In Defense of Boys


My time as a child was filled with boys. I had two brothers and a gaggle of male cousins. The only other girl, Ingrid, and I were the only girls at extended family gatherings, at least until the guys began to marry. When I became a mom my world changed completely when I had two girls. I sometimes wondered if my husband felt overwhelmed by all of the estrogen. As a grandmother I was back to what I had known as a young girl when six of my seven grandchildren turned out to be boys. I adjusted to the rough housing and gross jokes quickly because the habits of young males were all quite familiar to me. 

I have to note that neither my brothers nor my cousins ever treated me as though I was somehow less than they were just because I was a girl. The only abuse that I sometimes endured from them came in the form of crass jokes that I soon enough learned to laugh about. All of those guys celebrated my successes and encouraged me to reach for all of my dreams. When I met my husband the supportiveness continued on steroids. I grew up believing that I was one hundred percent equal to any man which is why I find myself wanting to defend young boys these days from a kind of implied assault from rabid feminism. As sometimes happens the effort to create a level playing field for women has at times resulted in some people believing that the only way for girls to rise up is to pull down the guys. Because of my own positive relationship with boys I find this kind of thinking not only to be troublesome, but more pervasive than it needs to be.

Of late, and in particular during Women’s History month, I have read a number of opinion pieces that are tearing into parenting practices for young boys and even the record of male accomplishments in the past. It is as though our society is in attack mode when it comes to maleness and that worries me for the sake of the boys as well as the girls. It’s important that we keep our perspective when it comes to raising our children and preparing them for the adult world. We have to remember that there are physical and psychological differences between all children and most especially between males and females. Teaching each person how to become healthy and happy requires individualization and an appreciation of diversity.

We sometimes hear of the battle of the sexes, and in truth we should not think of the realization of goals as being a kind of war. Certainly there are instances when girls are abused or harassed by men, but we all know of cases when women have taken advantage of good men as well. We should be aware of such outlying behavior, but also admit that for the most part the relationships between boys and girls, men and women is more akin to my own positive experiences. Our goal in raising our children should be to continually emphasize a spirit of mutual respect between all people regardless of sex. We only create more tension by insisting that boys are somehow a privileged lot who must be humbled so that girls will finally get their turn.

I go to the gym five or six times a week and I am steadily becoming stronger but I can’t help but notice that even the weaker men who use the weight machines before me are capable of lifting poundage that is far beyond my capacity. I don’t believe that this is because we have somehow given men more opportunities and encouragement for physical development, but because they have a different genetic and physical structure. When it comes to intellect the playing field is much more equal. Through hard work I was able to rise to the number one rank in my high school class. I did that not because someone held back the young men so that I would make better grades, but because I put in a bit more effort. Nonetheless, I always understood and appreciated that the males in my classes were as capable as I was. I just ended up with a slightly higher GPA than they did. In the end we were generally equal in abilities.

I had every opportunity accorded to the men both in college and in my career. I made my own choices and when I encountered the occasional male chauvinist pig I ignored him and worked even harder. Mostly the males with whom I worked pushed me to advance and be successful just as my brothers and boy cousins had. Ironically I was more likely to find problems with women than men when it came to road blocks on the job, so I’ve always wondered why our society is more and more often setting up barriers for boys while opening the gates for women.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of women to tackle male dominated jobs, and I am a realist when it comes to accepting the fact that there will be those who still harbor very old fashioned ideas about the roles of men versus women. I just want to be certain that in our enthusiasm to remember the women we do not steamroll the men. Progress is of little value if it comes at the cost of damaging half of the population.

So as we celebrate the advances of women and do our best to continue the progress that has been made, let’s all agree not to trample on the boys in our enthusiasm. We need for all people to be able to make the best of the talents and intellectual abilities that they have. Our goal should be to raise each child in an environment that motivates and inspires. Our focus should be more on the future and less on the mistakes and injustices of the past. If we are constantly indicting the boys for sins that we worry that they might one day commit we will stifle them in nonproductive ways just as was sometimes done in the past with girls.

Girl power is wonderful, but so is boy power. Together we can make a better more equitable world, but if we continually devolve into quibbling and put downs we haven’t got a chance. It’s time to work for everyone in a spirit of fairness. That’s how we create the adults who will one day be able to carry on the work of humankind.

The Strength Of Joining Forces


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. Coincidental with that event were a number of articles and programs dedicated to women’s issues. Among them was a piece discussing a women’s conference that was held in Houston, Texas back in the nineteen seventies. It was attended by the feminist stars of the day including Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, and Gloria Steinem. My good friend Marita was among the thousands of attendees and she gushed for weeks about what she had seen and heard. With her ever present Irish humor she also purchased a couple of towels at the event bearing an image of a pig and the words “male chauvinist pig.” She impishly presented them to her husband and mine causing all of us to laugh because neither of the two men had a chauvinist bone in their bodies. They were instead very supportive of both of us and proud of whatever path we chose to travel.

Marita ultimately became an attorney and I went all in for education. We were independent women who wanted different things which to me was the real point of women’s rights. Sadly not everyone, including Marita agreed with my thinking. In fact, one of the surprises of the Houston Women’s Conference was that it ended up with a schism among the ladies that has never really healed. As Gloria Steinem explained there was a rival conference across town designed to discuss issues important to women with more fundamentalist religious views. It was chaired by Phyllis Schafly and is sometimes credited with being the moment of when the religious right movement was born.

Ms. Steinem recently opined that the conference that should have launched a huge shift in women’s rights ultimately fizzled when the report that they sent then President Jimmy Carter was never addressed, but the fever of conservatism actually caught fire and began to burn brightly. “We lost,” she recently proclaimed. The conference that had been so hopeful for her became the important meeting that was seemingly forgotten.

I recall thinking at the time that the competing meetings represented a tendency of women that has been troublesome for centuries. Namely, for some reason too many of us of the female persuasion seem to believe that we must achieve all or walk away with nothing. We continually compete rather than compromise and our divisions make progress more difficult than it needs to be. We might find true power if only we were willing to honor all women regardless of differences. Instead we quibble and lose our advantage of numbers. We are not only fighting the status quo, but also battling with each other.

As someone who taught in middle school for a number of years I vividly recall the verbal spats between the girls that often became ferocious. In their adolescent frenzy they formed cliques that were akin to battle lines and attacked one another with hurtful wars of words. On any given day I was drying tears and attempting to arbitrate between conflicting groups and vicious comments. In some ways the continued divisions in the world of women remind me of those junior high days.

I suppose that if we had the power of going back in time to redo critical moments I would suggest to the female leaders of both the left and the right that women need to genuinely join hands to honor one another. It should not matter what choices each female makes, but that every girl is supported in her quest to live life to its fullest. I was intensely proud of Marita not because she was a lawyer, but because she achieved her own personal dream. I marvel just as much over my friend Linda who stood by her belief that the most important work that she might ever do was to be found in caring for her family and home. I have found few people as dedicated as she is and I am continually humbled by her example.

The truth is that many progressive women will fiercely defend a Muslim woman wearing a burka, but then poke fun at a fundamentalist Christian female who is pro life, somehow never noticing the hypocrisy of such thinking. At the same time, some very religious women are unwilling to accept or understand those who support Planned Parenthood or a lesbian lifestyle, They seemingly forget the parts of the Bible that tell them not to judge and to follow the commandment of love. There is a great wall between the two sides with most of us stuck in the middle feeling like I did when I attempted to quell the furor between my middle school girls. Until women everywhere stand up for each other without judgement or rancor we will all feel as if we have failed just as Ms. Steinem does.

The truth is that we really have come a long long way, but we still have problems that we must address. Culture is very difficult to change, but it is happening. There are now more women attending universities than men. Women are more and more often choosing majors and careers that were once male dominated. The barriers keeping women from breaking the glass ceiling are falling away. It’s a far better world for women than it was back in the nineteen seventies. That conference really didn’t fail after all. We have much to celebrate, and we need to do so together.

I long for the day when we women are capable of honoring Condoleeza Rice along with Hillary Clinton, Sara Palin with Elizabeth Warren. Our heroines should not be just those who think like we do. They should be all women who become successful at whatever they have chosen to do. The true women of distinction do not fit into a particular mold, but instead represent every possible point of view. Their strength is not found in their philosophies but in the capacity to love and survive.

Neither of my grandmothers were able to read or right, and yet they are two of the most powerful women that I have ever known. They taught me that I have the capacity to be as strong as any man. The showed me how powerful love can be. They helped me to understand the importance of honoring every single person.

I suppose that I will never forget a time when my grandmother Minnie Bell took me to see one of her Arkansas neighbors, a woman with ten children who lived in abject poverty. Before we arrived Grandma cautioned me to treat the lady with the utmost respect. She insisted that I was about to meet one of the greatest people ever, and in fact I was so taken by my grandmother’s admonitions that I was able to see past the dreary environment in which the woman lived. Instead I noticed her understated elegance and heard the intelligence in her conversation. I suppose that my grandmother in spite of her lack of education was a bit wiser than many of the leaders of various political movements aimed at women. She had the right idea and I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me. We women are capable and beautiful just as we are. If we stop long enough to actually listen to one another I think that we will begin to make the progress that we seek. There is power in our diversity, strength in joining forces.

Becoming Our Personal Bests


I was driving home in the dark after spending the evening helping my grandsons complete a Geometry test review. It had been a long day and I was quite tired so I needed some sound in the car to keep me alert during the fairly long journey. I keep my radio tuned to NPR and just as I had hope there was an interesting program on the air. All of the guests were speaking about the idea of giving humans a small nudge to motivate them to do something difficult. It seems that there is a right way to get people to take risks and a wrong way that makes them complacent and uncomfortable with trying new things. Unfortunately much of the parenting and guiding and teaching that we tend to do is often exactly the opposite of how best to inspire humans,

As a mom, grandmother and long time educator I found myself instantly fascinated with the topic, so I turned up the volume and listened intently to a parade of experts giving pointers on how to create adults who are willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. It seems that every single theory was grounded in the idea that making mistakes can be a powerful tool for learning as long as it happens in the right kind of environment. If the emphasis is on personal growth rather than ranking, an individual is far more likely to demonstrate a willingness to venture into uncharted waters. There is something in our human natures that wants to be adventurous, but we throw on the brakes of caution whenever we realize that we are being compared and judged. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our mistakes and so all too often we quietly give up rather than endure the pain associated with failure.

One of the guests discussing this issue spoke of an horrific childhood experience that she had with a teacher who seated children in the classroom in order of IQ, from highest to lowest. Aside from the personal humiliation associated with such an arrangement she noted that it created artificial barriers to learning in which those lowest in the ranking began to believe that they didn’t have a chance to improve or master new concepts. It also segregated the students from one another by making them believe that those at the front of the class were smart and part of an exclusive group and those at the end were hopelessly doomed to uninteresting lives. The woman who was subjected to this horrible situation still shudders at the psychological damage it did to her and her peers.

My own high school experience was not much better. We were grouped according to an entrance exam and previous grades. Each six weeks a list noting our class rank was posted on a bulletin board in the main hall. We gathered together each time it appeared to determine where we were in the order, trying not to look at the very bottom because we somehow understood that there was indignity associated with being last. To this day I shudder at the idea of such shameless and ignorant humiliation that the listing created and the fear that it planted in me.

As humans we are born with a willingness to try different things. As babies we innocently explore and develop. Nobody thinks it odd that each little one grows at his/her own pace. It is the natural way of things and generally there is no worry unless the child shows signs of some type of extreme difficulty. In those early years our curiosity is at a peak. We want to know about and try everything. Learning is natural and fun. It is only when we begin to impose the artifices of tests and grades and competitions that many children begin to waver. When they feel that they are being judged badly because they are not quite as good as their peers, they sometimes slowly become and less and less inclined to participate in the process. In fact, even those at the top reach a certain comfort level and sometimes stop exploring lest they fail and lose their status.

As adults we want to encourage our young to be the best versions of themselves and so whenever they succeed at an endeavor we tend to praise them not so much for the attempts as for the outward judgement of their accomplishment. In other words we celebrate a good grade more than we cheer on effort. We pin our hopes on winning rather than a willingness to try. There is a kind of invisible ranking by IQ or ability that destroys a young child’s natural instinct to try things out. It deadens their souls just a bit, and in the worst case scenario convinces them that their possibilities for life are severely limited.

Sometimes it has the most deleterious effect on those children who started out at the top. They become so accustomed to being the best that they come unglued at the first sign of a challenge. They question themselves and withdraw from the race. They choose easy pathways that allow them to maintain their status, but their interest in reaching higher and higher is stifled. This is particularly true whenever a child suddenly fails after a lifetime of seeming perfection. We sometimes neglect to show them how to rebound from disasters.

The world will no doubt always be competitive but during the formative years the ideal is to instill a growth mindset into our young. We must strive to praise hard work and progress as much as mastery. We need to break learning down into doable chunks and celebrate the achievement of reaching particular milestones as much as we do high marks.

I have learned from watching my grandsons in swimming and track that each effort that they make is measured in personal improvements that may be little more than a tenth of a second. The focus of competition is with themselves. They understand that by beating their own records they move closer and closer to besting those who run with them. Races are generally won with very small but important differences. My grandsons work hard to close the gaps and they begin with themselves. Even if they do not gain a medal, they feel excited when they learn that they have shaved just a bit more time off of their own records. Improvement is a slow but focused process that they keep chasing because they are willing to stay in the race.

We can do so much much better with our young, but for now it is a difficult battle as long as tests are used to rank them, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. We are killing the natural instincts and curiosity one mistake at a time. Instead of encouraging our children to develop a love of reading we force them to submit to comprehension tests having little to do with how we humans enjoy the written word. We make the world of mathematics terrifying and far more difficult than it needs to be. We mystify science and insinuate that only a select few will ever be bright enough to work with its principles. We categorize children before they have even had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the wonders of learning. By the time we are adults we have boxed ourselves into rigid mindsets from which few of us ever escape.

It’s time for an overhaul of how we guide and teach our children. We have the know how and potential to use our most precious resource to the fullest. We just need to begin.

The Art Of The Deal


My brothers and I were discussing our family heritage the other day. We are all too aware that the untimely death of our father changed the trajectory of our lives dramatically. We often wonder what things might have been like if…

Our daddy had an unstoppable sense of humor. His book collection included volumes filled with jokes. His favorite television programs featured comedians. He was a great storyteller and peppered his tales with yarns that made his friends laugh. He found something funny in the darnedest places and when they happened to be from real life, that was even better.

The first house that my parents purchased was in southeast Houston on Kingsbury Street in a new housing development like many that were springing up all across America in the years after World War II. My father had finally earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and he landed a job in downtown Houston. The location of the house was perfect for starting a new career and raising a family. Most of our neighbors were young like my parents and the men were college graduates engaged in all sorts of interesting professions. They had children in the same age groups as my brothers and I so there was always lots of fun to be had. 

Most of our moms stayed home back then while our fathers went to work each day. The women had routines that they carefully followed for the care of  their children and homes. I remember that my mother washed clothes on Mondays, which was a bigger deal than it might seem because dryers were still a dream of the future, and so she had to hang her wet items on a clothesline to dry in the sun. 

Tuesdays were for ironing and as I recall my mother had a bottle with a perforated lid that she would fill with water to shake on the clothes that needed a bit of steam from the iron. On Wednesdays our mother dusted and cleaned and mopped the wooden floors and linoleum until they gleamed. Sometimes she even used floor wax to achieve a better shine. Thursdays were reserved for her sewing and mending. She made all of my clothing and most  of hers. Friday brought meal planning, dusting and changing the linens on the bed. Saturdays meant shopping trips and Sundays were for church and visiting grandparents.

While all of this activity was happening I was mostly a free range kid which meant that I roamed the neighborhood with my friends, but never without checking in frequently with my mom. Bear in mind I was only around six years old when I began to assert my independence, but things were quite different back then. All of the ladies kept their doors and windows wide open and provided a kind of community watchfulness over the children. At any given moment an adult was checking on us without drawing attention to that fact.

I generally just went up and down the street playing with whichever kid was available. Most of the time my favorite partner was a girl named Merrily, but sometimes she was busy so I would hang out with a boy who was about my age. His dad was a very successful businessman according to the rumors that floated around the area. His family owned two very luxurious cars and his mom even employed a maid. His house was furnished with exquisite furniture and art work. I enjoyed visiting with him and vicariously living in style.

I had earned a number of holy cards as prizes for good grades and exemplary behavior in my first grade class at St. Peter’s Catholic School. They were beautifully illustrated so I thought that an art connoisseur like my friend might enjoy seeing them. I took them with me on one of my forays to his home, and just as I had thought he marveled at how exquisite they were. He was not a Catholic so he had never before seen such things and he begged me to give him some of them. Instead I struck a financial deal with him, asking for one dollar for each of the lovely images. Without hesitating he broke open his piggy bank and presented a five dollar bill for the lot. I was happy to oblige because I figured that I would earn more of them if I tried really hard at school. It was a win win situation.

All seemed well until the phone rang as I was eating dinner with my family that evening. My mom was a bit irritated by the interruption but answered the phone nonetheless. When she returned she gave me a foreboding look and told my dad that I had sold holy cards to the kid down the street. She explained that his mother was quite upset because they did not believe in such things. Besides, the woman had argued, the price I had charged was prohibitive. She wanted me to return the five dollars immediately and reclaim my holy cards.

I could tell that my mother was not pleased with me but before I even had a chance to explain myself my father burst into uncontrollable laughter, leaving me and my mother quite confused. He smiled and winked at me as he stood to remove his wallet from his back pocket and then he removed a five dollar bill and handed it to my mother. “Use this to pay for the holy cards,” he told her. “Let Sharron keep her profit. It’s worth it to know that my little girl outsmarted the financial wizard’s son. I love it,” he bragged with a huge grin on his face. With that pronouncement I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled with pride at my wonderful daddy who had who seemed to understand the importance of my first foray into the art of the deal. My mom on the other hand simply shook her head while attempting to hide her own amusement with the situation.

I always loved the way my father appreciated the ingeniousness of me and my brothers. He often laughed at antics that might have driven other parents wild. When my little brother took things apart Daddy almost always defended him by asserting that he was only attempting to understand how things work. My dad encouraged us to have an adventurous spirit that would guide us as we explored the world. He believed that life was meant to be lived without fear and I suppose that he went out in a blaze of glory following his own credo.

After my father died I became more cautious. It would be years before I was willing to leave my comfort zone and try things, but I always remembered those moments when he encouraged me to use my imagination and intellect. Mostly though I loved that he knew how to laugh whenever we were just being kids. In some ways he was the man who never quite grew up, a kind of Peter Pan who left this earth for Never Never Land far too soon. Somehow in the brief time that he was around he taught me the importance of viewing the world through humorous eyes. Knowing when to laugh rather than cry has made things so much better than they might otherwise have been. 

It’s Not Too Late


There is a teacher shortage. Schools of education at universities across the country are finding it more and more difficult to attract students. Young people are entering the Teach For America program to eliminate loan debt, but rarely staying past the the required two year term. Even experienced educators are leaving the profession far more frequently than their counterparts of the past. Concerns that this trend will lead to a crisis in our schools are being whispered but only minimally addressed, mostly without the kind of difficult and honest discussions that are needed. Will we one day awake to find our classrooms packed with children, but understaffed with qualified adults to guide them in their educations?

The problems inside schools began long ago when the public took it for granted that intelligent women would provide the bulk of the heavy lifting in education. There was indeed a time when there were few career paths readily available for college educated females beyond teaching or nursing. A few brave souls became doctors, engineers and such, but mostly those avenues were exceedingly difficult to travel. The roadblocks for women were quite real save for the worlds of service. The best and brightest were often attracted to the idea of educating future generations, and many women found a way to display their intellectual talents in classrooms across America.

All of that began to change once pioneering souls pushed their way into what had always been male dominated professions, sometimes at great personal cost. Slowly opportunities in high status, well paying jobs opened for more and more women. Schools were no longer able to assume that the cream of the female academic crop would automatically opt for traditional roles in the nation’s schools. Teaching more and more often became a vocation with only the most dedicated individuals willing to endure the low pay and increasingly low opinions of the public toward educators. The mantra “Those who can’t, teach” became a national indictment of the teaching profession, and all the while did little or nothing to shore up the reputation of the career while also creating increasingly more difficult demands for those who stayed.

Teaching is a rewarding profession, but mostly in psychological rather than tangible ways. Most educators are akin to missionaries in their zeal, and like those who toil to save souls they rarely achieve the levels of financial success accorded to their college educated peers in other careers. Their work hours are much longer than the visibly prescribed school day, often extending into the late night at home and intruding on the time shared with their families. The public perception that teachers are paid sufficiently because they do not work for three months out of the year and are finished during the school year at three in the afternoon is a falsehood that somehow continues to be perpetuated by government bureaucrats who set teacher salaries at the lowest possible levels. Anyone who has ever taught knows of the late night planning and grading marathons that extend daily hours to ridiculous levels, not to mention the required training sessions that have reduced summer vacations for teachers to little more than a month. If educators were actually paid by the hour for every minute that they spend engaged in their work they would all be earning six figure salaries. As it is they are likely to find less financial security both during their active working years and later in retirement than those who work for the United States Postal Service.

If pay were the only concern for the teaching profession there would still be legions of altruistically centered individuals who would be attracted to the profession because of the sheer joy that comes from helping young people to learn. It is noble and important work. Sadly it has become so politicized that it has been made more and more difficult to endure. The responsibilities piled on teachers and the lack of respect accorded them have made the work less and less attractive to all but the most dedicated. Teachers constantly hear the insults of politicians and the public hurled at them. Our president speaks of them with disdain. Parents wince when their bright children indicate an interest in being educators. Reformers tend to listen to everyone but the teachers in crafting plans to improve the situation. All the while once willing teachers are driving away from schools never to return to what they view as a far too difficult and thankless task.

Perhaps the true caliber of our nation’s teachers is no better illustrated than in the horrific times that a shooter comes to a school intent on inflicting harm. Time and again educators protect their students with their very lives, taking bullets rather than allowing their kids to become victims. The heroes who do such things are not as unusual as they may seem. Teachers, like first responders, do not run away from such situations They stay to insure the safety of their charges. It is who they are, and yet we rarely see events honoring them the way we do our military, police officers and firefighters. Teachers quietly maintain the safety of our children day in and day out with little or no fanfare. Now adding insult to injury there are some who would have them train to use guns in the event of an emergency, all while we ridicule them and complain about how ineffective they are.

Teachers have been tirelessly doing their jobs with pay that does not fairly compensate them in conditions that are enormously stressful and without the kind of appreciation that they have duly earned because they understand the importance of their work. They are generous individuals who don’t require much more than the knowledge that they have made a difference in people’s lives. We as a society have taken advantage of their good natures far too long. Unless we begin to recognize their enormous contribution to society by honoring and compensating them fairly we may one day take our children to schools and find that they are closed for lack of manpower. The handwriting is on the wall. It is time to remember, appreciate and hear the dedicated individuals who provide the foundation of all that runs the engines of our society. It’s not too late, but if we wait too long it may be.