We need to focus more on boys
For girls, no shortage of female role models
WITH POVERTY RATES at their highest in Massachusetts since 1960, it should have come as no surprise to see youth violence increase in our urban communities last summer. Recent news has uncovered how adolescents, particularly boys, are targeted by gangs who constantly measure their potential and aim to recruit them. These are certainly not the male leaders we want our sons to aspire to – but in an environment that lacks sufficient role models, they all too often succumb to the pressure.
Youth violence is just one of the many detriments associated with a disadvantaged start for children in under-resourced areas. The range of stressors that children are exposed to can lead to long-term developmental consequences, especially for boys. Boys are much more sensitive to these circumstances than girls, a concept that was explored in a recent Northwestern study. Most single-family homes are led by mothers, leaving boys often without a consistent male presence in their lives. Additionally, these boys grow up with fewer male figures, as women typically outnumber men as leaders in their extended family, school, community, and church. Further complicating things, our society constantly encourages boys to act like men, urging them to withhold emotions even at a young age. The specific needs for boys aren’t adequately addressed in today’s under-resourced communities, and with an absence of the social and emotional skills needed to thrive, aggressive and risky behaviors are likely to increase as young males struggle to overcome the challenges of difficult neighborhoods and schools.
Without the guidance of positive male adult role models, the emotional, social, and academic skills necessary for boys in under-resourced communities to succeed are inhibited. The Massachusetts Department of Education notes that in the 2013-2014 school year, males accounted for more than half (60.7 percent) of state-wide dropouts. The ripple effect of a lack of education doesn’t just impact the children in question; these statistics account for the growing achievement gap in Massachusetts – which was first brought to attention in a 2011 CommonWealth magazine article. If we don’t start working to equalize opportunities for boys and girls alike, our economy will continue to lack skilled workers, simply because those individuals did not have the infrastructure to succeed early on.
There are various programs aimed to assist in the guidance of underprivileged youth in Massachusetts, such as formal mentoring initiatives, after-school programs, and clubs geared toward sports or specific interests. However, many programs do not take gender into consideration, often focusing solely on girls or girls and boys together. Despite disadvantaged boys having a larger need for mentorship, modern society focuses more on funding girl-focused programs. Within this list of Mass Mentoring Partnership programs, there are 11 girl-specific program names and only one boy-specific.
For young girls, there is no shortage of female role models as women are much more proactive in mentoring; unfortunately, the situation is a bit more dire for boys as males are less likely to volunteer time as a mentor. Additionally, girls are more inclined to accept mentorship at any age and socio-economic status. An early intervention in a young boy’s life could drastically alter his development, and yet there is a consistent lack of male role models. The need for male mentors who not only can teach boys how to develop social and emotional skills but also explore the possibility of higher education, careers, and a positive, productive future is immediate. The consistent presence of an adult male expecting and encouraging young males in under-resourced communities to reach their potential is a missing, and crucial, piece in the growth of today’s disadvantaged youth.While we may not be able to change the current life circumstances for boys in low-income communities, we can certainly work to make an impact on their futures. Participation in a formal mentorship program isn’t the only option for male role models. Male volunteers can impact young males by coaching a local sports team, getting involved on a school board, or being an active member in the community. This variety in volunteer options is hopeful, and yet as a society we still need to develop an ecosystem that provides equal support to both girls and boys alike. Developing boy-specific programs will largely lessen the detriment of a disadvantaged start for young males. It isn’t enough to be a physical presence in a young boy’s life; it’s time we make a larger effort in actively helping these children transition from boyhood to adulthood by acknowledging their differing needs from girls. We can continue to reiterate low-income statistics to garner more support, or we can act – a simple notion proven to change a child’s life forever.
Richard Greif is the vice president of marketing, communications, and community relations at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay.