5 Things to Know about Boys

Research BriefHealthy SchoolsJan 14 2016

“What’s the matter with boys and young men?” is a question that’s been raised more frequently in recent months, in connection with a number of issues: President Obama’s  “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative (focusing on young men of color), persistent concerns about absent fathers, and high-profile (though statistically very rare) incidents of mass violence where the shooter (nearly always) is a severely disturbed young man.

Here, Child Trends takes a closer look at what we know about boys’ development, their well-being, advantages and disadvantages relative to females, the roles of race and ethnicity in outcomes for males, and what might be done to maximize the prospects for optimal development for both boys and girls. There is no logical reason for gender equity to be a zero-sum game.
For this Child Trends 5, we conducted original analyses of the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, which surveyed parents of children 17 and younger about their child’s well-being. This survey is representative of children at the national and state levels. We supplemented these data with selected additional findings from the scientific literature on gender disparities in children and youth.

1From a health perspective, being male is associated with a number of vulnerabilities, relative to females, from birth onward.

Sex differences in child well-being develop before birth; boys are more likely to be born prematurely than girls (which can lead to infant death or lasting disability),  and male sex is associated with a number of other negative pregnancy outcomes. As they grow up, boys are more likely than girls to have moderate-to-severe developmental delays, and more likely to have a special health care need.1 Over the life course, a number of health and developmental concerns are more prevalent in boys than in girls. For example, the prevalence of autism is four times higher in boys than in girls. Males are diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)more than twice as frequently as females, and generally have poorer self-regulation skills than females of comparable age.

2Males perform less well, academically, than females, at least up until post-secondary schooling.

We found that boys were twice as likely to never be engaged in school, according to their parents, and were 50 percent more likely to have been retained in grade at least once. Boys are more than two-thirds more likely than girls to have an Individualized Education Program. Boys are 45 percent more likely to have their school contact parents to report problems at school. Parents themselves might be able to create more balance here: we found that parents are more likely to tell stories or sing frequently to young girls (ages birth to five) than with their young boys (62 and 58 percent, respectively). These kinds of activities can be beneficial for language acquisition in children’s early years.
Girls perform significantly better than boys in several academic subject areas. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, girls outperformed boys in both reading and writing at grades 4, 8, and 12 (every grade in which the assessments are conducted). In math, boys outperformed girls at grades 4 and 12, albeit by much smaller margins. Males in this age group are significantly more likely to lack a high school diploma (7.2 and 6.3 percent respectively, in 2013). Fewer males, relative to their population numbers, are enrolling in post-secondary education (for undergraduate and advanced degrees). In the United States, in 2013, 30 percent of young men between ages 20 to 25 had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 37 percent of young women of the same age.
Males may be more vulnerable to the effects of poverty than their female counterparts. A recent study, for example, found that the negative impact of growing up in poor and economically, racially, or ethnically segregated neighborhoods was significantly greater for boys than for girls. Young men are more than 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than young women, and this gap has grown wider since 2010.

3Hispanic and black boys and youth, with some exceptions, generally experience worse outcomes than their male white counterparts.

Part of the recent concern for young males focuses in particular on boys of color, whose experience may reflect an intersection of race and gender that puts them at a dual disadvantage.
Racial/ethnic disparities are evident early in life. Black and Hispanic young boys are less likely than their white peers to be read to frequently, or told stories-both important early-literacy-promoting activities. Young Hispanic and black boys are much less likely to have their parents take them on frequent outings into the community-activities that help all children develop background knowledge important for literacy. Black males (but not Hispanic males) are much more likely than their white counterparts to have a television, computer, or other electronic device in their room (72 versus 54 percent, respectively). Research finds that having these devices in a child’s room may interfere with getting adequate sleep, as well as make it more difficult for parents to monitor the quantity and quality of their child’s time with these.
When it comes to the school setting, Hispanic males (according to their parents) have the highest level of engagement, followed by whites and blacks. However, both black and Hispanic males are more likely than their white peers to have been retained in grade. Gaps in academic achievementassociated with race and Hispanic origin are well documented. Black males are more likely than whites to be the subject of a school’s contacting parents to report problems, although studies examining racial differences in student behavior have generally failed to find significant differences. Both Hispanic and black young males are less likely than their white peers to have a non-parental adult they can rely on. Both black and Hispanic boys are less likely than white boys are to participate in after-school activities, including sports and clubs.
Both black and Hispanic young males are more likely than white young males to have experienced a number of potentially traumatic events associated with later stress-related illnesses. These include witnessing domestic violence, being exposed to financial hardship, having been a victim of or witness to neighborhood violence, and having experienced racism. Black males are more likely than whites to have lived with a parent who was incarcerated or who died. On the other hand, white males are more likely than black males to have lived with an adult with a substance abuse problem, and white males are more likely than Hispanics to have lived with a mentally ill, suicidal, or severely depressed adult (10 versus 6 percent).

4In some cases, the gender gap is wider, or narrower, among children and youth in one racial/ethnic group than it is among children and youth overall.

Among black students, the gender gaps in sports participation (favoring males), and in caring about doing well in school (favoring females), are significantly greater than they are within the overall sample. Among Hispanic students, the gender gap in caring about doing well in school is significantly smaller than in the overall sample. Among white students, the gender gap in participation in after-school activities (favoring females) is even greater than it is in the overall sample, and the gender gap in sports participation is smaller (favoring males).

5Families, schools, and neighborhoods have opportunities to improve boys' outcomes.

The respective roles that genetics, child temperament, parenting style, neighborhoods, the school environment, and other factors may play in these gender differences are incompletely understood. But there are opportunities at multiple levels, from the family to the community, for practice and policy changes to improve outcomes for all children.2 The gender stereotypes that persist in many families, and the number of children living with their single mothers only (particularly high among black children), may contribute to some of the challenges boys and young men face. A number of parenting interventions, such as Triple P and The Incredible Years, have been shown to be effective in improving both parenting practices and child outcomes. Schools are another place where increased attention to meeting the specific needs of boys may be called for to address the disaffection and lack of engagement more often experienced by male students. Like families, schools often participate in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, both explicitly and implicitly. In the k-12 years, women make up the majority of teachers – 97 percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers, 81 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, and 57 percent of secondary school teachers. At school, greater time for active play (such as recess), could contribute to environments that are more congenial to many boys’ dispositions. At the same time, there are school-based programs, such as Second Step, that show effectiveness at addressing problem behaviors predominantly experienced by boys. Mass media continue to perpetuate a range of restrictive stereotypes for both males and females, including roles as the predominant perpetrators and victims, respectively, of violence.

[1] Source: 2011/12 National Survey of Children’s Health. Throughout this document, any uncited statistics come from original Child Trends analysis of this data set.
[2] The Child Trends report Are the Children Well? provides in-depth recommendations of ways early learning environments, schools, parents, and communities can promote mental wellness in children.