How to Help Boys Succeed in School

Last week The Test Experts Instructor Hayden Angay wrote an excellent article for us entitled Girls and STEM, which inspired me to follow up with one for the parents of boys. It’s no secret that boys are being left behind in academics, increasingly so, even though we’ve known about this problem for over a decade. Hayden rightly asserts that we need to strive to get more girls interested in STEM disciplines. Just the same, we need to get more boys interested in academics period. And the colleges aren’t helping. According 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson, “There are whole disciplines in universities that are forthrightly hostile towards men.”

So how do we, as parents of boys, help stem the tide against our children? First, remember that a lot of good has come out of this cultural shift: girls are thriving educationally more than ever. We don’t want to undo that, but we must help our boys thrive in this new world too. Second, as a parent, and especially if you’re a father, show your son that you value academics. This is harder if you didn’t excel academically yourself, but it can and must be done for your children. Studies show that the number one predictor of academic success is whether the parents care about academics: more than socioeconomic factors, more than technology, more than race, more than teacher quality, more than classroom size. If you care (and make it evident to your child that you care), you can help your child overcome any number of disadvantages.

Showing you care about academics can be done in many different ways. Check on your children’s grades regularly. Help them with their homework if you can, or at least create an encouraging environment while they’re doing their homework. Be empathetic when they are struggling through tough material, but don’t let them give up. Encourage them to get good sleep on school nights, and especially before big tests so that they are at their best. As best you can, fuel friendships with other kids who are excel academically. Each family dynamic is different; figure out what works for yours.

Third, be careful about discouraging sons from the fields that are traditionally women’s or currently dominated by women. According to 12 Rules for Life, “almost 80 percent of students in the fields of healthcare, public administration, psychology and education, which make up one quarter of all degrees, are female.” When I was going off to college, I was interested in a number of topics and considered several different majors—economics, pure math, even education—before settling on engineering. I chose engineering because I thought that’s what my dad wanted and that’s what boys did if they were good at math. My dad even once said, “What are you going to do with an economics degree? Teach?” He was/is a super loving and supportive father, but the point was made: “teaching isn’t really a good choice for you.” I was good at engineering and made a good career out of it, but I never felt fulfilled until I began to teach. Help your boys find their path wherever that leads them. What Hayden said at the end of her blog about girls applies equally well to boys: we need “to have an unbiased dialogue with [our] children and let their natural abilities play out.”

For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, men had huge advantages over women in education. In the last century we did an excellent job undoing that advantage by promoting education for women and girls, but, inadvertently, we’ve disadvantaged boys.  Education doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We must all work together to set up a cultural environment where all our children can win. This starts at home with you with each of us parents keeping options open for our sons and daughters and helping them excel academically in any field they choose.