Mar 6, 2011

A review of Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax

I had a friend who recently recommended a book to read for anyone who has boys.  It is called Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax.  Since I have a son and I value the opinion of this friend I decided I would read this book.  To my delight, there was a Kindle edition of the book on Amazon and the majority of its reviews were 4+ stars, so I purchased it and had it on my Kindle within a few minutes.  Over the next 2 weeks, in between finishing season 8 of 24 and work, I finished the book.

Here's my short summary of the book: it is fantastic.  I add my recommendation to that of my friend's in that I feel this is a must read book for parents of young boys.  Now, continue reading for my slightly more thorough review of the book's main points and some of my favorite passage.

As the subtitle to the book indicates, Sax breaks the book down into five main factors that he feels are most at fault for the issue at hand.  In order, they are:

The First Factor: Changes in Education
  • The emphasis on learning to read and write has gone from the 1st and 2nd grade to kindergarten.
  • Learning through books and learning through real life experience have become imbalanced.
  • Forms of academic and athletic competition are being removed from schools.
This was one of the factors that I knew very little about before.  Despite my lack of experience in elementary education, Sax's points seem to be very logical.  I am especially interested in the points he made regarding the changes in kindergarten curriculum to start focusing on reading and writing.  I have noticed among my own peers that it seems there are less and less men that enjoy reading and writing.  I wonder, as Sax contends, if this is due in part to trying to get boys to begin learning to read and write prior to when they're ready.

My tentative responses to what Sax goes over in this section are:
  1. Start my son later in kindergarten, such as when he is six instead of five.
  2. Try to expose my son to more outdoor, hands-on, 'dirty' activities.
  3. Encourage healthy academic and athletic competition.
M favorite passages related to this section:

"Trying to teach five-year-old boys to learn to read and write may be just as inappropriate as it would be to try to teach three-year-old girls to read and write. Timing is everything, in education as in many other fields. It’s not enough to teach well. You have to teach well to kids who are ready to learn, kids who are developmentally “ripe” for learning. Asking five-year-old boys to learn to read—when they’d rather be running around or playing games—may be the worst possible introduction to school, at least for some boys."

"Finland, incidentally, consistently scores at or near the very top of all of these international [academic] rankings. What’s the most distinctive characteristic of public education in Finland? Very simple: Children in Finland don’t begin any formal school until they are seven years old."

"How could starting kids in school two years later lead to superior performance when those children become teenagers? Simple. If kids start school two years later and are taught material when they are developmentally prepared to learn, kids are less likely to hate school. If kids don’t hate school, it’s easier to get them to learn. If kids do hate school, as many American boys do, then the teacher is starting out with a major handicap before even stepping into the classroom."

"[R]esearch demonstrated that children must have a rich, interactive sensory environment—touching, smelling, seeing, hearing the real world—in order for the child’s brain and mind to develop properly. Without such real-world experiences, the child’s development will be impaired."

The Second Factor: Video Games
  • Many boys now prefer the video game version over the real thing.
  • Video games disconnect boys from the real world and what really happens in life. 
I have a pretty strong stance regarding video games and my children; both my spouse and I agree that we're going to severely limit, if not completely restrict, the amount of exposure our children get to video games.  Ironically, many people who know me know that in my youth I played many, many hours of video games.  Even after returning from the Philippines and a 2-year abstinence of video games I had another bout of playing video games again.  I'm happy to say that I am now 'clean' of video games.  I respect other people's decisions to invest in and play video games.  But, I know if I get another video game system for myself I do not have sufficient self control to adequately limit myself.

This section reinforced many rules I already had envisioned for my kids.  Prior to reading this section, I had gone on a YouTube rampage one evening where I watched a bunch of videos of kids and teenagers who are overly obsessed with video games getting very upset and angry when their video games are taken away with them. (Try going to YouTube and searching for world of warcraft freak out.  Warning: some of them contain bad language.) Both this section of the book and those videos strongly convinced me to keep my children away from the video game world.

My response to what Sax goes over in this section is:
  1. No video games for myself or for my children.
My favorite passages related to this section:

"Nature is about smelling, hearing, tasting," author Richard Louv reminds us. The end result of a childhood with more time spent in front of computer screens than outdoors is what Louv calls "cultural autism." The symptoms? Tunneled senses, and feelings of isolation and containment . . . [and] a wired, know-it-all state of mind. That which cannot be Googled does not count."

"Video games have displaced a major activity in the lives of teenage boys, but that activity isn’t reading; it’s playing outdoors. In 1980, many boys spent lots of time playing outdoors. Today, those boys are more likely to spend that time indoors with the GameCube or the PlayStation or the Xbox. That may be one reason why boys today are four times more likely to be obese compared with boys a generation ago."

"A series of studies over the past seven years has demonstrated clearly and unambiguously that the more time your child spends playing video games, the less likely he is to do well in school—whether he is in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college." 

"The destructive effects of video games are not on boys’ cognitive abilities or their reaction times, but on their motivation and their connectedness with the real world."

The Third Factor: Medications for ADHD and The Fourth Factor: Endocrine Disruptors

These are two of the factors that I know the least about.  I will not say much on them because I do not know enough about these topics to form an opinion.  I do agree with Sax on what he says concerning these factors, it is just I do not know enough to defend my opinions.  I hope to find a book or two that will enlighten me more on these topics.  Recommendations, anyone?

My favorite passages related to this section:

"I’ve come to believe that we should not medicate boys so they fit the school; we should change the school to fit the boy."

"What these parents don’t know—and what the doctor also may not know—is that even relatively short-term use of these drugs, for just a year or perhaps less, can lead to changes in personality. The boy who used to be agreeable, outgoing, and adventurous becomes lazy and irritable."

The Fifth Factor: The Loss of Positive Role Models
  • Reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes are discouraged in schools/life.
  • Many of the popular male figures in society are not the type of men our boys should be looking up to.
I have always known that giving a child a positive role model to look up to is important.  Sax makes many keen observations on this matter that I had not yet realized.

My favorite passages related to this section:

"A boy is likely to become the kind of man he sees around him. A boy needs role models of healthy masculinity (just as girls need role models of healthy femininity).  If you don't provide him with healthy role models, he may choose the unhealthy role models offered by the marketplace, from rap music or television or movies or even video games. The challenge is analogous to nutrition. Left to their own devices, not many boys will choose broccoli and Brussels sprouts over french fries and ice cream. That's why they need parents. It's the job of the parents to guide their son to make the right choice."

"There are life-affirming gender roles and there are gender stereotypes that are harmful and destructive. The "dumb blonde" is a negative and destructive stereotype, as is the "dumb jock." But no one should condemn as a gender stereotype the ideal of the husband and father who sacrifices himself for the sake of his wife and children. Instead, that ideal should be affirmed as role model."

Overall, I think this is a very well written book and deserves the high ratings and reviews that it has received. While I still hope to find many additional sources and information on the topics Sax covered, I feel that this is an excellent foundation to have for any person involved in the raising of boys.


  1. Though I haven't read the book, it sounds very interesting, and has good starting points for discussion.
    One point that I think makes a big difference in a child's(son's) learning and education is parental involvement. A parent knows their child better than anyone else and can guide accordingly.
    I also think that letting children(boys) simply play, lends itself to all sorts of learning, both socially and academically. Physical play also keeps kids at a healthy weight.
    It is alarming(and even sad) to realize that basic writing and reading skills are going by the wayside, being replaced by texting(shorthand), video games and social networks. Writing and reading will never go out of style and connecting to people face to face is important for emotional well-being.

  2. Jesse, I am so glad you enjoyed it... My whole family is into it now, it is one of those books you want to share with the world because it is so important.

    About the endocrine disruptors...I haven't read an entire book about it but I have long heard that plastics are bad for us, and microwaves as well - but the two together is really bad. Anyway, for your info you can go to almost any store now and get "BPA free" plastics and those are fine to use...make sure sippy cups and bottles say BPA free. There are also certain recycling codes at the bottom of the plastic that are safe....see this artcle for more info:

    Thanks for the synopsis, I totally agree with your video game fact Moema probably told you how I made him promise when we got engaged that he would never play video games - I have had two friends who got divorced, video games being a major factor.

    One thing this book makes me realize is that the church really helps our young men by allowing them to interact with older men, have a sort of initiation into manhood through a mission, and even scouts gives them some outdoor learning opportunities. I believe this is why Mormon men are some of the most sucessful in the world, and if current trends continue will continue to gain influence. Also, hopefully Mormon mothers are not allowing the overuse of video games.

    Anyway, thanks again for the wonderful review.

  3. That's good to know about the plastics, thanks.

    I noticed that same thing about the church as I was reading the book. I kept thinking, "Hey, we do something like this already in church!" It's always really neat when you can see church programs or principles that have been in place for a long time that get supported by recent research.

    Send on any other book recommendations you have.

  4. This sounds like a very interesting book. I will have to check it out. Thanks for sharing your review!

    I do think a lot does depend on the individual child and as parents teaching your child on a day-to-day basis and using the moments of life as teaching opportunities in an informal way.

  5. I will recommend this book to my children especially to Kuya Bong who also has a son already. :) I would like to read it, too. Thank you, Jesse.