete Car Care for all Makes and Models.” The opportunity for physical movement during learning is often critical to the male brain. Other key tools for promoting male success: mentors, project-driven curricula, opportunities for debate, use of graphics, and promoting parental help with homework.
The author eloquently, succinctly summarizes the benefits for a rite of passage to help usher the boy through adolescence and formally acknowledge his changing relationship with the world and with himself.
In conclusion, if the book’s continual and undeniably annoying advertisements for Michael Gurian, Inc. can be overlooked, there is much excellent material to be gleaned from this unique treatment of boys’ quest for and need for purpose in life.
Medication of boys for behavioral issues is soaring?
Might it be because of fatherlessness and discrimination against boys in virtually every domain?