Let’s Give Boys Hope


by Cathy Lumsden

It takes a village to raise a child. So why are our boys losing their way? And where are we failing them as a society?

I don’t have the answers; however, I am deeply concerned. Two years ago I went to my eldest daughter’s university graduation. Her father was shocked by the graduation group. “Where are all the males?” he asked. It was and is shocking. These days females account for 60 percent of undergraduates, and statistics tell us this is the reverse of 1960s numbers. It’s good news for females, but what’s up with males?

How can we help them become more engaged in school? Where are they headed after high school? And if university or college isn’t the right fit, what else can they be motivated to do?

There are many questions, not so many answers.

 An article in Time magazine, What Schools Can Do To Help Boys Succeed, notes, “Young male rambunctiousness, according to a recent study, leads teachers to underestimate their intellectual and academic abilities.” The author, Christina Hoff Sommers, suggests three options for assisting these kids:

  1. Utilize Recess and Gym: Boys need to run and play to eliminate some of their squirming and restlessness.
  2. Turn Boys Into Readers: Assist them to find subject matter they like, whether it’s sports, science or comics. Reading is the foundation upon which all learning is built.
  3. Work With the Young Male Imagination: If what they naturally gravitate to is constantly berated they will become disengaged.

There are awesome teachers in our school boards who have contributed to significant change and who have provided students with encouragement, acceptance and hope. A wonderful example is the Upper Canada District School Board’s #seemyvoice campaign to promote equity and inclusion. Students and staff members have been challenged to share positive #seemyvoice messages to making the greater school community safer and more inclusive.

Lost Boys

 “Lost Boys” is a term researchers and authors are using to describe this generation. As a psychotherapist, I find that some males begin to give up on school around Grade 10, occasionally even earlier. These boys gave their best in Grade 9, then became discouraged for a variety of reasons. I also see the dispirited 20-something males, who don’t know where to start to get back on track.

One question I struggle with is this: are they really lost or are they giving us a clear message that the traditional approach in government, school and homes isn’t working? Perhaps this is the chaos before the resolution.

New research suggests our society is producing boys who are not motivated to start their careers. They struggle through high school, drop out of college and surf the internet. I believe these behaviors are symptoms of discouraged, disengaged males who are using avoidance strategies to escape feelings of failure. Mental health issues are on the rise. The ripple effect is huge.


Dan Siegel, psychiatrist and author of What We Can Learn From The Teenage Brain, offers a fresh perspective on teenagers. He identifies four traits that characterise the teen years: novelty seeking, social engagement, emotional intensity and creative exploration.  Some boys seem to have these in abundance. I recommend we celebrate these qualities and set age-appropriate boundaries so teenagers can tap into their innate talents and strengths, and remain engaged in life.

We parents are the guardrails so they don’t fall off the bridge. Teenagers’ brains, especially their prefrontal cortices, are not fully developed until they reach age 25.  

As adults and parents, our prefrontal cortices are equipped for logical reasoning, brainstorming, delaying immediate gratification, and regulating emotional intensity. So it’s up to us to guide or redirect teens (not that they like it) to make wiser choices.

Learning to regulate your prefrontal cortex is your job as a parent. When you revert to age 16 and battle with your kids, nothing is accomplished. Instead, like many parents, you can wind up either capitulating or resorting to extremes, such as grounding for a year. From my professional experience, when boys are harshly punished by infuriated adults, they begin to resist and defy adult authority. So what starts with the good intention of motivating your teen to do better turns into a power struggle that nobody wins.

As parents, educators and citizens of this childrearing village called society, we need to recognize boys are in crisis and to listen to their voices. We need to explore alternative ideas to engage them, to motivate them, and to support them to find themselves. Perhaps we can use our novelty seeking, emotional intensity and creative exploration capacities to help make this happen.

As Donald Sutherland voiced so eloquently as President Snow in The Hunger Games, “Hope is the second strongest emotion after fear.” It’s our obligation as a society to give boys hope. 

Cathy Lumsden, psychotherapist, researcher and international speaker, has 25 years plus of experience counselling over 100,000 individual adults, families, teenagers and children. She has been an Associate with the Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group since 1993.

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