Why Girls Get Pep Rallies and Boys Get Pills

An Interview with Jack Kammer 

by Evangelia Biddy


Girls Rule! We get it! For some time there has been a powerful, ubiquitous, sustained, effort to help girls achieve success, in well, everything. Girls were behind in math and science; programs and initiatives emerged to pull them up. Girls were not participating in sports past middle-school; programs were designed to address the problem. Colleges were seen as less welcoming to girls than boys; enter Women Studies departments and gender specific curriculums. Women were locked out of the workforce; anti-discrimination laws, gender training and diversity awareness campaigns were put into place. In everything, if there was a real or perceived disadvantage for girls and women, there was yet another program, campaign, or organizational mission created to put them on equal footing with boys and men.

Now, across the country a different crisis goes unanswered. By all academic, social and mental health markers, boys and men are the ones in trouble. Few among us have not read about ‘the boy crisis’ in national magazine articles and leading books on the subject. All of these books serve as tools for parents and educators looking to improve the outcomes of boys. Author of Heroes of the Blue Sky Rebellion, Jack Kammer, has penned a book designed just for boys, with real resources to help young men take control of their lives and re-define what ‘male’ means in this society. Kammer talks candidly about the needs of boys and young men and why there is still no national movement to address the male crisis.

EB: On March 11, 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls. Why, in your opinion, has there been no such action taken on behalf of boys and men?

JK: There are probably several reasons. One is that boys and men are not organized or motivated to engage in what is often called “identity politics.” Women, on the other hand, are strong advocates for actions and programs that consider the problems and challenges of their sex. Women will vote on women’s issues much more than men will vote on men’s issues. That suggests another reason. The problems of men and boys have not yet risen to public consciousness—even among men and boys themselves—as being based in the circumstances that attach to being male. And that, of course, results from the widespread notion that being male provides only advantages and no problems. Bottom line is that there was no political mileage, no votes to be gained, for the president in establishing a council for men and boys.

There is, however, a strong proposal for the establishment of a White House Council for Boys to Men. Interested parties might want to visit whitehouseboystomen.com. We are hoping that President Obama will demonstrate the leadership required to bring high-level attention at long last to the special issues of boys as they grow to be men.

“There is a lot of attention paid to the fact that men are at the top of the Fortune 500. It’s very telling that we don’t seem to notice at the same time how many men are at the bottom of the Misfortune 5,000,000”—Jack Kammer

EB: What is the Blue Sky Rebellion, what does it entail?

JK: The Blue Sky Rebellion at present is only an idea, but it might be that very most powerful of all things: an idea whose time has come. It will come into existence when teenage boys and young men expect, insist upon, demand and take into their own lives the full range of life options that match in all respects the options we provide as a matter of right to girls. It is important to note that this full range of options is not just about occupations and careers, but about emotional and temperamental expression, honesty, genuineness and integrity. Unlike women, who demanded full options and greater respect for girls’ right to be who and how they really want to be, men—and women, too—have so far failed to do the same for boys. That is why the Blue Sky Rebellion encourages boys to take action for themselves.

EB: Why are boys not performing as well as girls? What can be done to improve the outcomes of boys across the board? Education, mental health, etc.

JK: There are many theories about why boys are not faring as well as girls. Some think that large numbers of teachers these days tend to see typical boy behavior as problematic and even as evidence of pathology, the result being that these teachers can be impatient and negative toward especially bright and energetic boys. Such teachers might also harbor and convey to boys a sense of low expectations and inevitable failure. Others suggest that hormones in plastic beverage bottles and in the environment at large are sapping boys of their natural masculine vigor. Another view is that young boys’ typical lag in development compared to young girls is greatly exacerbated with current educational practices of teaching children to read as early as nursery school and kindergarten; once boys fall behind they are easily discouraged and made to feel like failures, thus requiring them in “sour grapes” fashion to dismiss the importance of doing well in school and in life in general. Still others point to gender differences in brain biology and schools’ failure to accommodate typically male learning styles.

My own view is that the single most important factor is that the past forty years in the USA and other industrialized and supposedly progressive countries have constituted one long, unrelenting pep rally for girls. Girls are encouraged to be and do whatever they want. “You go girl!” Boys have had to sit silently in the grandstands with no one cheering for them. Pep rallies are effective at increasing confidence, motivation and enthusiasm. Boys desperately need that now. It’s the Pygmalion Effect writ large.

EB: What role does the media play in the struggles of boys?

JK: I would say that the media plays a huge role in the problems of both girls and boys. The difference, however, is that there are powerful forces providing antidotes to poisonous media messages about girls, while none or very few exist for boys. The media, primarily, is a marketing machine. Advertisers sell products to kids by making them think they, too, could be as cool as the kids in the ads if only they owned what the advertiser is selling.

Lots of young boys are left on their own to wonder and worry why they, compared to the images they see in the media, are such “losers”—even though the images may actually be presenting negative behavior as the cool way to be. Without that pep rally reinforcing the idea that boys are great and wonderful just as they are, problematic and even negative media representations of coolness rush in to fill the vacuum.

EB: You speak of gender-specific juvenile justice programs for girls who have broken the law. Why are there no such programs for boys?

JK: Some years ago Time magazine in its Special Issue on Women said that prison is “a system designed and run by men for men.” That, of course, could much more accurately be stated as “a system designed by men to control and restrict men.” I have worked as a Correctional Officer, commonly known as a prison guard, and I can attest that there is precious little consideration in the justice system for the complexities of male psychology. Juvenile programs that “serve” boys follow the thinking of the culture at large: there are no special considerations that need to be made for the circumstances of maleness since those circumstances are uniformly matters of advantage and privilege.

The most egregious example I have seen of this type of benighted juvenile justice thinking comes from the Vera Institute for Justice. Its Probation Assessment Tool purports to help judges decide whether juvenile offenders should be incarcerated or granted probation. A score of 33 or above suggests that probation is appropriate. Girls get 14 points just for being girls. Boys get zero points for being boys. As professor Sara Goodkind of the University of Pittsburgh has noted, “Gender-specific services [are technically] defined as services that address the unique needs of the individual recipient’s gender but [they] have largely been interpreted to mean services that are designed specifically for girls… Of course, boys have gender, too; however, this fact is often neglected.” (Goodkind, S. “Gender-Specific Services in the Juvenile Justice System: A Critical Examination.” Affilia, 20, 1. Spring 2005. Page 52 and page 56.)

EB: Should we really be concerned about boys and men? Men make up 97% of corporate CEO’s and dominate most fields. There is still a wage gap and women just don’t seem to be catching up. Why the demand for men’s rights when they seem to have everything they want?

JK: I appreciate that you are acting as Devil’s Advocate in asking these questions. So I’ll answer by being a little devilish myself.

Should we not be much, much more concerned about boys and men? Men make up about 85% of prison inmates and a roughly equal proportion of suicide victims. They dominate the field of homelessness. Men continue to succumb to the pressure and expectation that they should earn more than women and accept the limitations and restrictions in their lives that make this possible; men don’t seem to be catching up with the wide range of life options women enjoy. Why the continuing focus on girls and women when they seem to have everything they want?

We should pay close attention to the deep assumptions manifest in November 1995 by the chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the (Legal) Profession. In Ms. Magazine she said, “Why should commitment [to work] be demonstrated by working 100 hours per week? As women, we have other options to explore…” The phrase “as women” suggests privilege and superiority, not restriction and oppression. Men and boys need and deserve equal status and prerogatives.

Now that we’ve brought the devils out, let’s recognize that it really is the devil’s work to try to get us to fight over whether we need to be concerned with boys or girls. The better angels of our nature know that we have plenty of capacity to be concerned about boys and girls.

EB: Are boys and men suffering in silence? What do the stats tell us?

JK: The stats tell us that boys and men are indeed suffering, but they sometimes do not suffer in silence. Their suffering can be often accompanied by loud noises: tantrums, screams, oppositional defiance, bullying, even gunshots. But you are quite correct in pointing out that many men and boys are suffering alone and in silence. There is little encouragement in our culture for boys and men to be honest about their true drives, feelings, doubts, insecurities and other emotions. Indeed there are powerful forces pushing them in the opposite direction, forbidding them to “whine” as if there is no difference between whining and calling attention to a problem as a necessary prelude to solving it.

The stats on suicide, life expectancy, unemployment, educational underachievement, alcoholism, drug addiction, incarceration, homelessness, family estrangement and other unfortunate phenomena all tell us that we need to provide boys with much greater likelihood for full and happy futures.

Moreover, there is a lot of attention paid to the fact that men are at the top of the Fortune 500. It’s very telling that we don’t seem to notice at the same time how many men are at the bottom of the Misfortune 5,000,000.

EB: You speak briefly about the demands on cool and popular boys. What are they and how might we help those boys deal more successful?

JK: In the book I mention something that Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, authors of Raising Cain, heard from a cool and popular young man. He lamented, “Everybody thinks you’ve got it so easy when you’re on top, but being on top just means you have to worry all the time about slipping or somebody gaining on you. All it takes is one mistake or a bad day, and all sorts of people are waiting to take you down.” This dynamic is very much in keeping with what Steve Biddulph says in his book Raising Boys: “The rule is put down someone else before they put you down.”

That kind of top/bottom, win/lose thinking is an inevitable result of the idea that there is really only one way for boys to be “cool.” If boys feel restricted to one space, there are bound to be conflicts, struggles and insecurities about dominance and being dominated. No doubt lots of “dominant” boys are at the top of heaps they really don’t want to occupy, but they don’t perceive that any alternate space is open to them. If we can allow each boy to feel that he is, so to speak, master of his own domain—that he is perfectly cool in his own way—then the focus doesn’t have to be on defending against others, but only being true to himself and seeking ways to cooperate and form alliances with others. That would make for much greater happiness all around.

EB:  What role do fathers play in the Blue Sky Rebellion?

JK: There’s the role they do play and the role they could play. At least two scientific studies along with one popular poll in Parade magazine suggest that the role they do play is in opposition to allowing their sons to enjoy greater life options. Both mothers and fathers are less supportive of wider options for their sons than for their daughters, but fathers are less supportive than mothers are. There are at least two possible reasons that seem pretty plausible. One is that at some level fathers are thinking “If it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for you.” Another—and I think this is probably more likely—is that fathers are trying to ensure that their sons have happy lives and they know from their own experience how hard the world can be on men who don’t conform to fairly narrow male norms. And if the fathers want grandchildren, they want to make sure their sons focus and concentrate on the traditional, tried-and-true way of winning a wife: be a Good Provider.

The role fathers could play is completely different. It would require fathers to acknowledge that their own upbringing—and their own lives—have been difficult and in some ways disappointing and unfulfilling. That is very difficult to do, especially when the wider culture insists that being male is an unadulterated series of blessings and advantages for which any “real man” would be grateful. But we have seen that contemporary mothers and grandmothers take great pride and satisfaction in seeing that their daughters have opportunities they themselves never had. It may take years, even decades, if ever, for men to arrive at that same place.

EB: How can teachers and schools become better allies to boys?

JK: The first thing I would urge principals to do is examine the data Christina Hoff Sommers uncovered in researching her book The War Against Boys. She found that the AAUW, the American Association of University Women, the girl-advocacy group responsible for popularizing the idea that schools “shortchange” girls, actually found significant data about how schools and teachers are disadvantaging boys. AAUW didn’t publish that data, but Sommers did. She found that AAUW’s own research indicated teachers think girls are smarter than boys, teachers punish boys more often than girls, teachers compliment girls more often than boys, teachers prefer to be around girls more than boys, teachers pay more attention to girls than to boys, and teachers call on girls more often than boys. And that was before the heralded campaign about getting schools to end their supposed practice of shortchanging girls. Now, in the aftermath of that campaign, the problem may be even worse.

If boys perceive they are second-class citizens in their classrooms, we cannot be surprised if they respond with less than first-class effort, attention, cooperation and enthusiasm. In his book Real Boys, William Pollack says, “Because the myth of boys’ toxicity is still deeply entrenched within many school systems, teachers and school administrators are often permitted to become hostile toward boys—and so they may push our sons even further toward academic failure, low self-esteem, conduct disorders, and a host of other emotional and behavioral problems.”

The other critical problem that I would urge educators, this comes directly from Arne Duncan, the Secretary of the Department of Education, to teachers in the classroom is to address boys’ lag in reading, writing, and literacy. It deserves at least as much energy and sense of urgency as we apply to girls’ lag in math and science. Reading, after all, is fundamental to success in virtually any field of study or career, and boys lag behind girls in reading and writing by two and three times as much as girls lag behind boys in math and science. It is mystifying, in a way, that the problem gets so little attention, especially with boys’ educational underachievement becoming more and more obvious and pronounced.

EB: You speak of social norms and traditional work patterns as locking women into second rate careers and preventing men from engaging in family life. How does this affect the mental health of both sexes?

JK: I’m glad you point out that this is really a win-win opportunity for both men and women, and future men and women, namely today’s boys and girls. When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, the “problem that has no name” was that many housewives were going slowly crazy and popping tranquilizers to get through their days of supposed domestic bliss. That was a result of the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home.” Fortunately, as a society we now afford women greater options. But we’ve solved only half the problem. Many men today are going slowly crazy—though the culture forbids them to admit it verbally—because we still believe that since the measure of a man is his success as a Provider, his primary place is “out there working” even though we know “home is where the heart is.”

In 1997, Gloria Steinem wrote in Ms. Magazine, “In the last 25 years, we’ve convinced ourselves and a majority of the country that women can do what men can do. Now we have to convince the majority of the country—and ourselves—that men can do what women can do.” The next connection we need to make is that men can succeed in formerly female domains, with their own male style, just as women have succeeded in formerly male domains, with their own female style. What this will provide is more work/life balance in men’s lives. Women benefit too, because they no longer have to feel overwhelmed by having to do everything themselves.

Evangelia Biddy, Editor-in-Chief of Junior, The Magazine about Bringing up Successful Boys, is also a contributor to Raising Boys World, an expert for Bizymoms.com,  and an educational consultant. She can be reached at ebiddy@juniorthemagazine.com




Jack Kammer, MSW, MBA is the director of the Center for Men and Boys in Social Policy (CMBSP), a public interest consultancy in Baltimore, Maryland USA. CMBSP provides fresh, gender-specific insights about men and boys for policy makers, service providers and community leaders.  He is the author of Good Will Toward Men (1994) and Heroes of the Blue Sky Rebellion: How You and Other Young Men Can Claim All the Happiness in the World (2009) and If Men Have All the Power How Come Women Make the Rules (1997).



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