Commentary: Why Can't We Let Boys Be Boys?

By Marcia Vickers

In the fall of 2001, my husband and I were bursting with enthusiasm, anticipating our first-ever parent-teacher conference. We couldn't wait to hear glowing remarks about Christopher, our 3-year-old genius. How he could sing the words from almost every Wiggles song and had been reciting the alphabet since he was a year and a half -- only leaving out the occasional "t" or "y."

We eagerly walked into his classroom and sat down in midget-size wooden chairs as his two teachers brought out a long manila envelope. Then came the usual "how nice it is to have your son in our class" patter.

Not far into the discussion came the zinger. "Christopher is having a difficult time with stickers," said one teacher, holding up a sheet of green and purple dinosaurs. "What do you mean?" my husband and I asked in unison. "Well, he hasn't figured out that he needs to scratch the edge with his fingernail and lift and peel," said the teacher. It turns out, at least according to his teachers, whom we genuinely liked, that he was having trouble with his fine motor skills -- grasping and manipulating things with his fingers.

Looking back, the sticker incident was the precise point of liftoff into a world of which I was previously unaware: evaluations with child-development experts, the screening and eventual hiring of occupational and physical therapists (OTs and PTs), and trips to sensory gyms, which supposedly help the brain process sensory information though activities like touching different textures. Like most parents, I wanted to make sure Christopher had every possible advantage to overcome any weakness -- however far-fetched it might sound. After all, we're no experts.

But some two years later, I've come to suspect the diagnosis is often flawed. It turns out that it's not uncommon for young boys to have a so-called problem with fine motor skills.

In Manhattan, where we live, this phenomenon has become the status quo. One reason is that 4-year-olds must score well on a standardized test to gain acceptance to the city's elite private kindergartens. This test has a section that emphasizes fine motor skills. So multitudes of young boys are in OT or PT. A cottage industry, in fact, has sprung up around it -- most private OTs charge upwards of $135 per 45-minute session. There are waiting lists to get kids -- mostly boys -- into these therapy sessions.

All this for a simple biological fact: Boys typically develop fine-motor skills up to six years later than girls. And in the early years, boys tend to be unfairly compared with girls on that score. This can have a devastating effect, say experts. If boys can't draw and color a bunny rabbit or cut simple shapes with scissors, they are subtly made to feel inferior. And a growing number of professionals believe that pressuring boys early only creates a sense of helplessness on their part. That can extend to how they feel about themselves and how they view school for many years.

Educators should be careful not to single out boys as "developmentally delayed" because they can't color in a sunflower as well as a girl. Now that a few experts are focusing on boys' learning gaps, the danger is to address the problem in the wrong way.

Some schools emphasize teaching methods that allow boys to brandish spatial mechanical skills as well as channel their energy. Says Dr. Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education: "Especially in the early years, schools should be playing to boys' strengths, such as playing games, building forts out of blocks, kicking a soccer ball, rather than emphasizing their weaknesses."

Christopher, who will soon turn 5, suddenly loves writing his name and drawing things from his incredibly vivid imagination, like space monsters and magic men. Last week, he wrote and illustrated a construction-paper book about a little boy whose hair turns into green beans. I think the therapy he has had has given him more confidence with crayons and scissors. But I'm not convinced he wouldn't have come around on his own.

Recently, he got one of the highest scores possible in vocabulary and general knowledge on that standardized test -- though on the part that called for drawing shapes, he fell into the "average" category. Is he still our little genius? More than ever. He has even aced dinosaur stickers. Now, if only he wouldn't put the darned things on the furniture.

Vickers writes about Wall Street and finance from New York.

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