March 29, 2019

Why don’t boys try harder?

I hear so often from parents of boys that their sons are unmotivated, don’t seem to care about doing well in school and can’t seem to get themselves organized.

“Where’s your agenda? Why aren’t you writing in it?” These are good questions.

The only problem is that we’re asking the wrong guy. Literally. When we ask our sons those questions, they metaphorically run for cover. So let’s ask somebody else. Us!

Why are so many boys not keeping track of their tasks, not doing their work, not living up to their potential? According to a wonderful book by Arowhon alum Dr. Adam Price called He’s Not Lazy, the issue is not motivation, but that boys are under too much pressure and expected to meet expectations they fear they can’t master, so they opt out of the competition altogether. The pressure they’re under has to do with going to the “right school, the right university” etc etc.

As parents, we do a lot of worrying about that. So the kids don’t have to. Parents take over the side of the kids’ feelings that says “I have to do better” so then the kid doesn’t have to internalize that pressure, that feeling. The kid doesn’t have to worry about that any more, because the parents are so busy doing the worrying for him.

This means that kids don’t need to struggle with how hard to work and whether it matters to them. Instead, boys get to be upset with their parents for pushing them so hard, which of course teens love to be upset about.

This then provides a perfect opportunity for boys to opt out. Why do I say boys and not kids? Because girls get their status from the social world, so they want to please teachers. Boys usually gain status from sports, not from pleasing the teacher. And we know that boys mature more slowly in verbal skills, so school tends to come harder to them.

A boy who is struggling in school to tries to escape notice, to hide. They’re afraid to try harder. Trying to do something you’re not good at is too scary, and despite messages parents give about how it’s ok to be vulnerable, in boy-world it’s not. Yet. Dominance still rules. Boys still have to assert their power – and cannot afford to be seen failing at anything. So when they’re not doing so well in school, they opt out of the competition.

What can parents do? We can get out of their way. If we back off, they will then have the struggle inside themselves: Do I want to try? Is this important to me? What if I fail? Adolescents crave control, and when they feel more in control, they often take responsibility and find their own motivation. What if they do fail? We have two choices. We can rescue them and prevent failure. Or let them fail, and learn from the consequence of their mistakes… and learn to try harder.

My experience of life thus far is that life is pretty much about trying harder. Which makes that the most valuable life lesson we can give our kids.

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