Why Today’s Young Men Are Going Through a Crisis of Identity
In his latest book, “The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It,” Warren Farrell, Ph.D., educator, activist, and author of seven books on men’s and women’s issues, offers a comprehensive blueprint for what parents, teachers, and policymakers can do to help our male youth become happier, healthier men, fathers, and leaders. In this exclusive Q & A, Farrell reveals some of the most pressing issues facing boys today.
1) Your research indicates that boys have higher rates of suicide and mental illness and lower achievement in education. To what in modern society do you attribute this crisis?
WF: Boys are experiencing major problems in more than 60 areas in 56 of the largest developed nations. In 14 years of doing the research for The Boy Crisis, I discovered that the less nations are preoccupied with survival, the more they grant two freedoms: the freedom to divorce; and the freedom for children to be raised by single moms. It is in these two demographics that there are significant numbers of dad-deprived boys. And it is these boys who are far more vulnerable to higher rates of suicide, mental illness, failure in every academic subject, especially reading and writing (the two biggest predictors of success); obesity; addiction to alcohol, drugs, video games and porn; ADHD; depression; lack of motivation; poverty; a shorter life expectancy; criminal behavior; unemployment, and problems in more than 50 other areas. Also, boys who hurt, hurt us: more than 90% of the male prisoners, ISIS recruits and mass shooters are dad-deprived males. The cost of ignoring the boy crisis and dad-deprivation exceeds a trillion dollars a year.
2) In your book, you write: “As boys become young men, their ‘suicide rates go from equal to girls to six times that of young women. One of the reasons, you as you mention above, is “dad deprivation” How does this affect the developing male psyche? Can you give some examples?
WF: Yes. First, dad-deprived girls also suffer in most of the 60 areas, but they have two things the boys do not have: a same-sex role model; and more social permission to express feelings and ask for help. Dad-deprived boys, on the other hand, experience both a “purpose void” and a “dad void.” Boys’ old sense of purpose was to serve in war, or serve as the family’s sole breadwinner. With fewer boys needed as soldiers and fewer needed as sole breadwinners, many boys experience a “purpose void.” The purpose void is a good thing if it simultaneously creates both flexibility of purpose along with the guidance of both parents to help a boy discover his purpose—and pursue his dream. However, boys without dads—with a “dad void”– are less likely to have the boundary enforcement that creates the discipline to successfully pursue their dream. Without the discipline, the boy fails and is soon ashamed of himself, and afraid to dream.
For example, dads and moms both set boundaries similarly: “You can’t have your ice cream until you finish your peas.” Kids test boundaries similarly—trying to have as few peas as possible before they get their ice cream! Moms, though, are more likely to not want to get into a big argument over a few peas and to let their child have the ice cream after they’ve eaten, say, half the peas. Dads are more likely to require the child to finish the peas. Dad-style parenting on average involves more boundary enforcement and therefore helps the child develop more postponed gratification, the biggest predictor of success. Dad-style parenting differs from mom-style parenting in about nine different ways that I describe in The Boy Crisis. Mom-style parenting is also important. Children who have what I call “checks-and-balance parenting” tend to do the best.
3) Another alarming statistic is that young men appear to be losing a sense of purpose, feeling alienated, withdrawn, and addicted to immediate gratification. Does this have anything to do with the #metoo movement and/or issues of “toxic masculinity?
WF: While this is due most significantly to the combination of the “purpose void” and “dad void” discussed above, the #metoo movement and the focus on toxic masculinity–to the exclusion of anything positive about masculinity–is definitely contributing to many boys feeling ashamed that they were born male. It is wonderful that #metoo encourages women to speak up. But #metoo is a monologue; it needs to be a dialogue. Part of toxic masculinity is repressing feelings, not expressing feelings. A #metoo monologue that excludes men just reinforces males repressing feelings. When males are told they are toxic for repressing feelings, but are accused of “mansplaining” the moment they express feelings, they feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Aspects of masculinity are toxic, but most of the portion that is toxic emerged not from male privilege, but from male sacrifice: men receiving “social bribes” such as being called “hero” when they are willing to be disposable in either war or in hazardous jobs. Heroic intelligence is preparation for a short life; health intelligence is preparation for a long life. Male sacrifice allowed for the female privilege of being able to express feelings while the expectation on men to die to protect us from Nazi rule or be a first responder, taught men that they would be valued for their disposability, not for their expression of fears and feelings.
As for the contributions of the #metoo movement and the accusations of toxic masculinity to the creation of a culture of male shame, well, since The Boy Crisis has come out, I am flooded with letters from parents telling me that as early as seventh grade, their sons are hearing in school that their masculinity is toxic; that the “future is female”; that they are part of a patriarchal system dominated by men to benefit men at the expense of women—a system in which he and other males are the oppressors, and women the oppressed; that if they succeed, it’s because of their male privilege; if they fail, it’s because they are losers.
When I talk directly with teenage boys, I hear that their testosterone is surging with desire for perhaps half the girls in their class, but he fears that if he acts on his feelings too quickly, he’s a sexual harasser; if he acts too slowly, he’s a wimp. It is rare for a boy to even ask, “Why doesn’t equality include women sharing these risks of rejection and responsibility—not by option but by expectation?”
If the boy is a reader, he may hear about books with titles such as The End of Men. Imagine our daughter growing up in a time predicting “the end of women.” No boy or girl has ever before grown up in a time that predicted the end of their gender. Anticipating “the end of men” is not exactly an inspiration for our sons’ life journey.
This crisis of shame contributes to depression, alienation, and withdrawal, and therefore to boys’ crisis of mental health.
4) What can we do as parents, caregivers, and society to renew our sons’ sense of purpose and self-worth to grow into healthy men, fathers, and leaders?
WF: Since boys are willing to die if they are told they are needed—as in each generation’s war—we must let boys and men know how much they are needed not as warriors to kill and be killed overseas, but as “father warriors” to love and be loved at home. We must, therefore, help boys know about the positive contributions of dad-style parenting and how to communicate with a mom to lovingly create “checks-and-balance parenting.”
The Achilles’ heel of humans is our inability to handle personal criticism without becoming defensive. I teach couples’ classes around the country to help parents circumvent this natural propensity for defensiveness since that leads to divorce which too often creates the fertile soil in which the boy crisis grows. But communication skills teaching should begin in first and second grade.
To support the overwhelming challenges single moms face, we need to have equal numbers of male teachers in schools. And moms need to know that Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and faith-based communities in which the faith-based leader creates groups of boys their son’s age to talk openly, will help. Boys must have structure and boundary enforcement—for example, for a parent to require him to participate in team sports, individual sports, and pick-up team sports. Recess must be restored. And vocational education needs to be encouraged for about the one-third of boys who are not academically inclined. (In Japan, 99.6% of children graduating from vocational education programs receive jobs; in the U.S., non-academically-inclined boys often drop out of high school and have a 20% unemployment rate in their twenties.)
On the national level, we need to create a White House Council on Boys and Men to put the boy crisis on the national agenda—encouraging helping professionals, philanthropists, schools, private organizations, government entities, and faith-based communities to help raise boys who are worthy of the love of women and other male partners. We must adopt a different attitude: that we are all in the same family boat. When only one sex wins, both sexes lose.
Dr. Warren Farrell has been chosen by the Financial Times as one of the world’s top 100 thought leaders. His books are published in over 50 countries, and in 19 languages. They include two best-sellers: Why Men Are the Way They Are, plus The Myth of Male Power. His most recent (2018, co-authored with John Gray) is The Boy Crisis. Dr. Farrell is the only man ever elected three times to the Board of the National Organization for Women in NYC. He has appeared on over 1000 TV shows and been interviewed by Oprah, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Katie Couric, Larry King, and Charlie Rose. He has frequently written for and been featured in The New York Times and publications worldwide. Dr. Farrell has two daughters, lives with his wife in Mill Valley, California, and virtually at www.warrenfarrell.com.
This Q & A was featured in the June 16th edition of Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper newsletter. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward. To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.