‘Boys learn by running around and fighting’

Boys stink at school but it doesn’t matter, writes Penelope Trunk, who’s homeschooling her sons.

Now research shows us that the gender discrepancy starts early because little girls learn by being focused and engaging with the teacher and little boys learn by running around and fighting.

. . .  it doesn’t matter. Because boys suck at school, and then they go to college and play video games and pick-up basketball and beer pong for four years and they leave their GPA off their resume and they race up the corporate ladder.

Because the corporate world favors compartmentalized thinking (as in “my kids are not in front of me so they do not exist”) and men have it and women don’t so kids mess up women’s careers. Women out earn men until there are kids. Then, for the rest of their adult life, men out earn women.

Forcing boys to “learn like girls” is pointless, Trunk writes. “I took my boys out of school – they turn cartwheels during school hours. And you should do the same for your sons, too.”

Of course, not everybody has that choice.

About Joanne


  1. WOW. That’s some pretty strong language there. The first comment calls it “monolithic gender behavior assumptions” and I think that’s about right–I do happen to think that most boys are more suited to running around and yelling than sitting in a chair for hours, but she is really being extreme.

    I also disagree that schools are ‘geared’ for girls–many girls do better than boys with the school structure we’ve got, but the roots of that structure go back centuries and were mostly applied to boys. School is probably geared towards the convenience of the adults who run it, if anything.

    I homeschool (girls) and I think it’s great, but I’m sure not liking this column.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Penelope tends to stake out extreme positions. It drives web traffic.

    • I think the structure has changed significantly. My older kids are in their late 30s and my younger ones are in their late 20s. I saw a great difference, particularly at the MS level, between the two pairs. All managed to avoid most of the current problems in ES-MS (heterogeneous grouping/mainstreaming, groupwork, discovery learning, Readers’/Writers’ Workshop, Everyday Math etc. ) but the same MS was significantly less academic for the younger ones. The emphasis was on touchy-feely, artsy-crafty stuff that was a major turn-off for boys, and the books assigned were weighted toward girl interests (which some girls, like mine, hated as much as her brother did). I also saw a big difference in teacher attitudes toward boys and normal boy behavior; the older ones liked boys, appreciated the ways they differed from girls and accommodated their interests and differences but the younger ones tended to see boys as defective girls.

      From what I’ve read since my kids finished school, only HS has retained significant portions of the traditional academic curriculum and instruction and that’s more and less true at specific schools.

  2. George Larson says:

    Here are my oversimplifications. At one time parents were willing to encourage boys to conform to the structure of school. Now the responsibility to control the boys is more upon schools than parents and schools seem less able or less willing to do it. Is it the schools are at fault if they do better with students that easily accept school culture? Is the school culture wrong if it cheats half its target population? Or are the schools at fault because some boys go ahead and succeed even after blowing off school?

    • It is desirable for parents to encourage conformity to the structure of school, and my DH and I did so, BUT the school culture, curriculum and instruction should not favor one sex’s interests/preferences over the other’s. Since my kids left the system, I have observed, read and heard about an increasingly boy-unfriendly climate and I have a problem with that.
      Even at recess, kids (particularly boys) are denied the active, free-play outlet they need. BTW, I can remember the occasion recess scuffle between/among boys (maybe a few scrapes, bruises or the occasional bloody nose), resulting in immediate harmony; issue honorably settled. The issue in question was likely to be some disrespect to a younger sibling, copying homework or test etc. and teachers understood the settlement process. In my experience as a parent, that’s far less harmful than the social shunning/ridicule/bullying that girls are more likely to do.

    • George, the elementary school classroom has changed. School culture and structure have changed. Less recess, more group work, and an accelerated curriculum, coupled with a fear of lawsuits. Two good books on the subject: The Trouble with Boys, by Peg Tyre, and Why Boys Fail, by Richard Whitmire.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Seems odd: The Freudian/psychoanalytic model, as understood by laypersons, or probably the pros, too, implies a steam boiler model. Too much–of sexual urges, toilet training, one thing or another, bottled up–and you get an explosion, or at least a sweaty, ugly leak. Laypersons, the last to get the message, don’t know psychoanalytic theory is not as important in the field as it once was.
    But if they’re holding on to it, the least they could do is allow boys to beat the hell out of each other–figuratively speaking but only just–at recess. Worked when I was in school. Drain that…boiler.

  4. Mark said it much more nicely than I would have. Ms. Trunk pops up in the career world (which I write about) all the time with everyone quoting her, yet no one stopping to ask, “Just how does she know that?”

    She picks extreme positions, designed to get hits. It doesn’t particularly matter to her what those positions are. (Heck, she even devoted an article to describing what sexual positions she’s willing to do.)

    If she’s correct in any of her positions, someone with actual credibility will say the same thing. Otherwise, Ms. Trunk should be ignored.

  5. Penelope Trunk? She doesn’t speak for all homeschoolers and that’s an understatement. One of her posts featured her naked, bruised-up hiney and some ramblings about how she needs to stay with her abuser.

    I’m not even clicking the link. Such a person saying boys learn by running around and fighting, given her history, is rather frightening. I would say in very general terms that boys learn more kinetically than girls, but wow.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      I wouldn’t consider Ms. Trunk a home educator at all. She’s an “unschooler” and if her children learn anything, it’s in spite of her rather than because of her.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Like it or not, unschooling is one of the forms of homeschooling.

        • In the same sense that not thinking about something is a form of thinking. Yes, it actually takes conscious effort to not think about something.

  6. The lack of consistent physical outlet for kinetic kids (which in a K-5 or K-6 is almost of all of them) is a crime.

    30 years ago, almost 50% of kids aged 5-14 walked to school. That’s down to 13%, thanks to sprawl, centralization, more cars, etc. Gym and recess are becoming endangered species. The school day is longer in many districts; more kids are in extended-day/aftercare settings. And we’re surprised by the occasional failure to sit down and sit still?

    I’m convinced a lot of behavioral and, more importantly, academic issues would disappear if we’d simply give kids more opportunities to play and run around.

    Oh, and Penelope Trunk is a hoot to read, no more so than when she’s writing with extreme confidence about something she truly doesn’t understand (e.g., her oft-repeated claim that New York City’s high-end $40,000+ / year private schools are switching to a student-directed homeschooling model).

    • I am a big fan of ES recess, but not of PE. It might be OK at the ES level (although my kids’ PE was always a waste of time and torture for athletic kids), but I’m not in favor of requiring it at MS-HS levels. First, at that level, kids really need to shower after exercise; without showers, most will not actually exercise. The problems that creates are (1) little time left for class/exercise and (2) the kids who most need exercise are masters at avoiding it (that’s been true since the 50s). There is also the issue of various stages of physical maturity and the discomfort showering engenders. I’ve heard the comment that Hell would be a MS-HS locker room. Exercise is good, but school isn’t the best place for it, so I’m against requirements.

      Also, even though many kids are overweight, many are elite, full-time athletes and it makes no sense for them to have to take PE. ( outside of first aid and CPR, which could be done outside of school) I don’t think it’s possible to make a decent case for requiring a MS swimmer who swims 4 hours/day and does daily weights, or a gymnast who trains 20+ hours a week or a soccer/hockey player who trains/competes 3 hours a day to take PE.

      • Well,

        It’s true that schools today aren’t suited towards males (in general), due to the fact that many activities that males used to turn to in school (industrial arts, shop, etc) are no longer present in MS/HS, and that the activism of “The War against Girls” in our schools pretty much pushed males onto the back burner when it came to education, though studies have shown that females are kicking in the collective rear ends of males in high school and higher education these days.

        Makes one wonder why a typical male would hang around school, if they weren’t legally required to