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Last Updated: Friday, 14 September 2007, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Rethinking the teenager
By Tim Egan

The teenage boys can grunt and sniff a lot

Society is still not sure what to do about the problem with teenage boys.

They have such deep voices now, these boys who come around the house.

Take the kid we used to call Squeaky, because of his choir-boy chirp. He shows up the other day and says, "uh... how's it going, dude?". Squeaky has become a baritone with testosterone.

They grunt and sniff when you talk to them, and would much rather text than talk. They seem listless one moment, and hyper-kinetic the next. Who are these strangers?

I don't recognize these bristly chins of theirs, either - sandpapered with whiskers. And what's up with these enormous appetites? I've seen 5,000 calories disappear in a day - five meals on the go.

All that confidence, even with the mumbling, the texting, the grunting, the sniffing - so much tomorrow in their faces

I watch our 17-year-old son and his posse - i-Pod plugged in the ear, fingers racing over mobile phone keys, occasionally mumbling a monosyllabic response to an indecipherable prompt from one of the small machines. It's all whirl of mystery.

This is my problem, of course. Not theirs. This is the year we let them go. They're seniors in high school. By the accepted, even encrusted, patterns of modern life, this is the last year in the nest for the kid. We're done with them, supposedly.

But I'm more open than I ever was to all this talk about rethinking the teenager. Sometimes you listen to a public policy discussion - say, about traffic revisions in the city core - and it's just so much white noise.

No, that's not fair to urban planners. Let's say it all seems fairly abstract and removed. And then you listen to a discussion in which you instantly personalise it. That's what's happened to me over the last few years whenever some expert starts to talk about what's wrong with how we launch teenage boys into the world.

Obsolete schools

Bill Gates, who is using his wealth to try and change a considerable part of a world in which he is its richest man, got started on all this a few years ago. It's since become a crusade, and a focus for his philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Two years ago he gave a speech before the National Governors Conference on this topic. What he said was fairly shocking, at least to the governors and the pundits who weighed in afterward. Most parents, I would imagine, were not as surprised.

He said: "America's high schools are obsolete."

Bored teenager
By the age of 17 it is not cool to be smart

"By obsolete," he continued, " I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed and underfunded, though a case can be made for every one of those. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools cannot teach our kids what they want to know today."

The core of his criticism was that something terrible, or at least dramatic, happens between fourth grade and 12th - roughly age 10 to 18. It happens mainly to boys. It's somewhat of mystery, even to Gates. But he blames high school for this.

At fourth grade, the boys are as smart as girls, judging by the inexact measurement of test scores. In maths and science, fourth graders in the US rank near the top of all students in the world. By eighth grade, they're in the middle. And by 12th grade - senior year in high school - American students are near the bottom in maths and science.

The average is dragged down for one big reason - the boys. They fall through the floor. And the question is did we fail them, as parents? Or did our system fail them?

'Sooo yesterday'

This summer I was strolling through Boston at midnight with friends, when we came upon thousands of people, many of them looking to be about age 12 or 13, in a huge, excited line waiting to get the latest Harry Potter book. The buzz, the energy in the streets was extraordinary. All these kids, jostling and bouncing off each other, talking excitedly about - a book. Waiting for hours... to read.

For a 12-year-old boy, it's cool to be smart. It's cool to read. It's cool to be a nerd. But then what happens? By age 17, the boys, many of them, would never be caught dead around something "sooo yesterday" as a printed page from a bound volume. Sure, they're forced to read, for school, but that's a different matter.

So, then they go off to college, where the girls far outnumber them. Or they drop out. And they never spend another day in school and -- sad to say -- they're doomed, by the law of averages. For students who never go to college will earn only about $25,000 (12,500) a year - barely above the poverty line for someone trying to support a family.

Teenager using mouse
Teenagers can be very technology-focused

But look at them now, age 17, senior year. All that confidence, even with the mumbling, the texting, the grunting, the sniffing. So much tomorrow in their faces. Ah, but it's surface, in my experience. They have outside swagger, these boys, but inside - they're unsure of themselves.

After the Gates speech, a number of governors around the US held town hall meetings on rethinking the teenager, especially in that senior year. A new school in California, called High Tech High, was cited as a role model. There, boys aged 16 and 17 said it was the only place where they felt that being smart was cool.

Bill Gates says the problem is that high school was designed for 50 years ago. Nobody would use a 50-year-old mainframe computer, he says, in his inevitable metaphor of choice. But forget about 50 years, many educators and child psychologists say our system is dated by a century or more.

For starters, why do high school students get summers off? This is a relic of the old agrarian age, when boys were needed in the fields throughout the summer and into the harvest. A hundred years ago, one in three jobs in the US was still tied to agriculture. But today it's barely 1%.

Wishful thinking

Another question: Should they drive? In all but a few of the states, a driver's licence can be had at age 16. What follows is perhaps the most dangerous year in a teenager's life, especially that of a boy. This year about 6,000 teenagers will die in car accidents in the US - that's more than 50% higher than the death toll among American troops in Iraq over the last four years. In most of Europe, the age is older, and the death rate is far lower.

What to do? In 2005, First Lady Laura Bush started an initiative on boys, an attempt to figure out why - and how - we fail them. It was supposed to be a three-year initiative, pulling together all the experts. But it never went anywhere, after some initial meetings. And maybe that's because we cannot rethink the teenager by wishful thinking from the executive branch of government.

Bill Gates is more direct - investing nearly $2bn (1bn) to encourage new high schools and to reform existing ones. Now I know, watching a teenage boy over the course of say, a single hour, that it is very difficult for them to stay focused on any one task.

Our son has his driver's license. I tell him no texting, no mobile phone conversations, no distractions while driving a 2,000lb vehicle through the streets. And certainly, no drinking. Sure dad, he says. I'll behave. Just like you did.

And here's where parents - mostly baby boomer parents - trip up. We tell the boys to do as I say, not as I did. We know from experience, but it's painful experience, and it can make us look like hypocrites. When I was 17, I lost my two best friends - two guys I had known since grade school - to car accidents. One was driving home late on a Saturday night after drinking a couple beers. The other fell asleep at the wheel. It haunts me still, those deaths.

Baton of life

That popular book, The Dangerous Book for Boys, has become quite the draw for people asking these questions. There is nothing really dangerous about the book, despite the title. It is a compendium of all the adventurous things that boys like to do. The authors say that boys are naturally drawn to risk. They portray the kind of risk that seems so retro, so harmless - playing in trees, chasing each other on bikes, Tom Sawyer stuff.

That world is gone for boys now in their last year of high school. Their minds may still be Tom Sawyer, but their bodies are men.

We used to have rituals for passing on the baton of life, from one stage to the other. Manhood rituals. Knighthood. Bar Mitzvahs. They were formalised in warrior cultures, and then in the military, or church, or in a tribal circle.

Now, for the modern urban family, the choices are limited. Give them the car keys and sigh? Take them to the mountains for a weekend of bonding around a campfire? It's not enough. Perhaps rethinking the teen, in the end, is just that - with considerable anxiety.

You hope their minds, their souls, their hearts catch up to that newly deep voice. You hope.

Below is a selection of your comments.

i personally feel that parents nowdays are too lenient with their kids.if a parent starts to dicipline their kids from young it wouldnt be a problem when there are teens. if u let ur kids roam freely when they are you and suddenly wish to take control is impossible, dicipline is not something u can achieve overnight.i beleive that if we start young we can make a difference.also parents nowdays tend to give up easily on their kids, thus allowing them to ruin themselves more as their is no parental guidance.teenage years are when we really discover ourselves and its sad to see so many of us ruining their lives because of no proper guidance.so parents buckle up and take control if you want your child to succed.
jarred, malaysia

I'm 17 and I think it is the hardest time in my life so far. So many things to balance at once; getting a job, driving (and lessos), family thinking your not doing your best when in reality you are working too hard, etc... . But you know, the worst thing about being 17 s actually the stereotpes that we (people my age and there abouts) ae branded with. "He's stupid", "He' a disgrace", "He'll never go far", "He's wearing a hoodie - that means he's violent". Its not fair. I'm sure you "adults" out there broke the rules at some point. All we want to do is do things our own way at times, you can -why can't we?
Scott Smith, Livingston, Scotland

I don't think it is just the boys we failed...our girls have major problems as well. Kudos to Bill Gates for actually caring about the future of our children and putting his money where his mouth is. So many times when we have a problem we don't know what to do so we act as though it does not exist and do nothing. It is not only our school system that is old but many of the things we do are just because thats how its always been done. Like work for instence...ones butt in a chair does not mean that person will be productive, not with all the personal techy toys we have. We have failed ourselves in too many ways.
meg shea, arlington heights, IL

There's a fundamental mistake this country is making when dealing with teenagers - we shouldn't change for them; they should change for us. Too much is being done to "understand" the "new age" teenager - it's all diatribe at the end of the day, when all that's really needed is a bit of discipline. Make them learn, and if they don't like it, tough. The state of teenagers today absolutely disgusts me. And guess what? I'm a teenage boy myself.

I'm not quite sure what the author is trying to get at here, 'high schools are bad', 'i can't understand my teenage son', 'too early to drive at 16'? It just sounds like the ramblings of someone in a mid-life crisis, who's trying to make the natural process of growing up today sound somehow werid and unusual. Just because you might not understand your son does not mean you can generalise every single teenager with some made up stereotype about not reading for leisure. If you cannot understand your son, do not try and mask it via labelling them a lost generation.
Michael Walshe, Nottingham, UK

Over-simplified generalizations and puerile anecdotes. Some of us are more than one dimensional stereotypes.
Bill, Mexico City

I am a seventeen year old "boy" living in England. I see that Tim Egan claims that being smart is no longer cool. I have a mate who is doing six A levels, another five and several who are doing four - I'm sorry but being that smart is pretty damn cool!
Gareth Harper, York England

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