This interview by Editor Charlotte Hayes is reprinted, with permission, from The Women’s Quarterly, a magazine of the Independent Women’s Forum (PO Box 3058, Washington, DC 22203; (703) 558-4991).
The Women’s Quarterly: You are writing a book called The War on Boys, which is scheduled to come out this summer. What is the war on boys? And where is it waged?
Sommers: There have always been societies that favored boys over girls. Ours may be the first to deliberately throw the gender switch by preferring girls. Little boys are politically incorrect. It begins in elementary schools, which are increasingly female-friendly domains — boys are there on sufferance. Just to give one example: Boys, far more than girls, enjoy rough-and-tumble play. And that means running, chasing, fleeing, playful fighting and wrestling. It’s a very positive behavior; it is a critical part of boys’ healthy development. And it is very different from aggression. In rough-and-tumble play, the children enjoy themselves, there is a lot of laughing, and the participants part as friends. In aggression, there is no laughter, children are often hurt, and they part as enemies.
Increasingly, parents and teachers are failing to make the distinction. The failure of parents and teachers to respect and understand the distinction poses a serious threat to boys’ welfare and normal development. Teachers have always rightly prohibited rowdiness in their classrooms, but they made proper allowances for it on the playground. That is changing. Today, many educators regard the normal play of little boys with disapproval, and some ban it outright.
Recess — the one time during the school day that boys can legitimately engage in rowdy play — is now under siege and may soon be a thing of the past. In 1998, Atlanta eliminated recess in all its public elementary schools. In Philadelphia, school officials have replaced traditional recess with “socialized recess,” in which the children are assigned structured activities and carefully monitored.
Twq: What do they do?
Sommers: They do organized activities. The move to eliminate recess has aroused little notice — and even less opposition. It is surely not a deliberate effort to thwart the desires of schoolboys. Just the same, it betrays a shocking indifference to boys’ natural proclivities, play preferences and elemental needs. Girls benefit from recess — but boys absolutely need it. This is just one example of boy-averse attitudes and policies.
Another is that many teachers are now insisting that boys and girls “integrate,” as they call it. They must play together and sit together. Often, they don’t want to. The girls don’t want it, and the boys especially don’t want it. Between kindergarten and sixth grade, the children prefer same-sex play. (They discover each other again in junior high, at which time they are all too happy to “integrate.”)
In researching my book, I found schools throughout the country forcing boys to play with girls — and to play like girls. School officials have young boys playing with dolls, quilting, playing female roles in nonsexist fairy tales. The boys are not cooperating, I am happy to say, but why subject them to such treatment? We cannot allow our schools to become places where typical male behavior is viewed as some kind of disorder.
Twq: Can you tell me just a little bit more about how the war against little boys is waged? Is it mostly in schools?
Sommers: Yes — which is where children spend a good deal of their time. But some of the problem is in the home. Mothers, too, may be growing less tolerant of the antics of sons. This may explain the rapid rise in the number of boys diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. One school administrator from Michigan told me of calls and visits from mothers worried because they have “an immature 4-year-old boy.” Their sons seem to be less cooperative than girls the same age. They have more trouble sitting still, have shorter attention spans — and are, on the whole, less tractable. What should be done? She tells the parents not to worry: Their boys are fine. But she worries about a growing intolerance for boys.
Twq: Other than the abolition of recess, what are some other ways the war is waged on boys?
Sommers: Part of it is, as I said, just ignoring their needs. For example, if we were as concerned about the well-being of boys as we are [about that of] girls, we would find a way to address the reading gap. Boys are seriously behind girls in mastering this critical skill. One Department of Education publication reports that boys are one-and-a-half years behind girls in reading.
The gap in writing is even more dramatic. Feminists have put pressure on schools and publishers to make educational materials girl-friendly. They may have gone too far. One reading expert, commenting on a sample of elementary-school readers, noted that students may come away thinking the West was settled by teenage girls traveling with their parents.
Another way the war is waged is by applying sexual-harassment laws to young boys. Harassment laws are confusing to adults — imagine applying them to kindergartners and first graders! Children need guidance and discipline; they do not need divisive gender politics. The problem is going to get worse, because of a recent Supreme Court decision that makes schools legally vulnerable if they don’t take action against what feminists regard as the sexist behavior of little children.
Twq: Does a little boy even know he is sexually harassing a young girl when they are in elementary school?
Sommers: I don’t think so. I don’t deny that young boys act out in unacceptable ways. When they do, they need to be corrected. But the girls also behave badly. It’s not just boys against the girls: It’s kids. The best research that I’ve seen on school harassment shows that both boys and girls engage in harassing conduct. Schools have a right and a responsibility to prohibit it and to impose a clear code of discipline. That is the proper way to approach children: discipline and ethics. It is wrong to bring in lawsuits, courts, “gender experts” and “harassment workshoppers,” when it comes to the misbehavior of 10-year-olds!
Twq: Do you mean they actually have “experts” holding workshops on harassment by kids in the fourth grade?
Sommers: The Department of Education has funded anti-harassment programs for children as young as 5. One curriculum guide, Girls and Boys Getting Along, has children — including kindergartners — practice reciting: “Stop it. That’s sexual harassment, and sexual harassment is against the law.” It also includes a special anti-harassment pledge for second and third graders: “I pledge to do my best to stop sexual harassment. …” I guess they say it along with the pledge of allegiance — or, perhaps, in place of it. Another guide, also funded by the Department of Education, considers schoolyard chasing behavior. The game of tag, for example, which may seem an innocent playground pastime, has features that promote fear and aggression. The authors suggest a noncompetitive version of tag “where no one is ever out,” called Circle of Friends. This is ridiculous.
These “gender experts” are politicizing kindergarten. They are treating normal, healthy boys as predators. Most parents have no idea what their children are facing. As for the children themselves, they are in no position to complain.
[Christina Hoff Sommers is the author of Who Stole Feminism? Her new book, The War Against Boys (Simon & Schuster), is scheduled for publication in July. She is the W.H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.]