I grew up with two older brothers and a very old-school father, and I'm the mother of two young men, so I'm quite aware that males and females differ in many fundamental ways. I'm still mystified every time my sons resume the ongoing wrestling match they've waged since they were tykes.
Therefore, I find it intriguing that a new focus on understanding boys has emerged — a growing conversation among various experts and observers who are attempting to better appreciate exactly who boys are and what makes them tick.
In many ways, this recent wave of concern — brought to light in new books, articles and academic studies — can be seen as a reaction to decades of progress by women to garner equal rights. From Title IX to gains in the workplace and politics, women in our society have moved steadily forward. The majority of college students today are female. Women are also more likely to graduate and pursue post-graduate studies.
To be sure, women still have a long way to go. The wage gap is closing, but women still don't earn as much as men for comparable work. They hold far fewer positions of power and have yet to penetrate many traditionally male-dominated fields. Unfair stereotypes persist and glass ceilings remain firmly installed in many professions.
However, concern seems to be mounting that our decades-long attempt to better acknowledge the talents and accomplishments of women, and to empower them, have left the other gender a bit adrift and, in many ways, misunderstood. Even some avowed feminists have been arguing lately that some women's rights advocates have gone too far in marginalizing or denigrating masculinity.
While suggestions by some that boys are now "in crisis" seem rather hysterical, calm voices have begun to ask thoughtful, reasonable questions about exactly what masculinity is, or should be. Rather than demonize men and boys based on another set of arguably unfair stereotypes, more attempts are being made to provide a clearer, more comprehensive picture of the complexities and challenges faced by males today.
One of the most incisive studies I've read on the topic recently comes from author Rosalind Wiseman, who gained fame more than a decade ago for her book "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World," which focuses on the socialization of girls. Her new book is "Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends and the New Rules of Boy World."
Wiseman, who has spent decades studying and interviewing teens across the country, including in Orange County, convincingly argues that boys encounter many of the same issues and frustrations as girls.
According to her findings, boys desperately want to be loved and accepted, they suffer deeply from heartache and longing, and they have conflicted and confused feelings about our overtly sexualized culture. They struggle with peer pressure and with expectations that real men don't show or discuss their emotional vulnerability. They badly want to fit in, but often don't know how to behave in a hookup culture that has encouraged girls to be more assertive.
As boys mature, the pressure they feel to keep their deepest emotions hidden can have negative consequences. Boys may feel isolated or act out physically. The suicide rate among teenage boys is far higher than that of girls.
Years ago, I heard Wiseman speak at an event in Irvine, and was captivated by her illuminating findings about girls and boys. As a boy mom, I appreciated her comments about many boys' difficulties expressing themselves.
A young man meeting a girl's parents might appear discourteous or even surly, for example, but such awkward behavior is often rooted in a lack of confidence and social skills rather than indifference or hostility. Better that than a smooth-talking manipulator, she said.
There is a danger, of course, that the growing awareness of the needs of boys will be misconstrued or misapplied. There's no doubt that ours is still a heavily male-dominated world, and that men generally enjoy many advantages that continue to be perpetuated through societal and institutional bias.
We need to get past a war-between-the-sexes mentality and realize that a better understanding of both genders can lead to real progress for everyone.
We've learned through diligent research, for instance, that the brains of girls and boys develop differently and at different rates. Girls have better language skills early on, while boys develop some spatial skills more quickly.
Boys genuinely find it difficult to sit still, and they learn better by doing than by listening. They're reluctant to ask for help, even if they know they're in over their heads. Male brains aren't fully developed, on average, until nearly age 30, several years later than females, according to the National Institutes of Health.
How great would it be if our schools more effectively used such knowledge to teach boys and girls in ways that facilitated better comprehension and retention of information?
And couldn't we help our kids better navigate the confusing, fast-changing social landscape if we had deeper insight into what they really go through and how their minds work?
Understanding is the first step. If the recent dialogue about boys can shed some light, then by all means, let's keep that discussion going.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.