Monday, March 26, 2012

Boys, Math and Zero Tolerance

Recently my 9-year-old son worked with another 9-year-old boy to develop a series of math word problems. This is what they came up with:

Notice a theme?

"Blew up." "Died." "Crashed."

Boys are drawn to violence and destruction, and that's not a bad thing. In fact, that's perfectly, completely, 100% normal. Unfortunately, our zero-tolerance culture often sends our boys a different message -- and that message can harm our sons.

Check out this video by Alison Carr-Chellman:

Now look again at the boys' math problems. In some settings, they would have been told to erase their work and come up with "appropriate" math problems -- an exercise which would have a) seriously undermined their creativity, b) caused them to lose all enthusiasm for the exercise and c) effectively told them that their thoughts and interests weren't valid.

When working with boys, I find it's best to meet boys where they are. Work with their interests, not against them. That might mean letting your son write a poem about farts. Or letting him solve math problems that involve bullets.

I'm not suggesting stereotyping your son. Not all boys are interested in farts and bullets, and all boys, mine included, have a range of interests to go beyond farts and bullets. Use what works for your son, but don't shame him or make him feel "bad" in any way if his interests include violence or destruction. I'm not saying that you need to let your sons stockpile weapons; I'm just saying that there's nothing inherently wrong about thinking or writing about those topics.

Do you agree? Or do you think zero tolerance policies are necessary in today's day and age?


  1. Had to LOL a bit -- I can totally see my son writing a poem about farts. Last week, he and his sister had a writing assignment to write a poem with an aabbcc rhyming pattern.

    She whipped hers out in no time. He struggled, but finally came up with a decent poem that fit the pattern. It was about a combat video game. :)

  2. Fist, I didn't notice too much "bad" in your boys math problems. The things that were blowing up were water balloons, and the fish ... well, I can just imagine his thought process. "Ok, I have, ummm, FISH!. Yeah, lots of fish in an aquarium. Now I need to subtract fish. How can I do that? Well, I guess some of them died." Just the massive crashing of trucks is the only real carnage I saw :)

    You're absolutely right about letting boys (all children) learn in context of whatever they are interested in.

  3. @Kris -- The farts idea in the above post was inspired by my experience with boys and magnetic letters on the fridge... ;)

    @Alex -- Truthfully, I don't think I would have noticed it either, except for the fact that a) I had just watched that video and b) I've seen it in other contexts in my boys' work. A teacher, for instance, sent home an alarming note earlier this year that my son (the one who made up the math problems) had drawn some disturbing pictures of people dying. You know what he drew? A shark eating a surfer. Makes perfect sense to me!