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Last week, my sons participated in their school’s first school play—a charming production of “The Sound of Music.” While my fifth-grader worked the spotlight from the mezzanine, my 8-year old played one of the Von Trapp boys, appearing in the scene in which Maria dresses her charges in dungarees she fashioned out of floral curtains. (Yes, it was adorable!)

But let’s get right to the gender point here: Out of 150 kids who voluntarily signed up for the cast, only 20% were boys—and most of them were in the younger grades. While dozens of older girls donned nun’s costumes, only a handful of pre-teen boys participated. The fifth-grader who played the Captain enjoyed a hearty applause after hitting all the right notes in “Edelweiss,” but his male peers were in the audience, not onstage with him. When I asked other folks why this was the case, I heard that most boys were too busy with sports to commit to two weeks of rehearsals. Or, they just didn’t think being in the play was cool.

According to two professional directors who teach acting classes and orchestrate children’s productions in our community, the percentage of boys in our school play was actually rather high. At one local theater program, only 10 to 15% of six-to-eight-year old kids are boys. At another, a recent casting call for “Peter Pan” attracted over forty young thespians, but only three or four boys. Ultimately, the Lost Boys were played by girls.

What’s up with this? “It’s a societal thing,” says Dan Ferrante of the Westchester Sandbox Theater in Mamaroneck, New York. Traci Timmons, of the Bendheim Children’s Theater in nearby Scarsdale, surmises that when parents guide their sons’ extra-curricular activities, they usually prioritize sports over the arts, even if their boys show interest in creative activities. As boys get older, some dads fear a stigma of effeminacy or homosexuality often connected to men in theater. One positive sign is that sibling involvement can attract cross-gender interest. When brothers come to see their sisters perform, they want to be part of the excitement the next time around.

Parents are always hearing about the character-building benefits of team sports for kids of both sexes: they promote cooperation, persistence, self-confidence, healthy body awareness, the list goes on. True enough, but can’t the same be said for performing arts? Ms. Timmons argues that acting can enhance kids’ self-confidence, reduce feelings of social apprehensiveness, build literacy skills, and foster emotional sensitivity. For decades, feminists (and parents in general) have rightly fought to ensure gender parity in athletics—but what can we do to increase boys’ involvement in the arts? Even the popularity of Disney’s “High School Musical”—in which Zac Efron plays a jock who eventually learns to love the limelight on stage as well as on the basketball court—doesn’t seem to have made much difference.

Kids’ free time is limited, and they can’t do it all. But it’s a shame that boys who would otherwise enjoy—and benefit from—theatrical pursuits avoid them because they’re worried that their friends will think it’s uncool or “girly.”

Next fall, Benji will move on to middle school—but Eli will be in fourth grade, and he’s already planning to be in the school play again. Rumor has it that next year’s musical might be “The Wizard of Oz.” I hope they won’t have to cast a girl as the Tin Man.