Dear Dr. Wes & Julia: My son reports that when he was in school last year he felt that the teachers treated the boys and girls differently - giving stricter discipline to the boys than the girls. He felt the girls got away with more than the boys. What's your opinion on this?
Wes: In the weeks since I received this question I've asked boys and girls I see what they think of this scenario. Not a very scientific study, I'll admit, yet the answers were strikingly similar. Most agree that boys get stricter discipline and more frequent punishment, but nearly all attributed this to more acting out by boys than girls instead of differential or unfair treatment. When I pressed them a bit more, several kids noted that girls may not be any better behaved than boys in terms of fighting, bullying, cheating, etc., but they are better at choosing when to express it. In other words, the boys seem to be easier targets for disciplinary action while girls are more discreet.
The real body of research and commentary on this topic is far more complicated - which is why I didn't cite it. Some argue that boys are unfairly singled out, as your son proposes. Others believe that discipline has actually become more "feminized" in the schools, meaning less harsh and more conciliatory for everyone. There is some other research that suggests girls get the short end of the stick in class by being called on less often for contributions. In short, there are probably more questions than answers on this topic right now.
I think a big part of the problem is inherent to the school environment. There are few disciplinary procedures that are effective for every student, and in fact most approaches are effective only for pockets of students. For example, anxious people have to be handled differently than bold people. One of the weirdest things I've ever seen schools do is kick out kids who are truant. This only works for the pocket of kids who really want to go to school - but occasionally skip. The rest are effectively rewarded for skipping school by freeing them of the obligation. This is also true in general for boys and girls. What works for most kids of one gender may not work for most the others. In flowery language, it's impossible to apply a homogeneous (all the same) disciplinary style to a heterogeneous (not the same as one another) population. Yet the minute you become more strategic and deviate from "one-size-fits-all," kids like your son pick up on the difference and seek justice - either by dialogue or exploitation.
I'd try and refocus your son on what he can do to avoid getting crossed up with the disciplinary structure; or how he can reasonably advocate for himself when he can't. If all else fails, help him put things into context - it's better to serve your time out now and come out of it a better person, than to carry around the "unfair" chip on his shoulder.
Julia: I've heard it plenty of times on TV and sometimes around my school: "That teacher doesn't like me just because I'm a girl," but rarely do I see actually see that attitude practiced any more. I think both males and females have made it clear that they won't stand for being treated worse just because of their gender. So, to answer your question: No, I don't think boys get harsher treatment than girls.
I do think, however, that treatment and punishment alike have adapted to the times and that there is still discrimination and double standards. Whether or not school administrators know about it, favoritism is sometimes a response to discrimination, allowing people who may not have been treated as well in the past to be treated better. I've experienced both sides of rampant favoritism. On the one hand, being a good student might earn a little leniency on a late assignment. On the other, a student who is in good with a certain teacher might get treated better than me. Having been the favorite as well as the unfavored one, I find neither role fair or right.
The catch-22 is the idea that everyone deserves equal rights and treatment in the school system, but everyone also deserves individualized attention and reward for being good. And if all it takes to earn a teacher's admiration is a being nice to their face, then manipulation gets thrown into the game, making things less fair to everyone.
I'm for the idea that kids get individualized treatment and recognition based on who they are as students and people, but always in moderation and not at the expense of other students. Educators should always be aware of what they are rewarding and whether it's truly deserving of praise or just a generous response to someone you like.
Next week: A reader asks about the scope of bipolar disorder in teens.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.