Most people are well aware of the phenomenon of the behavior gap between rich and poor children. The New York Times reports that this gap shows that by the time kids enter kindergarten, “high-income children know more words and can read better than poorer children [and] also have longer attention spans, better-controlled tempers and more sensitivity to other children.” This issue even has a physical basis, as research focused on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain critical for problem solving and creativity has found that, “Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult.” The issue of poor vs. rich kids is compelling, but even more striking is what happens when researchers compare boys to girls across the board. As a new paper from Third Way, a Washington research group points out, the gap in behavioral skills and grades between young girls and boys comprises an even larger gap than the one that exists between rich and poor children. The Third Way paper notes that girls are significantly more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than young boys by the time they enter kindergarten. Worse, as kids age, this behavior and grade gap between boys and girls only grows bigger, with girls outperforming boys — and the trend continues into adulthood. Bad news for males, because as The New York Times states, “In an economy that rewards knowledge, the academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles. Men’s wages are stagnating.” Census data reiterates that males are struggling economically in comparison to females, because while median inflation-adjusted female earnings have gone up 35% over the last quarter-century, male earnings haven’t risen at all.
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Why the Gap Between Boys and Girls?
It’s not entirely clear why boys/men face larger behavior and economic struggles than girls and women, but as stated in The New York Times piece, “If the United States is going to build a better-functioning economy than the one we’ve had over the last 15 years, we’re going to have to solve our boy problems.” Some estimate the problem stems from schools that fail to provide what boys need to succeed. As noted above, the Third Way paper points out that girls have a behavioral advantage over boys starting in kindergarten, but by the fifth grade, boys have fallen even further behind — with the average girl at the 60th percentile of an index of social and behavioral skills, and the average boy at only the 40th percentile. Curiously, the 20 percentage points outweighs the typical 14-point gap between poor kids and rich kids.
Like anything else, debates abound when it comes to why schools aren’t meeting boys needs and how they can. Two authors of the paper, Claudia Buchmann and Thomas DiPrete note that boys do better when grades equal high status so the answer likely means, “improving schools, which will have a disproportionate effect on boys, rather than changing schools to be more attuned to boys’ needs.” Christina Hoff Sommers, on the other hand, states that schools do very little to acknowledge that boys and girls are different and fails to provide young boys with enough proper role models during the course of their education. No matter the reason, it’s clear that something is going on with boys today who will be men tomorrow and that’s a huge problem because in today’s job market, men need brains, not just brawn to succeed. Buchmann tells The New York Times, “Boys are getting the wrong message about what you need to do to be successful. Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys. In today’s economy, being tough and being strong are not what leads to success.”