Michael Gurian wrote the book, The Wonder of Boys, back in 1995. (He wrote The Wonder of Girls in 2003.) A therapist, author, and educator, he is the co-founder of The Gurian Institute, which informs teachers of the brain-based differences between boys and girls and how these influence the learning styles and strengths of each. The Institute’s gender-based learning strategies have been implemented in more than two thousand schools nationwide, where they have improved teacher effectiveness; closed gender gaps across curricula; closed achievement gaps, especially in literacy, math, and science; and significantly improved student behavior with corresponding decreases in disciplinary referrals.
Gurian believes there are three primary factors that govern male behavior: nature, nurture, and culture. The first and most important factor is nature; biology. Mediated by testosterone and the Y chromosome, boys develop differently than girls even when they are in the womb. When we understand this, Gurian writes, we “give [boys] the love, structure, discipline, and wisdom they, in particular need. We don’t create more random violence; we ensure less of it; we don’t make boys into men who victimize women, we ensure less victimization of women.”
Biology is not everything, however, and Gurian also believes boys need much more from us than they’re getting in terms of “nurture” and “culture.” In fact, Gurian says, it takes three families to raise a healthy boy to healthy manhood. The first is the nuclear family; the second is the extended one; and the third is the culture and community at large—the media, church groups, government, and other influential institutions. Together these three families comprise a boy’s tribe.
Boys need a tribe, Gurian says, to feel safe and loved and understand their connection to the world. Without a functioning tribe, boys create their own dysfunctional tribal units. That is the case today, with many boys assigning themselves into subgroups—including some that are anti-social (criminals, gang-members, sexual predators); some that are unable to commit to long-term relationships with mates; and some that are emotionally unskilled at raising healthy children to adulthood. Thus, we have “many males living without a life-defining or confident sense of spiritual purpose,” Gurian says.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we understand “the wonder of boys”—the unique characteristics that make boys who they are—we appreciate and speak to these qualities, rather than try to regulate, medicate, or exterminate them away.
Dr. Gurian spoke with me at length by phone for this issue of The MOON.
The MOON: What’s wonderful about boys, as distinct from girls? How can we affirm the wonder of boys?
Gurian: There are approximately 3.5 billion males in the world, and approximately 3.5 billion females. All 3.5 billion males are male, but their brains will fall out along a spectrum that might include homosexual males, transgender males, and all other types of variation in human beings that are still male, as defined by the structure of their brains. About twenty percent of males are what we call “bridge-brained.” They’re not as aggressive as other males, not as competitive, etc. These boys’ brains—if you scanned them—would be more “feminine,” which means they’d have more development in the verbal-emotional regions from early on. Their brains are literally a hybrid, or bridge, between a classically “masculine” and a classically “feminine” brain. At the same time, most boys are more rough-and-tumble than these boys, less verbal-emotive after adolescence, more competitive (think of videogames) than some folks would like. Overall, boys learn and grow differently from girls. In our schools, we are seeing how many of these more masculine boys are being lost. Ironically, we’ve forgotten that for all boys, and especially the majority of boys, masculinity is central to what’s wonderful about them. Boys want to be heroic; they want to be courageous and brave; they want to find themselves through falling apart and then rebuilding themselves.
For example, when they read Harry Potter books, they see a guy who is kind of alone and thus must self-generate because his nurturing system has fallen apart. This is also typical of Charles Dickens’ males—who, like many males, have to rebuild themselves because their lives have fallen apart. Unfortunately, our culture today sees many of these boys (and many of our sons) as either not “alpha” enough (not the top dog), or not “bridge-brain” enough (too masculine). As a society, we have come to a point of significant confusion about all these boys and what makes them wonderful, even coming to the point of thinking that “male” or “masculine” is inherently defective. It’s not. While it can be abused and used to hurt people, for the most part the whole spectrum of males hides a lot of wonder. In fact, the “masculine spirit” is built into boys’ brains in utero and coming on the Y chromosome. Boys come out of the womb with a formatting for non-verbal, spatial, kinesthetic activity on the right side of the brain. In the areas where girls’ brains come out ready to use words, boys’ brains come out ready to move around, kick and jump, even be more aggressive and competitive than a lot of people want to tolerate.