16 girls, 3 boys: a note on the sex ratio in a confirmation class

As I mentioned yesterday, we had a terrific time with the All Saints kids during our fasting fund-raiser on Friday and Saturday. Another night for Hugo in his sleeping bag on the floor, surrounded by snoring and wheezing boys. (Here’s my dilemma: I find it much easier to sleep on retreats when I have both ear plugs and one of those little night shades to cover my eyes; I have a nice pair from a British Airways amenity kit. But is it safe, given what teens get up to, for the youth leaders to be unable to hear a darned thing? Should I always sleep with one ear open, as it were? I go back and forth on the matter.)

Our confirmation class this year has a very skewed sex ratio. We have 16 girls and 3 boys, which is the most lopsided it has been in my seven years of serving as an instructor and mentor for the confirmation program. On Saturday, I was chatting with a parent as we were finishing things up, and this parent (whose child was in a previous confirmation class) lamented “We really need more boys. I’m so worried that all the young men are missing.”

I’ve heard a lot of this public anxiety about “missing boys” this year. I’ve heard it nationally, as the mainstream media frets that bright and talented young women are somehow driving young men off of college campuses. And I’ve heard it at All Saints, where for any number of reasons, we have a very small number of boys in our 2007 “Seekers” confirmation class. (I am happy to say that in terms of overall numbers, the trend in the raw number of confirmands is going up in our parish.) In the past, we’ve always had a few more girls than boys, say with a 10-8 split in favor of the females. But never as stark as the 16-3 ratio we’ve got at the moment, a ratio that is particularly obvious when we divide the teens for overnight sleeping arrangements.

Let me be clear that I’d like to see more boys involved in our youth program. But I’m growing a bit frustrated with the hand-wringing over their absence. The three boys we do have this year are bright, sweet, fun lads; the girls we’ve got are equally wonderful. As always, once I get to know them well, I find myself starting to fall in love with the whole danged pack of them. (In this paranoid age, let me be clear that this is a pure and uncomplicated passion!) And I’m worried that it is all too easy to become so concerned about the “missing boys” that we ignore the equally important needs of the girls who are seeking out confirmation and committing to our eight-month program. We are in danger of focusing too much on who isn’t with us, and why they aren’t, and too little on the precious, magnificent young people who are right in front of us.

As a male professor and youth leader, I take my job as a role model very seriously. I know that I have a role to play in the lives of both young men and young women. The fact that I am male doesn’t mean that the boys are any more or less important to me than are their sisters. But to some extent, adult males are particularly important for boys because they can model an alternative vision of what it means to be masculine. Teenage boys want very much to know how to live as adult men, and it is considerably easier for a grown man to show that in his actions as well as his words. This doesn’t mean that adult women can’t mentor boys, and adult men can’t mentor girls; it just means that we often learn differently from same and other-sexed role models. So I get that I have a special task when it comes to the boys.

The reasons why our confirmation classes have such a skewed gender ratio are hardly unique to All Saints. Like many liberal churches, relatively few of our prospective confirmands have been forced by their parents to be in the program; if it were compulsory, we would expect a more even number of boys and girls. And all things being equal, more girls than boys seem interested in exploring their faith and spending time in service. I’ve heard a variety of suggestions floated to make the program more attractive to boys (less talking, more outdoor activities), but most of those ideas, if implemented, would gut the program as it exists. It would also mean ignoring the generally positive responses of the few boys whom we do have in the program. And it would mean we were showing more concern for men than for women, more concern for those absent than for those present.

The current obsession in education is a hyper-anxiety about the well-being of boys, and an almost misogynistic fear that our current pedagogical structures favor girls. After all, if more girls than boys are showing up and being successful, this must be attributed to an anti-male bias rather than to a greater interest and effort on the part of the girls themselves! Too many girls and well-behaved boys have been ignored for too long by teachers and youth leaders who devote too much attention to coping with the few “problem boys” (chronic troublemakers, overly medicated hyperactives, etcetera).

Am I upset that we’ve got 16 girls and 3 boys? Heck no. Would I be upset if we had 16 boys and 3 girls? Nope. Jesus calls us to feed His lambs, and we feed the lambs who come for food. What point is there in searching endlessly after those who aren’t showing up, if the end result is that those who have come to be fed are ignored?

0 thoughts on “16 girls, 3 boys: a note on the sex ratio in a confirmation class

  1. Hi Hugo,

    I agree that non-secular institutions aren’t discriminating against boys to the extent people claim. I’m not so sure about secular institutions, however.

    Having heard yet another rundown on Purity Balls on the radio this morning (an interview with one of the founders) I’m feeling a bit more urgency about this than I think you are. The man simply went on, and on, and on about shepherding, husbanding, managing, and caring for his daughters — going so far as to say his wife and he “married our 22-year-old daughter.” (Fortunately when his host asked for clarification he said he meant they married her off to *someone else!*) The issue, though, is that he also has sons but didn’t seem nearly as solicitous of their spiritual well being. And *that’s* a pattern I’m not so crazy about.

    I’ll go a step further and say I think it’s patriarchy-based since, I think, the assumption is that if all the moral emphasis is dumped onto girls then men needn’t be expected to do squat beyond whatever is necessary to get a “Purity-Balled” virgin to marry him… and possibly to keep her from returning home to her Daddy if he doesn’t morally toe the line.

    Now *your* congregation may be more progressive, in which case sure, it’s probably not worth worrying about. After listening to this guy, though, and hearing him brag about bringing his queerly sexualized-by-proxy Purity-Ball mentality to all 50 states, I’m not sure your congregation is representative.

    figleaf

  2. um….false dichotomy? i think it is quite easy to feed those there and seek out others.

    and, further, i’m struck by your statement: “And it would mean we were showing more concern … for those absent than for those present.”

    isn’t that what luke 15 is all about? that you need to find those that are “lost”? not that i think you need to restructure your program, or whatever but your attitude strikes me as not necessarily consistent with some of what i recall jesus espousing.

  3. your use of ellipses, catswym, ends up quoting me out of context. The “absent” are not an abstract group, they are young men; the “present” are not an abstraction either, but a female majority.

    We do well to minister to the spiritually lost, and as the strange and terrible story of the prodigal reminds us, we rejoice more over what is recovered than over what we had all along. (May I say that I have a hard time with the story of the prodigal?) But that cannot mean making the absent boys more of a priority than the girls who are there. As long as the overall number of confirmands continues to be strong, and even grow, I shan’t worry too much about the ratio.

    But others around me clearly do, which is why I posted on this.

  4. i certainly wasn’t meaning to “quote you out of context” and i don’t see how what one group or the other has to do with the message behind the example.

    but, i do think the idea of the worry should be (from a christian view): what about those out there? rather than, what about the boys? so, i see that.

  5. As long as the overall number of confirmands continues to be strong, and even grow, I shan’t worry too much about the ratio.

    And I would.

    Here’s my train of thought. The Gospel is good news for everyone–male, female, black, white, straight, gay, married, single….the Gospel is good news and everyone needs it. If our (as a church) spreading of the Gospel is only seeming like good news to whites, I would want to look HARD at what we might emphasize/de-emphasize/do/avoid that, while not compromising the truth of the Gospel, would make the goodness of the news apparent to everyone. And I’d feel the same way if the Gospel is only attracting men, or women. It’s not the Gospel’s problem, so is something we are doing hindering its reception?

    Now–if the answer is that “well, the Koreans go to a church that teaches the same Gospel we do, but in Korean” I wouldn’t worry very much. But I very much doubt that the young men who aren’t in confirmation class are in church somewhere else.

  6. I seem to recall a gfew parables that might disagree with you there…

    Well, anyway. I know my Tridentine church attracts a good many men and fine young men, and we have no problem keeping them, yet the more – um – “permissive” parish nearby is running into similar problems. In fact, some of the young men from over there have been drawn to mine, much to the chagrin of their very post-Vatican II parents.

    Maybe just isolated … maybe not. Seems to match a lot of trends.

  7. Well, if All Saints alone was having trouble retaining boys, I’d worry more. But this is a widespread phenomenon, one rooted in any number of possible causes. Is it worth having a conversation about why it is that church seems so much more appealing to girls? Perhaps. But it diminishes the value of those girls when we begin to suggest that things would be “better” if we had more lads.

  8. I don’t know what Trident is, but I’ve also found that the more conservative Christian environments tend to draw more equal ratios and sometimes very strongly male ones.

  9. As a member of a church where we take seriously Jesus’s message to include everyone, lame, halt, blind, and a few young people with severe autism, I take exception to your use of the phrase “overly medicated hyperactives”.

    I object to defining people by their disabilities. We don’t (or at least the “able-bodied” shouldn’t) refer to people as “spastics” or “cripples”; a lot of wheel-chair athletes can finish a marathon in less time than I suspect you would take. People I work with speak of “street involved youth” rather than “street kids”, because not having a home does not determine a person’s identity. Whatever the validity of most ADD or ADHD diagnoses, I don’t believe you can ever justify referring to anyone as “a hyperactive”.

    While the contemporary educational/psychological establishment defines certain behaviour related to disabilities as “bad”, going as far as defining a “conduct disorder”, the Bible appears to me to set a very different standard, one based on knowledge and ability. In these terms, while classifying the conduct of an “over-medicated” individual with a diagnosis of ADHD as “bad” or a “problem” may have some advantages for teachers and youth leaders, I do not think it accords with the standards in the Bible.

  10. Isn’t there an old story about the shepherd who has 99 sheep, but who leaves them to go looking for the one who is lost? Wish I could remember who told that story. Some dude named “Jesus” or “Christ” or something like that.

    Also, I was interested in this:

    After all, if more girls than boys are showing up and being successful, this must be attributed to an anti-male bias rather than to a greater interest and effort on the part of the girls themselves!

    Quite an anti-feminist thought, there. For decades, feminists have claimed that if more men show up in the boardroom, in sports teams, in Congress, in fire stations, in police stations, in the military, in physics or engineering departments — boy, golly, are you going to get in trouble if you even breathe a word that this might represent men’s “greater interest and effort” at sports, engineering, working 70-hour weeks managing corporations, etc., etc.

    Do you disagree with that feminist line of thinking, i.e., that a gender imbalance is at the very least something that can’t be dismissed as a sign of “greater interest and effort”? Or does that line of thinking only apply in one direction?

  11. John, I’m sorry that my facetiousness in the paragraph you italicize wasn’t clear! I was lampooning the attitude of the men’s rights advocates, who see anti-male bias everywhere.

  12. I see that you’re lampooning men’s rights advocates — but at the same time, you’re also lampooning feminists who make the same arguments (i.e., that a lack of proportional representation is automatically a problem to be solved). Feminists have claimed (among other things) that Title IX is necessary to make sure that 50% of sports teams are women, and who refuse to listen to any argument that men are *on average* more interested in playing sports. On that line of thinking, churches should institute something like Title IX — refuse to fund youth groups unless half the attendees are boys.

  13. John, you misrepresent Title IX’s impact. And proportional representation in a church and in an institution that receives federal funds (we at All Saints don’t) are hardly the same thing.

  14. I’m not talking about Title IX’s impact, I’m talking about the arguments used to justify it. Feminists once noticed that more men than women were playing sports. Did they accept the glib explanation that men are more interested in sports and put more effort into it? No. Did they wave off any disparity by saying that it might undervalue sports-playing men if anyone tried to attract more women into sports? Far from it. Instead, they assumed that disparities are a problem — perhaps a reflection of the fact that society isn’t encouraging enough women to exercise their sports-playing abilities — and moreover chose to use the force of government to seek a solution.

    Yes, proportional representation in church and in government are not the “same thing.” But why are they different in *any way that matters*? In either case, you could with equal plausibility say, “Hmm, why does this activity involve such a heavy imbalance of the genders? Is there anything that we’re doing as a church [or as a society] to send the message that boys [or girls] are unwelcome here? What can we do to rectify this problem?”

    Feminism should be about equality. It shouldn’t be a one-way ratchet.

  15. 1996 was the last year I was in Youth Group at an evangelical Missionary Baptist church (I was first Catholic, then Congregational, now more abstractly Christian, but I went to this very conservative church group because all my friends went there). We were also heavily female, as was the high school aged Sunday school group at the Congregational church (except my grade — there were three of us, two boys and me). Parents seemed to push their girls to go, but not their boys (at least, this was how it seemed at the time, and it still sort of strikes me as being the same even now).

    Now I sometimes attend a UU church, and while there seem to be a lot of single women in the congregation, there aren’t a lot of single men. Take it as you will, but it seems somehow significant to me, although I’m not sure exactly why.

  16. We have the opposite situation. My older son was confirmed three years ago at our Episcopalian church. He sat through the confirmation program, which was also the “join the Episcopalian church program,” and then sat through the session afterwards with the priest, which was basically a “make sure the teens actually got it” session. He was fine with it, and continues to go and sing in the choir. He’s totally oblivious to the underlying politics of the parish.

    My daughter isn’t. Halfway through my older son’s confirmation year, she told me that she doesn’t like to go to church anymore because “The grownups don’t talk to each other.” That was a few months after Bishop Robinson was consecrated, and she was right, the congregation had divided up into factions. My daughter could sense the tension.

    She goes with me to our old Catholic church occasionally, but after watching the way the adults treated each other – even those who had been in the same church for years, she doesn’t want to get confirmed. In any church. This has *nothing*, however to do with her faith in God, which is still strong.

    She wouldn’t have fit in with the confirmation program anyway – listen and repeat. She questions everything (makes my life interesting!). And maybe it’s best that she learn now that her sort of approach doesn’t fit in with church (I don’t say this happily).

  17. K:

    My church is a FSSP (Fraternal Society of St. Peter) Chapel that offers the Tridentine – Latin – Mass.

    It’s pretty old school, yeah.

  18. Well, if All Saints alone was having trouble retaining boys, I’d worry more. But this is a widespread phenomenon, one rooted in any number of possible causes. Is it worth having a conversation about why it is that church seems so much more appealing to girls? Perhaps. But it diminishes the value of those girls when we begin to suggest that things would be “better” if we had more lads.

    Let’s reverse the genders, Hugo:

    Well, if All Saints alone was having trouble retaining girls, I’d worry more. But this is a widespread phenomenon, one rooted in any number of possible causes. Is it worth having a conversation about why it is that church seems so much more appealing to boys? Perhaps. But it diminishes the value of those boys when we begin to suggest that things would be “better” if we had more lasses.

    Hmmmm.