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December 27, 2010

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Save the boys

IT'S surprising but true: In a male-dominated society where many people still want boy babies, boys lag far behind girls academically and they're turning into sissies. Tan Weiyun reports on bashful boys.

One seven-year-old first-grade boy in Shanghai sometimes bursts into tears when told that his school work is poor. A 10th grader still wants his mother to wash his back in the bath and cuddle him until he falls asleep. A fresh college graduate is so bashful and insecure that he doesn't know how to approach girls and has taken a course on dating.

They are examples of China's soft and bashful boys who need toughening up. They speak quietly, they're hesitant and hang back and many lack the drive that will see them through school and into adulthood. Some are quite effeminate, members of the "flowery boy" generation, and there are famous examples of boys having trouble tying their shoelaces because their mothers have done it for them for years.

One of the strongest indicators of the "boys problem" - some call it a crisis - is their overall academic performance.

While many are brilliant and some are high achievers, a great many have been left in the dust academically and overshadowed and outperformed by their assertive girl classmates.

Save the boys. This is the urgent message of educators Sun Yunxiao, Li Wendao and Zhao Xia from Beijing's Capital Normal University in their latest (summer 2010) book, "Rescue Our Boys."

It encapsulates the ongoing debate about feminization of boys and is especially meaningful in Shanghai where men are famously described and caricatured as being passive, mild and dominated by mothers and wives.

A teacher (Wang Guangqiang) in Shenzhen tells Shanghai Daily in a letter that he is distressed by the "grotesque" appearance of a boy dressed as a girl in a recent TV competition (Opinion Page 6, "Pampering and too many women turn boys into weaklings").

"I've noticed the disturbing phenomenon that some boys are more withdrawn, timid and unadventurous than girls ... less assertive, valiant and willing to compete," he observes. He concludes: "Shall we do something about this?"

The authors concur. "After more than 18 months of study and research, we're surprised to discover that the 'boys problem' in China is worse than we expected," says Li, a researcher at the university's Education College.

For years, he has been studying the relationship between gender and education.

"The state of boys in China is an urgent issue that we must face and tackle," he told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview.

The authors analyze official statistics, research and studies carried out in more than 100 schools and universities over 10 years. Their conclusion: Chinese boys and young men are in full rout, from academics to health and physiques to psychological stamina and stability.

From primary school to university as girls and young women overwhelmingly take top grades, honors and leadership roles.

In one survey carried out among 600 Shanghai primary and middle school students, girls get higher scores than boys by about 20 percent and are far and solidly ahead in subjects such as Chinese, English and math. (See sidebar, Boys by the numbers.)

A similar academic gender gap also observed in the West and other countries where girls outperform boys, but the situation appears especially serious in China where decades of a one-child policy have focused all parental attention on a single child. It's also ironic that boys appear especially at a disadvantage in a male-dominated society where many people prefer boy babies.

This general state of affairs the authors and many others attribute to China's rigid education system that doesn't accommodate boys' and girls' differing physiological and brain development; pressure to perform; overprotection and pampering by parents and grandparents; and an environment at home and school that is dominated by women and lacks strong male role models.

"For years we've focused more on girls' rights to receive equal education. But we unintentionally neglected boys and their worsening crisis," says coauthor Sun, also deputy director of the China Youth Research Center. If this continues, we will have a new gender imbalance," Sun says.


Some educators say the "boys' crisis" is an exaggeration.

"The situation isn't so bad that they have to be 'saved'," says psychology professor Yuan Jun from Shanghai Normal University. "We don't need to panic. Overemphasizing it might make the situation worse."

Wu Zengqiang, an expert from the Shanghai Academy of Educational Sciences, agrees that "boys have issues" but wouldn't call it the situation dire.

He does agree that boys are less independent, brave and determined than they should.

Parents spoil them and coop them up indoors instead of letting them run around outside because they think nature and vigorous exercise are dangerous.

Whether or not they agree there's a boys "crisis," most experts agree China's test-oriented, scores-are-everything education system leaves much to be desired and drives both boys and girls too hard.

Author Sun argues that it's bad for both boys and girls as individuals but says the system does more harm to boys.

"In a system that ignores gender differences and demands every student be quiet and obedient, there are heavy shackles on boys who have at least 15 times more testosterone than girls," he says. "Boys and girls are not parts on an assembly line that have the same size, shape and function."

Boys' ability to read and write develops two years later than girls, even nerves in a boys' fingers grow more slowly than girls, says Sun.

"My son has trouble holding a brush and writing Chinese characters with complicated strokes," says one man. Girls do better earlier, though boys catch up as their coordination improves.

"But they are required to learn the same thing at the same speed. This is so unfair," Sun says.

Some boys are regarded as slow or silly because they have so much energy and have a hard time sitting still. "This can make them hate school starting in the first grade," says Sun.

Though boys need to run around, many schools eliminate vigorous and demanding physical exercise for both boys and girls - lest accidents result in lawsuits. Exuberance is generally discouraged.

"The education system is more suitable for girls, who are good at memorizing and like sitting quietly to read," says author Li.

Girly boys

There's a consensus that boys are behaving more like girls, giving rise to the pretty boy or flowery boy phenomenon, which is very evident in TV talent shows for young people.

"Paternal education is almost zero in a Chinese family, where the father is responsible of making money and the mother is responsible for educating and communicating with the children," author Li says.

This makes boys girlish and not brave enough, he says. "At home they depend on their moms, while at school most teachers from kindergarten to high school are female."

The father of the seven-year-old first-grader says boys are overprotected and overburdened. One child can be indulged by as many as six adults, he notes.

"My son struggles to keep up in school while at home he is often literally 'hand-fed' by a grandmother who insists that he eat, though he has lost his appetite by eating so much junk food.

"When he is criticized, he sometimes bursts into tears."

"Boys today are not masculine enough," says Yang Guofang, a retired Chinese teacher in Xinsong High School in Minhang District. Yang remembers a 10th grader who insisted his mother sit with him while he did his homework, wash his back in the bathtub and cuddle him until he fell asleep.

"This was abnormal and I suggested the mother take him to a psychologist," says Yang. "But she said the behavior was no big deal and he would grow out of it without problems."

Guy talk

Many people agree that boys need to toughen up, tap into that male energy and are in need of strong male role models in a world of newly assertive women.

But not much is done about recognizing a passage from boyhood to manhood. In fact, it seems to be missing, an artifact of early times.

Shi Qi, a 26-year-old engineer, says the only person who ever talked to him about being a man was not his father but his Chinese teacher in high school - and that only happened once.

"I remember he gave us a 'man-talk.' He dismissed the girls and told us about becoming a man. He said we were at the turning point from boyhood to manhood and we had to get ready both physically and mentally," Shi recalls.

"We were told to be gentlemen to the girls, to take responsibility for parents and family and other things."

He says he didn't pay much attention at the time. "But when we entered the real world, it was much tougher than our teacher told us in high school.

"Actually, it was already late, and one lesson was far from enough."

When they leave school many young men are unprepared for fierce job competition and ambitious and assertive girls are already in the lead.

"Girls study harder because they know they have to be far better than their male rivals to get good jobs," author Sun observes. "China is still a male-dominated country and boys do have more opportunities than girls."

The most urgent task, according to the authors, is to give boys a better start and change the education system in fundamental ways that benefits both boys and girls.

"Real fairness would give enough growing space to both boys and girls," says author Li.

"And let them develop true to their nature," he adds.

Boys by a few of the numbers

From primary school through university, the gender gap is significant and persistent. Here are a few findings:

A poll cited by the authors among 301 middle school teachers in Guangdong Province indicates that girls dominate the top 20 percent of most classes and most class leaders are girls.

From 1999 to 2008 in the national college entrance exam, the highest score holders, or zhuangyuan, were overwhelmingly girls. Statistics show the ratio of boy zhuangyuan slid from 66.2 percent in 1999 to 39.7 percent in 2008, while the proportion of girls jumped from 33.8 percent to the 60.3 percent in the same period.

Another survey conducted among 6,539 students from 26 high schools in Chongqing City shows that boys' average score is 624.27, while girls' is 632.28.

National college statistics show that in 1995 female enrollment accounted for only 34.5 percent, while in 2007 the figure jumped to almost 50 percent.

Among 50,000 winners of the national scholarship in the past two years, only 17,367 are boys.


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