09/07/2013 S. Misanthrope

The Trouble with Women Ignoring Boys

I’ve long been fascinated by the 1998 study [1] that showed that there are right and wrong ways to praise children. In the study, kids were given a puzzle to solve. Then they were told to choose between two other puzzles, one equal in difficulty to the first and one that was more difficult.When kids were told “You did it! You must be really smart,” after solving the first puzzle, they were more likely to choose the puzzle of equal difficulty, but when they were told “You did it! You must have worked very hard,” they chose the more difficult puzzle. The moral of the story is that calling kids smart makes them want to appear smart, and they’ll aim lower as a result to ensure success[2].

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how quickly this finding was employed to serve the feminist agenda.

“The Trouble with Bright Girls” was published in Psychology Today (and yes, I realize I’m setting myself up for disappointment already by reading that shitty publication) in January of 2011. The author, Dr. Heidi Halvorson, discusses a study performed by Dr. Carol Dweck. The study examined how fifth-grade students responded to difficult material. Dr. Dweck found that girls, particularly girls with higher IQ, gave up more quickly than boys with higher IQ.

Dr. Halvorson suggests this disparity arises because smart girls tend to be praised for being smart, whereas boys tend not to be praised at all. Smart girls end up believing that their success derives from their state of being (“being smart”), whereas smart boys believe it derives from their actions (“working hard”). In the long run, she concludes, this holds adult women back in the workforce as they will be less eager to take on difficult tasks with greater chance of failure.

Let’s consider a few quotations from the article:

At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls [in the study] in ability, nor in past history of success.

Emphasis mine to highlight the contradiction in these two sentences (which, incidentally, ought to be one sentence). She just identified a major difference between boys and girls, that girls consistently outperform boys, then immediately claims there are no differences between these boys and girls in terms of ability or past history of success.


What exactly does “outperform” mean if it’s not based on either ability or success? The only way this can possibly make sense in someone’s head is if they believe that equal ability and equal success between boys and girls should lead to a disproportionate outcome that favors girls. Conveniently, such an orientation also explains why she’d find boys outperforming girls in this one very limited area so concerning, while boys constantly coming in second to girls in all other areas is of no concern.

Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.”

And in the next paragraph:

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”)

Take a look at these sample phrases. Directed at girls, we have:

“You’re good.”

“You’re so smart.”

“You’re so clever.”

“You’re such a good student.”

Directed at boys, we have:

“If you would just pay attention, you could learn this.”

“If you would just try a little harder, you could get it right.”

The difference is not that we praise boys in a constructive way and girls in a destructive way. It’s that we don’t fucking praise boys at all.

But now that we’ve discovered an unanticipated advantage to all the criticism we launch at our boys, we simply must harness this power for the benefit of our girls. Heaven forbid boys, who again are behind girls in literally every subject, receive a single advantage. Intolerable!

Boys are in fact behind girls from preschool through high school, not just in fifth grade. They currently make up only 40% of college students. In the under-30 workforce, women outnumber and out-earn men. And here we have an article that acknowledges both the disadvantage boys face in school performance and the fact that they are deemed unworthy of praise by their nurturers- teachers, parents, and other caregivers and educators.

Yet somehow this article ends up being about helping girls.

I’d really like to go on. I’d like to rant about how the “advantage” conferred on boys is the same “advantage” conferred on the bacteria that live in geothermal vents: the environment that kills 99% makes the 1% who survive pretty fucking strong. I’d like to rant about how feminists constantly overgeneralize. Against whom are these women who “suffer” as adults from excessive praise as children being compared? Against the men in male-dominated professions, according to the first paragraph of the article.

Really. Male-dominated professions like coal mining, perhaps? Garbage collection? Ice road trucking? Deep sea fishing? Something tells me no. They’re not even being compared to the hordes of code monkeys I see in SOMA every day; they’re being compared to the fucking 1% of the 1%. “Where’s our Steve Jobs? Where’s our Bill Gates? Sexxxxxiiiissssmmmm!!!!!”

We constantly communicate to our boys in myriad subtle and direct ways that they are useless to us unless they do something, while we constantly reaffirm to girls that they are valuable to us merely by being. Yes, that often means men end up doing more useful shit. Occasionally they even get credit for it. But when they don’t do enough useful shit (or do shit society deems unuseful), they have zero self-worth to fall back on.

If you want girls to be as motivated as boys to solve puzzles and tackle big problems when they grow up, fine. It’s not a bad idea. I can even tell you how you might be able to tell when you’ve succeeded: when women start committing suicide at the same rate as men.




[1] Mueller CM and Dweck CS. 1998. Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performanceJournal for Personality and Social Psychology 75(1): 33-52

[2] Note that “success” here really means “praise,” not solving the puzzle, which is its own can of worms in terms of what we teach our children to value.

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Comments (14)

  1. I would like to note that this is the first guest article on this site. The writer does a good job taking a phenomenon in education and tying it in to the larger concept of what Dr. Warren Farrell calls male disposability.

    Well done!

  2. Eli Ednie

    Thought provoking – to be sure. Brings to mind the “not living up to his potential” gripes from unfairly grading female teachers, juxtaposed with the lack of incentives in the competitive rat-race bull mess education so under-prepares us for.

  3. Anne

    “She just identified a major difference between boys and girls, that girls consistently outperform boys, then immediately claims there are no differences between these boys and girls in terms of ability or past history of success.


    I realize the question is rhetorical, but I´m responding anyways. Because these people don´t care about boy´s struggling. For some of these people, they consider the facts that males exist at all to be unfortunate.

  4. Thanks for this Ms Misanthrope. I once read a report in a major Australian newspaper that described boys lower ‘performance’ than girls in public education. A female government education bureaucrat was asked to comment on the phenomenon. She replied that the Education Department would examine the findings very, very slowly.

  5. scott

    interesting piece. I don’t believe all boys in American education are being ignored “Equally”.
    The patriarchy (that calls itself the matriarchy) still educate their boys, by sending them to private schools who statistically on average hire 50% male teachers.
    On the other hand; the true matriarchy (of which is erroneously but conveniently called the patriarchy) grow up in broken homes (with no fathers) and sent into public schools with statistically 12% male teachers (just enough to frisk for guns and knives at the door) and most grow up insecure , broken and uneducated.
    For example, Very few in the top ranks of American business / mass media / academics come from this “forced matriarchy”, but the top still insist on the anti-male anti-father paradigm of “breaking the patriarchy” of others.

    • S. Misanthrope

      Certainly not all boys are treated equally, but be careful about assuming that male teachers are going to be more sympathetic and supportive toward boys than female ones. It could blind you to mistreatment that’s even more damaging since it comes from someone boys naturally identify with more. I attended one of those fancy private schools with lots of male teachers. Among them I found some of the most virulent feminists I’ve met in my life. They may feel more responsibility toward boys than female teachers do, but that responsibility often takes the form of pushing boys further in the anti-male direction feminists want. And they call this “being a man.”

  6. I have an acquaintance who is currently training to be a primary school teacher. He is 50 years old so is no naive neophyte. After 2 years of his 4 year course, he is thoroughly indoctrinated into feminist and postmodern doctrine. I refuse to discuss anything intelligent with him. In answer to a rational question, he will obfuscate, misdirect and dissemble with a menacing grin. He also ridicules the idea of compassion for boys or men.

    God help those poor little boys he will ‘instruct’.

    • You make a good point. Just because they are “male role models” doesn’t mean they actually impart compassion for boys or men.

      While men’s advocates criticize Feminism for failing to address boys’ educational issues, let’s stop and think for a second: would you actually want these people teaching our boys?

      No way.

      • “While men’s advocates criticize Feminism for failing to address boys’ educational issues, let’s stop and think for a second: would you actually want these people teaching our boys? No way”

        Not sure if I follow. Are you saying you don’t want “male advocates” to teach boys? Why is that?

        • Oh no, that’s not what I mean at all. I don’t want Feminists teaching our boys. I meant “these people” to refer to Feminists.

  7. Yano, just because you routinely do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean you do it 100% of the time. I can routinely outperform someone, and they can also routinely outperform me, and both can be true at the same time.

    • S. Misanthrope

      I understand your point, however you’re misinterpreting her phrasing. She’s referring to extensive data showing that on average girls read better, write better, score better on tests of all kinds, and get better grades than boys. Her meaning was not “It often goes one way and also often goes the other way.”

  8. Also, you can have two people with equal abilities but have one person outperform the other in testing metrics. Ability isn’t the only factor to success in a testing metric, after all (it’s a classic problem with knowing what you’re testing).

    Finally, there’s more than enough literature on the success or lack thereof of women in higher management of white collar jobs, so it’s not purely a matter of male dominated professions that are labor intensive.

    Anyways, nitpicks aside, it’s a bit unfair to criticize the article for things that lie outside the scope of its study. Any study’s findings and their conclusions should be treated as data points to be considered and reconsidered, and not a polemic point in a culture war.

    • S. Misanthrope

      1. The results for girls vs boys are consistent across many testing metrics, in this case. 2. I never said the matter of female success in upper management has anything to do with physical labor. 3. The article is not a study. The study itself was performed by a different psychologist and was actually a series of studies over a dozen years. Naturally that means the studies had many different findings.

      I certainly don’t criticize people who want to do a better job of raising their daughters, and the results of these studies are useful in that regard. But the attitude this particular article takes toward boys- off-handedly describing them in negative terms and ignoring their large, systemic problems then using them as a jumping off point to help girls- is disturbing, particularly considering that the style of encouragement the article recommends is equally effective for boys as girls.

      In short, it’s the author who made the findings a polemic point in a culture war rather than a useful tool to help children of both sexes.


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