While there’s been a big push in recent decades to help girls thrive in school and in the workplace, boys in America have quietly been struggling. For example, boys are more likely to have learning and discipline issues in school and are less likely to graduate high school than girls, more women are now attending college than men and are earning more bachelors and masters degrees than men, the incarceration rate for boys has increased in the past few decades, and suicide rates have increased among teenage boys. What’s more, teachers and therapists have reported that boys seem increasingly disengaged from school and life.
If boys are having so much trouble, why don’t we hear more about it? And more importantly, what can we do as parents, teachers, and mentors to help them?
My guest today has spent his career researching childhood development and helping boys become fulfilled men. His name is Michael Gurian, and in his latest book, Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys, he provides insights on why America’s boy problem is ignored, as well as concrete steps that parents and mentors can take to help these young men grow up well.
Today on the show, Michael explains what the “Dominant Gender Paradigm” is and why it causes institutions to ignore the problems of boys and young men, what people get wrong about male violence, and what male anhedonia is. He then argues that if we want to help boys (and girls) we need to approach things from what he calls a “Nature Based Theory,” which recognizes that while boys and girls have a lot in common, there are biological differences that influence the way boys learn, socialize, and behave. Michael then provides concrete things parents and schools can do to cater to these differences in boys to help them thrive and become resilient men.
If you’re the parent of boy or if you teach or mentor young boys, you don’t want to miss this episode.
- Why do boys need saving?
- The ways in which boys are falling behind girls in academics, health, and more
- Why the unique problems of boys are often ignored
- What is the dominant gender paradigm (DGP)?
- The nature based theory of gender, and how sex and gender are different things
- The differences between the male and female brain
- Why girls and boys require different strategies in parenting
- How do males nurture differently than women?
- What is male anhedonia?
- How neurotoxins affect boys, and how they’re brought about
- How schools are failing boys, and how to know if a school is boy-friendly
- How to constructively help schools and teachers be more boy-friendly
- The benefits of competition for boys
- How college campuses have become unfriendly for males
- How screen time and video games are especially dangerous for young boys
- The ways you can turn video games into assets
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first podcast interview with Michael Gurian
- The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian
- All of Michael Gurian’s books
- Podcast: The Forgotten History of Autism
- Our series on overprotective parenting
- Our series on male depression
- Our series on testosterone
- Podcast: Boys Adrift
- Competition: The Fuel for Greatness
- Podcast: The Science of Competition
- Leonard Sax
Michael Gurian does a great job tackling touchy issues in a candid, yet nuanced way. But what I like more about his work is that instead of just describing the problems that boys face, he provides concrete steps that parents and teachers can take to help them. Saving Our Sons is a must read for every father of boys.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast. While there’s been a big push in recent decades to help girls thrive in school and in the workplace, boys in America have been quietly struggling. For example, boys are more likely to have learning and discipline issues in school and are less likely to graduate high school than girls. More women are now attending college than men and are earning more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. The incarceration rate for boys has increased in the past few decades, and the suicide rates have also increased among teenage boys. What’s more, teachers and therapists have reported that boys seem increasingly disengaged from school and life. They have some sort of malaise going on. Anyways, if boys are having so much trouble, why don’t we hear more about it? More importantly, what can we do as parents, teachers, and mentors to help them?
Well, my guest today has spent his career researching childhood development and helping boys become fulfilled men. His name is Michael Gurian. We’ve had him on the podcast before. It’s episode number 87. You can check that out. In his latest book, Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys, he provides insights on why America’s boy problem is ignored, as well as concrete steps that parents and mentors can take to help these young men grow up well.
Today on the show, Michael explains what the dominant gender paradigm is and why it causes institutions to ignore the problems of boys and young men, what people get wrong about male violence, and what male anhedonia is. It’s kind of a low-grade depression. He then argues if you want to help boys and girls, we need to approach things from what he calls a nature-based theory that recognizes that while boys and girls have a lot in common, there are biological differences that influence the way boys learn, socialize, and behave. Michael then provides concrete things parents and schools can do to cater to those differences in boys to help them thrive and become resilient men. If you’re the parent of a boy, or if you teach or mentor young boys, you don’t want to miss this episode. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/savingoursons.
Michael Gurian, welcome back to the show.
Michael Gurian: Oh, thank you. Thanks, Brett. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: We had you on the show I think almost two years ago to talk about your book The Wonder of Boys. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, you’ve specialized in the development of boys. That’s what your career has been focused on, counseling boys, troubled boys, but also boys who aren’t troubled, just helping them thrive. In your latest book, Saving Our Sons: A New Path for Raising Healthy and Resilient Boys — a really good book — can you tell us how does this book pick up from your other books about boys? Is this sort of like the capstone of all your work with boys?
Michael Gurian: Well, yeah, it might be. My area is really gender, sex and gender on the brain, male, female. I’ve written books on both boys and girls, men and women. I think because of The Wonder of Boys, when it came out, there wasn’t another book like it in 1996, so then there were a lot more that I did with boys. I think you’re potentially correct that if I’m remembered later, it’s going to be around this male development.
I’ve written 12 books on boys, all from different angles, but none of them … Well, two things. The last one was about eight years ago. A lot of new research has happened in the last eight years, so I really wanted to write something that caught everyone up on the new research, that helped parents, helped teachers, based on the best new brain research, etc. Then the second thing was the politics. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years and Gurian Institute has existed for 20, so both me personally and us institutionally, we’ve been advocating for both boys and girls nationally with Congress, etc., and sometimes nothing happens. I decided I needed to write a book including a couple chapters on the politics, on what we have to do if we’re really going to save our sons.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that. Why do American boys need saving? What’s the problem with boys today?
Michael Gurian: Well, it’s manyfold. There’s a chapter in the book on neurotoxins. I mean, one of the problems is just what’s coming into their brains and bodies, and then technology. That’s really having an effect on their brains and bodies. There’s those sorts of environmental things we have to look at, depression, undermotivation. The WHO put out a study last year that said this isn’t just an American problem or even a European problem; all over the world, males are behind females in health outcomes. That’s both physical and mental health outcomes.
I think what we have thought was that boys are fine, girls are troubled. We’ve got to help girls. Boys are fine. But they’re just not. In suicide, in the grades they’re getting, they get two-thirds of the Ds and Fs. They only get 40% of the As. It’s not as if they’re succeeding very well in school. There really isn’t an environment right now where boys are doing well, except those men who are really strong, high-testosterone, really smart guys. There’s probably 100,000 of them who are running corporations, who are at the top, who are running the White House, but as we go below them, then we’re starting to see tens of millions of boys in trouble.
Brett McKay: Why do these problems that boys are facing … why do the often get ignored or overlooked, or why does it often seem that girls are the ones that need more help than boys, even though the statistics show that might not be the case?
Michael Gurian: Well, yeah, I think we’re in a kind of political-sociological bind. I call it the big three that sort of runs this bind that we’re in. The big three is academics — the academy, universities, colleges — government, and the media. I’ve been a part of all three, so I’m really not saying anything negative about all three. They all are doing their best, but when it comes to boys, they’re not doing their best. The academic world doesn’t really want to look at males. It mainly looks at females, obviously. It doesn’t want to look at it. In comparison to females, it doesn’t really generate research. It doesn’t create programming that really helps young guys. Obviously, some are doing it, but very few in comparison to what’s happening to help girls.
Then government takes what academics do. Government just says, “The people at Harvard say this. This is what we’re going to do.” Government isn’t really helping boys very much. In fact, I have a quote in the book from a Department of Justice official who said, “Look, when we spend money on guys, it’s prison. We’re spending correction dollars on them, billions of correction dollars, but nothing really preventative. It’s very hard for guys to get any kind of government programming. That mainly goes to women and children.” That’s good it goes to women and children, but it’s not going to guys. We’re not really seeing what’s going on with guys.
Then the media sort of takes what government and academics do. While some in the media, like yourself, are working to try to understand boys, most come from what I call the dominant gender paradigm, which is that masculinity is toxic, guys have everything, females are oppressed. That’s just no longer true in the U.S. and in the West. We’ve got to be more subtle than that. That’s kind of the paradigm, so we don’t really get the help for these guys because academics, government, and the media are not really understanding how dire the situation is getting for young men.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s delve deeper into this dominant gender paradigm because it’s an important idea that is woven throughout your book. When and why did this paradigm arise that masculinity is toxic and girls need more help than boys?
Michael Gurian: Yeah. 50 to 100 years ago, it was a really smart paradigm. I’m 60 … I’ll turn 60 next year … so I’m raised as a first-wave feminist by first-wave feminist parents, and I completely bought into it, an to some extent, obviously, I still think there are parts of the world where this dominant gender paradigm is important. The paradigm is females are oppressed, males are the oppressors. When it’s not males, it’s the patriarchy. The patriarchy is oppressive. Even if guys are good, it’s the patriarchy, and the patriarchy is systemic.
The patriarchy hits everything, so there’s nothing going on that isn’t oppressive of females. If someone says, “Well, but wait,” then the response is, “Well, you’re just part of the patriarchy, so you can’t see the systemic problem.” As you deconstruct that, we find things like white male privilege is the problem and masculinity is the problem, right? We’ve got to get rid of white male privilege and we’ve got to get rid of masculinity, and that’s going to solve the problem.
This was all really logical 50 years ago. We needed to turn things around. We just couldn’t have a situation where females were so undernurtured in our culture. I think it was useful then, but I think the problem with the paradigm now is it was not based in science. We now have a lot of science, but now it’s very superficial. I prefer brain science, I prefer real scientific data, to look at what’s happening.
I think this DGP, this dominant gender paradigm, we just simply have to battle it in the big three or we’re not going to get the science through; we’re not going to get the real data through, and we’re not going to solve these problems. We can’t solve things anymore by just saying, “Oh, it’s masculinity. That’s really bad,” and “Oh, the patriarchy is systemic,” and “Oh, these white males are bad.” This is just not going to solve the deep-rooted problems in all races, in all groups, and in all socioeconomic levels in the U.S.
Brett McKay: I mean, I guess one of the gists that I got from your idea of the dominant gender paradigm is that they often think that gender or masculinity or femininity is a social construct that can just be changed and manipulated. That’s why they say you can get rid of it, right? You argue that there’s more of a … I guess you argue for a nature-based theory of gender, so what is that nature-based theory?
Michael Gurian: Yeah. Well, for instance, male violence. I have a whole chapter in there where I completely deconstruct the supposed causes of male violence in the U.S. I mean, the supposed cause is masculinity, toxic masculinity, patriarchy, etc., and I kind of get rid of that and say, “Look, hold on, that is a correlation. That is not a cause. The causes are neurotoxins, lack of attachment, abuse, trauma. All these other things are the causes.” Nature-based theory says we’ve got to look at the causes.
For instance, if you say, “Look, there are guys … we’re natural creatures. We’re creatures of nature. Nature is not teaching boys to go become violent. That’s not what nature is teaching boys. It’s much more complex than that, so why would they become violent?” Well, it’s not because of this culture construct that makes them become violent. It’s because there’s stuff going on in their cells in their brains that are making them become suicidal or making them go hit and hurt other people. That’s what we need to look at.
That’s sort of where I introduce this concept that the way we approach social problems is not natural, and so we’re not solving social problems. We’re not solving male violence. Male violence is bad. All violence is bad in the U.S., and we’re not solving it through these paradigms. Nature-based theory starts with that, so then, of course, I’m starting with the human brain. The male and the female brain are part of the human brain. The male and the female brain are different, and we have thousands of studies … I have a thousand on my website that show how different the male and the female brain are.
Now, obviously, there are some people out in kind of the big three, especially the media, who are saying, “Oh, no, no, no, male and female brain aren’t different. That’s just not the case.” There’s no way to say that and really look at science, so you have to just say, “Okay, forget the science. We’re going to just use our culture concept.” The important thing for people to remember, which I do in the book, is I distinguish between sex and gender. Gender is something that’s amorphous and that we can talk about and say, “Hey, on this day, I feel more female than male.” I actually think that’s great. I’m very glad that I have a well-developed feminine side.
That’s gender, but sex on the brain is sex. That’s sex on the brain, and that happens in utero. The male brain is doing words on the left. The female brain is doing words on both sides. That’s true whether you come from Africa, whether you come from Europe, Asia, anywhere, because this comes in on the X and the Y chromosome. That stuff is binary. Male and female are different, but you can argue that gender is amorphous. What we have to be able to do is do both. Of course, as you know, in my book, in my work, I do both. I say, “Okay, gender is over here. We can talk about it. Let’s do it. Maleness and femaleness, that’s rooted in nature, so we’re going to have to look at that.”
Brett McKay: Besides, you mention one difference between the male and female brain, where males use words on the left side and females are doing both sides. What are some other differences between the male and female brain?
Michael Gurian: Well, another profound difference is the way that we use our white matter and gray matter. We all have white matter and gray matter, all brains, but male brains are using up to seven times more gray matter activity to do the things they do. Gray matter happens in splotches in the brain. White matter is spread throughout the brain. Females are using up to 10 times more white matter activity when they do what they’re doing. This is when males and females are doing the same task.
For instance, let’s say that we’re talking about protecting the emotional lives of girls and the emotional lives of boys. When I work with that in the book, I’m saying to people the emotional lives of boys works differently than girls. If we say to four-year-old boys in preschools, and four-year-old girls, if we say to them, “Use your words,” if every time they do something that we don’t particularly like, something impulsive, or they move around a lot, or they fidget, or they bop someone else on the head, or whatever it is, in their sort of affectionate way, if we say, “No, no, no, no, guys, that’s bad. You’ve got to use your words,” if guys can’t access the words as quickly as girls, we’re going to punish the guys.
The reality is their brains don’t access these words, especially words connected to feelings and emotions and impulses, as quickly as girls do. From preschool all the way through elementary school, of course, we just keep punishing these guys as if they’re inherently defective, and they fail, and they drop out, and they hate school, and all of this. We’re not realizing, “Whoa, we never trained preschool teachers. We never trained elementary, secondary school teachers, not even college teachers. We didn’t show them these brain scans.” In my lectures, of course, I’m showing all these brain scans and saying, “Look how different these brains are,” and that becomes life-changing. If we don’t show that stuff to people and don’t teach them this stuff, then they will be punishing boys, and they also won’t be teaching girls in the best ways.
Brett McKay: Right. You make an interesting point, too, the difference between the male brain and the female brain, also male physiology and female physiology, that in a lot of ways, boys are more fragile than girls are when they’re first starting out in life until they get to adulthood.
Michael Gurian: Yeah. Well, the Y chromosome itself, which is the male chromosome, the Y chromosome itself is a more fragile chromosome even than the X. I mean, so this starts at a cellular level. Certainly, guys armor up. That’s part of testosterone. Especially through puberty, we armor up, and that’s normal. That happens everywhere, but part of why we’re armoring up is because our emotional construction and our cells are so fragile. We know this. Unconsciously, we know this.
This is one of the reasons, also, that pretty much every culture, as it has raised boys, has said we’ve got to make sure to toughen these guys up. Of course, that became a negative construct in that some people used it to just shut down guys, to just say no emotional life for you. They misinterpreted what nature is trying to do to help guys. They misinterpreted that, those folks did, and they did damage. That’s part of what led to the dominant gender paradigm, actually, was that no one wanted to see guys being told, “You can’t feel. Feeling is bad.” No one wants that. The reality is that male emotional life is very fragile, that you see it on the chromosome and then you see it in the first few months and years of life.
In fact, new studies have shown that when females and males suffer trauma … Trauma is bad for everyone, but when females and males suffer trauma, females are more likely to develop good social-emotional skills later, and they are more functional later as adults than males are. Divorce trauma is one that’s been studied. Divorce trauma is harder on males than females, on average. Some females, obviously it destroys them, but on average it’s harder on males than females, partly because males are fragile and partly because the father gets removed generally, and then that increases the male fragility and affects his development. In many, many ways, males are more fragile than females. I have two daughters, so this isn’t to say females are not fragile or that we shouldn’t protect them, but one of the calls in Saving Our Sons is to understand just how fragile these guys are.
Brett McKay: The argument you make throughout the rest of the book is that because boys are different from girls, we need to approach raising them differently. We can’t do the sort of one-size-fits-all approach that we’ve been doing maybe for the past 50 years.
Michael Gurian: Yeah, absolutely. This goes for schools, this goes for homes, preschools, everywhere where males are. We have to understand them better, understand their fragilities and their strengths, their assets, etc., who they are, and then we need to use multiple strategies. I’ll give an example of how this works. A number of new studies have come out … and I have them in the book … on what we call bi-strategic parenting and then multi-strategic mentoring. Like you say, one-size-fits-all. The most common one-size-fits-all that gets used is “use your words,” right? “Use your words. Don’t do that. Use your words.” Okay? That’s an example of a mono-strategic approach.
School systems, and parenting systems when fathers are gone, they rely heavily on that single strategy. It’s not enough for, I believe, either boys or girls, and trans, anyone on the gender spectrum. I don’t think it’s enough. For boys especially, it’s problematic because they’re not able to access the words and the feelings that people want them to access, and it’s not the only way to help them develop impulse control. Bi-strategic means, okay, we need another strategy. It’s not going to be word-oriented; it’s going to, for instance, be more physical, more kinesthetic.
An example is intervention and nonintervention. The “use your words” is I’m going to intervene. If you go knock another guy down, I’m going to intervene and stop that. “Stop that. Don’t touch that person. Use your words. Touch is bad.” The other strategy in the bi-strategic would be “Oh, guess what, that’s actually okay. Neither of you is in danger. You guys are going to work this out, and by working it out, you’re actually going to control your impulses, develop self-regulation, mature, grow up, etc.” That’s a different strategy. What we need is a bi-strategic and multi-strategic approach to these boys.
When schools do that … The Gurian Institute trains schools in this. That’s the educators and the parents. When they switch over toward this bi-strategic approach, they get rid of things like zero tolerance policies, which basically punish boys and massively punish boys of color. They get rid of that stuff, and they use this more complex approach on the playground, in the classroom, at home, and boys’ grades go up, there’s less discipline referrals to the principal, they’re better behaved, etc. That’s kind of what I’m getting at is … I’m agreeing with you. This one-size-fits-all, zero tolerance, that stuff has got to be part of the past. It does not work to help us really raise the wonderful kids we want to raise.
Brett McKay: I think this raises an interesting point. One of my favorite chapters was about male nurturance. There’s this idea, I think because of the dominant gender paradigm, that boys, males, they’re not naturally nurturing. Girls, females, they’re the more nurturing sex. I’ve always thought, no, in my own experience I never saw that. My own experience is that males are nurturing; we just do it in a different way. How do males nurture in a way that’s different from, say, females?
Michael Gurian: Well, yeah, at the baseline, because of the testosterone-oxytocin differences and these other sort of hormonal biochemical differences, and then the cellular differences, and then, of course, which affects brain differences, this is all sort of creating a baseline at which more females will use what I call direct empathy nurturance, and more males will use what I call aggression nurturance or challenge nurturance. Both females and males can use what each other does, right? We’re very complex. Males can nurture in the same way females do. Females, males. Absolutely. But, in general, we find this baseline different.
To give an example, there’s a street hockey game. It’s 10- to 12-year-olds, and they’re playing street hockey on their roller blades. This 11-year-old boy falls down, and a girl who’s on her skates comes right over and kind of gets to his level and says, “Are you okay? What can I do for you?” That’s direct empathy nurturance. The cells in her brain, especially in this part of the brain called the insula, fill up with these mirror neurons, so her brain and her body move toward what we call empathy, which is this getting at his level, trying to make him feel better right now. Well, another boy, a 12-year-old boy over here from the other side, comes rolling by and he ascertains that this 11-year-old is not hurt. He skinned his knee, but oh well, he’s not dead. He says, “Come on. Get up. Get up. We need you.” Well, that’s called challenge nurturance or aggression nurturance.
Both of these kinds of nurturance are crucial. We need to have people saying to the boy, “Are you okay? What can I do for you?” … guys can do that, too, of course … and we need to have people saying, “You know what, you’re needed as part of this team. You’re needed as a human being. You’re needed as an asset. I’m going to nurture you by helping you feel needed as opposed to by saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay. You’re okay. What can I do?'” Both are equally good. Both are essential. Males tend more toward challenge nurturance, even though males can be quite empathic. Females tend more toward empathic nurturance, even though they can be challenging.
This is actually a very, very good thing. That chapter is kind of laying out all the ways from empathy to aggression nurturance that males are nurturing and trying to get guys to tap into that, and get the communities and the families to understand that these are equally good ways of nurturing, that we have to stop thinking of nurturing as only being “How are you? Are you okay? What do you need? What can I do for you?”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s a good point because I think a lot of new moms, particularly, they’ll have boys and they don’t understand that. They’ll see boys … The aggression nurturance I’ve also seen manifest in teasing or you give your buddies a nickname that’s not that nice, but it’s all done in goodness. You give them that weird nickname because you actually care for them. I think a lot of moms or women don’t understand that.
Michael Gurian: Yeah, you’re right. Moms and female teachers, they’re coming from their brain base, which obviously we’re so glad they have their brain base, because, without the female brain base, humanity would not exist right now. We think it’s a great thing, of course, but because they come from that point of view, they see danger when danger may not exist. They see bullying when bullying may not exist. They see teasing as a negative when, as you’ve expressed, all of us who are guys, we know that teasing is actually a way of respecting. It’s a way of challenging. It compels the one who’s teased to tease back, which actually builds self, builds self-concept, self-construal. It’s actually really a good thing. Neither person is hurt by it, and it’s all locked into the way that males do pecking orders and hierarchies and how they earn their place.
All of it’s incredibly emotional. We are doing a lot of emotional work and emotional development in the pathways between the limbic brain and the frontal cortex. A lot of this stuff is happening for males while they’re engaging in this behavior, but females, especially, don’t think it’s happening, and very sensitive guys also. It’s harmful to them, and they don’t think it’s happening. They would rather it was this other way. We want to respect the other way, but we want to say that no, no, there’s gobs of emotional development going on when I name someone something and he has to respond, and then we bop each other on the shoulder and then we wrestle and then we make fun of each other, and then a day later I’m making fun of him. All of this stuff is deep emotional work.
Brett McKay: Besides all of just these issues that are facing boys, you give out these extensive statistics about the problems boys are facing. You mention this sort of underlying condition you’re seeing in boys more and more, and it’s male … I’m probably going to butcher this … anhedonia?
Michael Gurian: Yeah, anhedonia. You’re right. Yep.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What is male anhedonia?
Michael Gurian: Well, a number of us started looking at this 30, 40 years ago. We were starting to see guys who seemed kind of mildly depressed. We wouldn’t call them clinically depressed. They didn’t fit the DSM for that, but we said, “God, they just seem kind of depressed.” Then, over the last 20 years or so, undermotivation is a term that’s used a lot now. Now we’re seeing millions of them basically living in basements, playing video games, undermotivated. They’re dropping out or they’re getting Cs and Ds in school, but they’re smart guys, etc. This undermotivation is an example of this anhedonia.
Anhedonia is a term that comes actually from sexual anhedonia. It’s when a guy isn’t motivated to have sex. He’s not motivated to have that emotional intimacy as well as to procreate. That’s where it comes from. Well, I’m taking the term now as a way of looking at this undermotivation and these lethargic, almost paralyzed guys who just stimulate their brains through video games or then they use porn instead of actual intimacy. This is anhedonia. This is an undermotivated, I would say mildly depressed male. Now I believe we have between 10 and 20 million of them in the U.S.
That is really worrisome because they’re not going to be able to find jobs and work. It’s going to grow. We’re going to grow more of these guys. They’re not going to be able to partner, or if they partner, they’ll have sex and have a baby, but they’re not going to be able to be fathers. This, to me, is a crucial social issue that the big three has got to look at. The dominant gender paradigm, which is “Oh, it’s masculinity. They’re holding onto male privilege,” that just doesn’t work. It’s just a silly paradigm for this condition.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Well, let’s circle back to schools. Academics is one of the big three you talk about that are kind of encouraging this dominant gender paradigm. When parents are looking at schools, and they’re looking for a school that takes into account the differences that boys have and how they learn, how they mature, what should parents look for in a school? How do they know if a school is boy-friendly?
Michael Gurian: Yeah, the first thing they should ask is “Have your teachers and your staff been trained in how boys learn?” That’s a key word, “in how boys learn,” and then another keyword is “in how boys and girls learn differently.” You could also say “in the minds of boys.” These are key terms to ask. “Are your teachers trained in these things?” If the principal, or if it’s a preschool with teachers, etc., if they come back and say, “Yeah, we did a book study,” or “Yeah, we know about that,” but they haven’t gotten training in it, so they haven’t really altered their system to take it into account, then parents are probably walking into a situation where, at some point, one or more of their sons may have trouble in that school.
It may not happen in the first six months, it may happen in the next grade, but what we’re going to have is a number of teachers who don’t understand how guys learn. They’re not creating classrooms and they’re not creating behavioral policies that are going to work for boys. That’s the easiest thing to do. Is your staff, are your teachers, did everyone train in how boys and girls learn differently?
Brett McKay: Let’s say you’re at a school, and say you don’t have much choice in the school. You’re going to public schools, and the school you have is the school you have. How can you raise or push for the teachers to make the school more boy-friendly in a constructive manner? I imagine a lot of people might get some pushback against that.
Michael Gurian: Oh yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely pushback happens. One of the reasons I wrote Saving Our Sons, I wrote it as a resource so that parents can take it into the schools. I did it even better than I did Minds of Boys, which came out 12 years ago. I wrote that one also as a resource, saying to parents, “Okay, take this in to the principal. I’ve set it up for you to do that.” I know that parents did that because a number of those schools are different now than they were before. There are books by others that parents can take in, as well. I’ve just set these books up for parents to do it.
What I argue for parents to do is to form what I call a parent-led team. This is going to be three to five parents and/or parent couples, so it’s going to be 5 to 10 people, five moms, five dads, or depending on the family structure, could be some single moms, some moms, dads, but it’s going to be somewhere between 5 and 10 parents. They’re going to get together and form this team because their sons are having trouble. Our research, we show in classrooms of 30 … We’ve trained 60,000 teachers, so we have 20 years of research. We show in classrooms of 30 that five or more boys are going to be struggling and that one girl is going to be struggling. It’s a big difference, and we’re bracketing out learning disabilities. These are not learning-disabled.
That means there’s a pool of parents, and if they get together and they say, “Wow, your guy is getting Cs and Ds, and, oh, yours is too, and yours is always going to the principal? Okay, so then we know that school hasn’t received this training.” Very often, the principals actually will look at it because it’s all set up for them. “Okay, I’ve got 5 parents to 10 parents. It’s not 1 parent; it’s 5 to 10 parents coming into my office. Oh, gee, I better pay attention to this.” Then they study it. They read a chapter or two of it. That’s all they have time to do. Then they go, “Hmm, maybe we ought to look at this.”
Then they pool the faculty. They talk to the faculty. Then they start finding, “Oh, look at our data.” Then what they do is they disaggregate their data, which means they just look at their data for gender, and they say, “Hmm, look at this. 70% of the Ds and Fs are going to boys. Oh, yeah, we have a problem,” etc. It’s a process that takes three to six months of parent-led teams going in and getting the schools to pay attention.
Luckily, now, see, at the Gurian Institute, we have 150 trainers. We have the trainers available, so quite often what the principals do is they just call and then we set up the training. Then they gather their data a year later. They see their data, and they see the grades of the boys have gone up, the discipline referrals have gone down. What’s happened is the grassroots, the parents, have fomented change in the schools, and they’ve done it in a collaborative way so that they’re not attacking the schools; they’re collaborating with the schools.
Brett McKay: How does a teacher’s approach to teaching boys change once they go through this training?
Michael Gurian: Well, I’ll give you some examples of sort of things that immediately happen. For instances, teachers, after the training, they’ll let boys use squeeze balls, for instance. They’ll have them have objects in their hands because they’ll learn. We’ll show them the scans, and they’ll learn that the right side of the male brain is not doing words, but it is doing what we call spacial mechanicals, which means objects moving through space. They’ll start tapping into the right side of the male brain. They’ll go, “Oh shoot, we’ve been teaching almost completely verbally with workshops, words, words, words, words, and not realizing that the female brain does that on both sides, so, of course, the girls are going to do better at that.”
Some guys are very wordy, like I am, by the way, and so we’ll do fine with words, but we’ve got five to seven guys in that classroom who need the right side of the brain stimulated so that they could stimulate the left, right? They need the spacials. They’ll give them these squeeze balls. They’ll let them move around physically in the back of the classroom in ways that are nonintrusive. This is all physical kinesthetic. They’ll change the lesson planning so that they’ll always have project-based learning, which is where you do something for a week. You don’t do it on a worksheet for a half hour. You do the project for a week, and you learn everything while you’re doing the project. That’s kinesthetic. That allows for guys to move around, for everyone to do things. None of these strategies are bad for girls, by the way. It’s just that girls tend to like to sit still more, they tend to like to do more words, etc.
Then the visual. The other thing males are doing on the right is visual, what we call visual graphic. The teachers will start tapping into that, and they’ll say, “Oh okay, so now what we’re going to do is we’re going to have more drawing, more graphics, more graphics projected, and we’re going to say to guys, ‘Hey, if you want to draw a story board before you write this paper or before you write this story I want you to write, go ahead and draw the story board.'” It’s easy to do. You just take a big piece of paper, divide it into six sections, and have them draw what they’re about to write.
In elementary school, this is just great because fourth, fifth, sixth grade, you can already see boys’ grades going down, but they incorporate this practice and grades start going up, especially on a writing task, because now the guys have drawn out what they’re going to write. When they write, it’s better organized because they’ve got six quadrants that they can refer to, and they have more detail because they’ve drawn it out already. Now they’re getting very detailed essays and stories, and we find boys that were getting Cs and Ds in those classes go up to As and Bs because now they’re doing better at it. These are just a few examples of what happens when the teachers get trained in it. They need training in it. They need a couple days of really inculcating it so that they change things around and so the system changes things around, but by the end of the year, as they’re incorporating all of this and getting the feedback on it, things change.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think another approach you advocate … and I know Leonard Sax does … is don’t be afraid of competition in school. I feel a lot of it is just like, “Make sure no one feels bad that they’re worse.” Boys actually thrive on competitive learning, in a way.
Michael Gurian: Yeah. Actually, competition now is a double asset. It’s good for both boys and girls to compete, because the real world is competitive, so it’s really good that they compete. At all levels, it’s good to compete. For boys, in particular, competition will help them to learn better because there’s something at stake for them, especially in a lot of the stuff that’s getting taught which really isn’t relevant to them, and in fact, it’s not relevant for life. That’s an unfortunate thing that’s going on that we’re trying to work on with educational reform is trying to get teachers, especially in public schools, to stop teaching things that are just not relevant. It’s especially good for guys if they’re going to try to learn this stuff, to get the grades, to be competing because that helps them to make it relevant to them.
Then the second whammy on it, the second reason it’s an asset, is that with male testosterone levels being lower anyway, which is not a thing we want, competition does compel the cells to develop more testosterone. There’s a brain-to-body access, so it will actually help them to develop more of the chemical we need them to develop so that they will be motivated. That’s kind of the big takeaway when we teach this to teachers. They look at how unmotivated guys are and then they use these competition strategies we teach them. They use these games and these competitions, and then they look back two months later and they say, “Ooh, yeah, those four boys who were so unmotivated, they’re more motivated now.” That’s the outcome that they can measure.
Brett McKay: All right, so we’ve been talking about elementary, middle, high school. Let’s move on to college. Campus gender politics in the past 20 years have just become a minefield. How are college campuses male-unfriendly?
Michael Gurian: Well, yeah, the colleges, part of the big three, the academic world is kind of the ground of this stuff, of the not teaching this stuff. It’s really showing in our colleges. I’ll give a few ways that I talk about it in the book. One is the minefield itself. I tell that story of me and the college president talking … and I’ve hidden everyone’s names to protect everyone … where this is a female college president who can see that they’re losing males. Males are not graduating as much as females. Obviously, it’s a 60-40 split now, only 40% males. Then they’re not even coming in. Then, when they’re in, they’re not involved; they’re not engaged. Then, of course, now with all the sexual drama going on, this rape crisis kind of hysteria out there that guys are raping women in colleges, that’s really added to this problem.
What the academic world has to do, what I’m suggesting in my book, as you know, is it needs to develop a manhood studies program in every college, and obviously in every college that has a women’s studies program. It’s got to do this, because if it does not do this and if it does not reorient colleges toward a kind of balance between females and males, what we will continue to have is an environment in which males are attacked, masculinity is attacked. The dominant gender paradigm, the DGP, is very, very active in colleges, and it’s driving males out. We really don’t want that. We’ve got to have males trying to love college. We’ve got to have males in college. Not every male will go to college, God knows, but the males who want it and who can go, we need it to be an environment where they’re going to succeed as well as the females. Right now, females are just totally outpacing them, and that’s bad for employment. That’s bad for our economy. It’s bad at an individual level. It’s bad for future families.
Our colleges are going to have to really look within, and they’re going to have to fight against these sort of very vocal forces inside the college that are using this old dominant gender paradigm that is just no longer the best paradigm for modern life. I actually don’t think it’s a paradigm for females either, by the way, as a father of daughters. It’s going to take a big fight because whenever someone raises their voice … I’ve gone to colleges and spoken, and when I speak out about this, of course, we get this vocal attack that you’re white male and the masculine privilege and you’re terrible and you’re patriarchal and you’re oppressive and all of this. The colleges are going to have to battle against this because one individual like me or Leonard Sax or you … We need a grassroots effort. One individual is only going to chisel a little hole in it. It needs the whole country to awaken to the fact that the colleges are so overrun by a paradigm that does not apply to most people.
Brett McKay: Right, so it’s a long-term project. It’s not going to happen overnight.
Michael Gurian: Well, it can’t because this dominant gender paradigm is so entrenched. An example is what’s happening with the rape culture. As you know, in chapter four, I spend a long section on that. This whole rape crisis hysteria thing, one in five females are sexually assaulted in college, that came out … It was all kind of bogus studies. They weren’t correct, but that’s what came out. Then we got the Dear Colleague letter in 2011.
Well, my kids were still in college, my daughters. I went to them and I said, “Okay, look at this.” I mean, I’m writing about this. My colleagues are writing about this. We know this statistic is a bogus statistic, but one rape is too many, right? All of us want to help protect young women. Is this the right way to do it? Is the right away to do it to just say if a woman accuses a guy, he needs to get kicked out? Even my own daughters said, “No, this is not a correct way to handle this.” Of course, it’s going to drive more and more guys out of college.
That’s an example of where this extreme view that’s not accurate to real life takes over. We can protect females without creating this massive backlash by males and by females, my own daughters, who didn’t really think this was a good idea. We can protect females better without accusing males of all this malice and all this crazy violence. Really, there are better ways to do it, and our colleges will have to deal with that. They’ll have to say, “Wait a minute, males and females in partnership. Let’s do this a better way.”
Brett McKay: All right, so it’s not a zero-sum game is what you’re saying.
Michael Gurian: It’s not, no. We’ve got to stop thinking, okay, if we see this area where females are not doing as well, that we therefore have to crush all these other things going on with males. We’ve got to stop thinking like this.
Brett McKay: Another issue that you talk about that kind of contributes to this male anhedonia is technology or digital technology. Can you talk about what you see the role of digital technology in the lives of young men and how it’s contributing to the problems that they’re facing?
Michael Gurian: Yeah. I have all the updated … For anyone who is raising a son or looking at this, I have all the updated research in a couple places, including one long chapter in Saving Our Sons. Then I have all the studies, etc., in the end notes, so people can check this themselves. People, especially if their guys are into video games and into technology, quite often they don’t want to say, “Oh wait, this could be harmful,” because they’re saying to themselves, “Well, look, my guys are engaged in something, so isn’t that great?” I’m not anti-technology, and I make that very clear. Technology is a great asset. My whole nature-based theory is based on brain scans and on technology, showing this to people, so technology is a good thing, but it’s developmental.
What we have to realize is two major areas of potential distress for male development. One is screen time itself. I kind of divide things up so people can look at this developmentally. A two-year-old, you don’t really want that two-year-old’s brain in front of a screen hardly at all. I travel a lot in airports, so I’m seeing people giving their one- and two-year-old kids their cell phones to keep those kids occupied. Well, those people don’t realize that that will damage the brains of these kids, male and female. For males, the male brain is pretty fragile in its development, and we’re going to damage a lot of its impulse control ability, its social-emotional development, and even some of its cognitive ability by putting it in front of these screens so young. Screen time itself is an issue all the way through, from birth all the way through 25-ish, which is sort of as males are finalizing their development.
Then the other thing is social-emotionals, to look at how … In normal male development, over a period of birth to 25, these pathways are developing and the synapses are closing, etc., because that brain is involved in its natural environment. It’s learning through its family system, through nature, through playing in the mud, through its chemistry set, all of these things. It’s learning all this stuff in normal pathway development. Normal pathway development is not set up for screens. Screens are very passive. Normal pathway development is active as a boy is interacting in its environment.
Well, screens make everything passive. Then video games themselves as a screen not only are somewhat passive, even though they seem very active … in terms of brain development, they’re only developing certain parts of the brain … and they’re fooling the brain into thinking it’s accomplished something. As it gets better at the video game, the brain thinks it’s accomplishing something. Then it leads to undermotivation in the other tasks, like school, chores, work, all these other things we really need the brain to do, family development, and then social-emotional development, being able to interact, being able to be a mature adult and interact with others. It’s doing so much fooling of the brain that it’s not developing these other functions.
Video games, especially, can be problematic. By the time the kid’s 15 to the 25 age group, they’re probably going to be playing more video games. I’m begging people, however, to, number one, don’t give these kids cell phones until they’re 13 or 14. Really protect those brains, because they can do everything on their cell phones now anyway. That helps them get rid of some screen time. Then, number two, don’t let them be playing video games on school nights. Just say no to video games on school nights. Yes, video games on the weekend, no on school nights, just so that we can tamper back some of this negatives to brain development.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I also like the point you make is you can use video games in a constructive manner. You can talk to your kids or your sons about some of the themes that they’re playing in the video game. If you were playing some kind of war game, talk about heroism and warriorhood and things like that, and then you can have a conversation about important topics through the video game.
Michael Gurian: Yeah. Well, absolutely. I’m glad you said that because, of course, we don’t want to be saying it’s all negative. Of course, it’s not. You can use video games for this sort of hero development, character development. I give a number of strategies for that, like from Halo, where you can take dialogue and take actions right from the video game. Dads are often playing games with sons, so they’re a great asset for this. They can say, “Okay, what’d you think of that? What do you think of that?” You’ll do it after you play the game, of course, but then you’re reflecting.
This self-reflection, this ability to reflect, is really great for the brain development of these kids. This is where you’re using the video game as an asset. We want to say that the makers of video games, they’re very, very smart people, and I don’t think they understand that there can be some brain development issues. I think what they were tapping into was the hero development in the male. We really want that hero and character development in guys. We need that. We want them to become men of character, and video games are developing that kind of warrior part of the character. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. They’re developing the hero part. That’s a good thing.
We can use the games as long as we tap into that positive development. Now, games like Grand Theft Auto, it’s very hard for me, truthfully, to find anything redeeming about that game. I would like to talk to my son even about that. If he’s playing that, I better play it with him, and then I better say, “Okay, look at the way women are objectified. Look at what this is doing to you as a man. Look what it’s doing to women.” Even the games that I don’t like, I think we could use as an asset.
Brett McKay: Well, Michael, there’s a lot more we could talk about. Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work?
Michael Gurian: Well, yeah, if people go to michaelgurian.com, G-U-R-I-A-N, michaelgurian.com, if they go there, the book’s right there, they’re going to see that, and tap them into other things. Then, if they’re in schools or if they’re parents concerned about boys in schools, go to gurianinstitute.com and you’ll see all our programs for schools and for communities.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Michael Gurian, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Michael Gurian: Thanks, Brett. Thanks for what you’re doing.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Michael Gurian. He’s the author of the book Saving Our Sons. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at michaelgurian.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/savingoursons for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have got something out of it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d take one minute or so to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.