In his memoir, “Boys Should Be Boys: A Headmaster’s Reflections,” Brian R. Walsh revisits his 30 years as a private school headmaster—first at a co-educational school outside of Boston, and then at The Buckley School, an all-boys K-7 institution in New York City. Here, Walsh shares what he’s learned about how boys and girls learn differently—and what it means for students, parents and schools.
What does it mean to say, “Boys should be boys”?
It means that you understand what boys are and you treat them accordingly.
How has your experience led you to conclude that boys learn better in an all-boys environment?
Between the ages of 5 and 15, girls are a year and a half more mature on average. So in the primary grades, boys are getting clobbered in learning to read and write, and their defense mechanism is to label certain things “for girls.” I wasn’t so aware of this until I came to Buckley, and saw boys without girls. All the myths about boys being without girls—such as they are more aggressive, more bullying, and so forth—were simply not true. With girls, they’ll either clown around or they hold themselves in.
How do boys process information differently than girls?
They process things more quantitatively. Everything is in rank order. Every little boy knows who is the best writer, the best artist, the best whatever. And they love to compete. A good example of that would be those math games where you have to fill out as many pages of arithmetic problems as you can in a certain amount of time. In general, boys love this. Girls hate it. So at Buckley we did a lot more competitive things, often in teams, and they just relished it.
What other teaching techniques did you stress at The Buckley School?
One approach is recognizing what they can do and what it’s unfair to ask. When I was at Shore Country Day School, if you went into a Lower School classroom and a little boy was dropping his pen, you could hear the impatience as the teacher said, “Johnny, if you drop that pen one more time…” When I came to Buckley, the teachers were trained to work with boys, so they would see Johnny drop his pen four times and they would know it’s because of poor fine motor coordination—he wasn’t throwing it or trying to misbehave.
How do boys relate to their teachers differently than girls?
Their relationship with their teacher is not an important factor in their learning. The competence of the teacher is important, but the relationship is just incidental. Female teachers always tell me, “The boys never take anything personally.” And they don’t.
Whereas a girl will often fret that her teacher doesn’t like her?
That’s right. And if girls have a good relationship with a teacher or coach, they’ll go through the wall for them. It’s a genuine motivating factor. And I think that has to be respected. You can’t say to a girl, “Well, who cares if she likes you or not?” It doesn’t make sense to her.%uFFFD
How do boys relate to
their peers differently than girls?
Males form friendships based on what
they are doing—their mutual interests, their toys, if you will. Men are
friends with the guys they do stuff with—men they bowl with, or fish
with, or watch football with. Same with boys—[in kindergarten] the boy
who is a “big block guy” goes over and plays with the big blocks. Then
two other big block guys go over and play with him, so he’s got two
friends. When he comes home his mother says, “Did you make any friends?”
“Yes.” “What are their names?” “I don’t know.” But they’re friends. And
the next day, they will play together.
How do boys relate to their parents
differently than girls?
When I counsel
parents, I always tell them that boys will talk in cars, not in
They’re not big on
talking in kitchens: “How was your day?” “Good.” “Do you like your
teachers?” “Yeah.” Monosyllables. But in cars, listen to him, and he’ll
talk. They are more comfortable in cars. Don’t ask me to explain that.
families keep in mind when making the decision between a co-ed and a
single-sex school for their boys?
First of all,
New York City is a wonderful laboratory of different approaches to
teaching. It’s the last bastion of single-sex education, and it not only
has top-notch single-sex schools, but also top-notch co-ed schools.
There are parents in New York who may have two sons and they may send
one to a co-ed school and one to an all-boys school. It does depend on
Often the more
mature boy who has an easy relationship with girls is much more suited
to a co-ed school. And at the co-ed schools, opposite-gender teachers
should understand how their opposite-gender students are processing
things, whether they are boys or girls.
You ended the book by maintaining that the
most important part of a boy’s development is learning to be kind. Why
did you end the book this way?
It’s always been the
bottom line for me. I would always end the school year by saying,
“Always be kind.” It’s not that girls are kinder, it’s that they are
more sensitive to what that means. Girls can be viciously unkind because
they know what kindness is. Boys, when they are unkind, often do it
unconsciously, whether it’s an inappropriate comment, or baiting that
goes over the top. It’s very hard to teach adolescent boys where to draw
the line. But that’s what they need to know, and that’s such an
important part of being a good human being.