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Why We Need To 'Change The Chair' Instead Of The Kid

Photo: Ground Picture / Canva | shutterstuck 
5th grade boy smiling at the camera in a school library

Despite centuries of men and boys having a stark advantage in career and education, today's boys and young men are struggling: not just with grades, graduation rates and higher education, but also with their mental health.

The rates at which young people are taking their lives are skyrocketing especially for teenage boys and young men, as are rates of other preventable tragic endings. A report from PBS notes that more than twice as many boys who are tweens or teens experience a life-ending overdose for every girl in that age group. 

The Unreported Gender Gap in High School Graduation Rates, a report from The Brookings Institute, notes the following:

"In 2018, about 88% of girls graduated on time compared to 82% of boys — a 6 percentage point gap. By contrast, the gap between the graduation rate among white students (89%) and the graduation rate among Black students (79%) is 10 points, and the gap between Hispanic students and white students is 8 points (89% v. 81%). The graduation rate for boys is only slightly higher than for economically disadvantaged students (82% v. 80%)."

In other words, the gender-based achievement gap is quickly becoming one of the most significant disadvantages faced by American students.

This gap is most notable when intersecting disadvantages are stacked together. For instance, Black students who are boys are particularly at risk of being marginalized — especially when they come from economically disadvantaged communities.

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There are many factors that contribute to this massive swing in achievement — a list too long to dive into for the purposes of this article — but all parents of boys should take note. Regardless of race, class or family history, boys are being affected across the nation.

Even kids from the wealthiest communities are suffering due to a combination of all of these factors and the intense pressure put upon teens today to achieve at unprecedented rates.

On our podcast, Open Relationships: Transforming Together, Andrea Miller and I spoke with Ed Latimore — a retired American professional boxer, influencer, and best-selling author whose work focuses on self-improvement — about the ways in which men and boys are struggling, an issue close to Ed's heart.

As evidence of how broken our educational system has become, I shared the challenge that one of my boys — who is now a very tall teenager — faced when he was a little guy:

As the classroom "wiggle worm," my son simply could not sit still. This was nothing new. I even remember commenting on his non-stop wiggling when I was pregnant with him.

As a baby, he was always kicking, wiggling, twisting and turning, making it challenging for him to get a good feeding. I started supplementing nursing with bottles so he could keep up with his growth charts.

He even rolled from his back to his stomach when he was 24 hours old, much to the horror of our pediatrician. The boy was not going to be kept in one place!

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In elementary school, he was repeatedly chastised for kicking over his chair during work time. This was shocking, as he was (and still is) the sweetest little guy.

But the reason for his behavior wasn't that he was angry or even getting too wild — it was that he couldn't sit still and always seemed to end up leaning over his desk, feet on his chair. (Parents and teachers who have wiggle worms in their classrooms know exactly the posture I'm talking about!)

As time passed and other kids got better sitting still, my son was still being told he was too active.

Every parent-teacher conference was punctuated with notes about his wiggling, suggestions of how to feed him better breakfasts to help him be still, and about his need for exercise after school.

The problem was, he was already eating healthy food and playing for hours outdoors and with friends after school. He and his brother and their friends would take walkie-talkies and climb through the canyons or dig giant holes in the yard or swim for hours in a neighbor's pool. Still, he found sitting still during school uncomfortable.

Eventually, the message that he wasn't good at school started to sink in, and he didn't want to go. Despite being very bright, he felt like he just didn't belong. All because his little body wanted to move.

Then one day, a new teacher came to school and identified what was happening with his chair and all the clutter and clattering that seemed to follow my son.

She went to the special education room and got him a special device for his chair that was similar to a half-inflated yoga ball. When he sat on it, it kept him off-balance. For most kids, this would be annoying, but for my little wiggle worm, it allowed him to be constantly moving. The need to stay balanced was a way for his body to keep busy so his mind could focus — and everything changed.

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Most "wiggle worm" boys aren't so lucky and end up stigmatized.

Boys of color with similar wiggly tendencies may even be labeled "bad" and, as data indicates, be punished more harshly than white boys with the same habits and tendencies — starting them early into a system often called the school-to-prison pipeline.

So what happens to these boys who feel ashamed and inadequate?

They turn to less-than-healthy sources of self-esteem and validation. Knowing this, it appears hate-based and anti-democracy influencers, as well as violent and anti-woman "manosphere" celebrities like Andrew Tate, have capitalized on our boys' struggle to fit in with a society that wants to shame and blame them for factors that are often beyond their control.

   

   

Knowing how high-stakes this issue is — not just for our boys, who deserve to be supported and loved for who they are, but also for a society at large that suffers when one-half of the population struggles — it's time we all took a step back and re-examined how we want to educate our children and demand better.

After all, it's not just boys who benefit from more exercise, outdoor time, and free play in school. Girls do, as well.

In addition, understanding that sometimes it's the tool that's broken, not the operator, can help immensely.

After all, sometimes you have to change the chair, not the child.

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Joanna Schroeder is a writer, editor, and media critic. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Your Boys: 27 Crucial Conversations To Have With Your Teenage Sons (Workman Publishing) and publishes on Substack. Her bylines include The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Esquire, Redbook and Vox.