The Boy Crisis: a book review

Boys are falling behind in 63 developed nations.

I got a copy of The Boy Crisis at the library, but a tenth of the way into it I decided to buy a copy. It’s that kind of book.

Warren Farrell and John Gray document the toll that father deprivation has taken on our children — especially boys.

A former board member of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter, Farrell was ostracized from the feminist movement when he began promoting evidence that fathers play a unique and essential role that mothers can’t replicate.

Rather than the simple narrative of the patriarchy benefiting men at women’s expense, Farrell claims that the men who ruled societies in centuries past exploited men too, but in a different way: men were beasts of burden and cannon fodder.

Until recently society focused on survival needs. People today often fail to understand how disease, famine, and warfare meant that even a couple hundred years ago every day was a struggle for life. Men were disposable as providers and protectors because women, via pregnancy, are the key to maintaining a population. Women were disposable in the service of childbirth, but that was a biological reality that our ancestors could do little about.

Twentieth century science, technology, and capitalism changed all that. Obesity is now the problem in developed countries, not starvation. Contraception gives women reproductive choices, and death in childbirth and infant morality are rare relative to the past.

The movement for women’s equality and freedom from traditional gender roles was a natural outcome of technological and economic progress. And feminism has been a resounding success. Women today earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees. And women are almost half of medical school graduates and more than half of law school graduates. Further, domestic violence against women and sexual assault have plummeted in the past quarter century.

Farrell and Gray say that empowering girls is important. But “let’s not throw out the boy with the bathwater.” High rates of divorce and society’s treatment of fathers as second class parents has created father deprivation for millions of children.

Farrell and Gray focus on father deprivation as the leading cause of the boy crisis because it’s the single largest indicator of male maladjustment. In appendix B they list 55 factors that are far more common for fatherless boys. These include reduced life expectancy, being more likely to commit suicide or commit a mass shooting, being more likely to join a gang (or even ISIS), becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, ending up in prison, dropping out of school, facing unemployment, and being victimized by a sexual predator.

Dads make a unique contribution to children’s well-being, including boundary enforcement, improved social skills, healthy risk taking, improved emotional resilience, and more.

But too often dad is valued mainly as a wallet. We’ve accepted the claim that career men are privileged. Yet, women have options — work full-time, work part-time, or stay home with the kids — while men’s option are work full-time, or work full-time, or work full-time. And many men give up their passions for high earning but soul crushing careers. Historically, mom made “a sacrifice of her career.” But even today dad often makes “sacrifices in his career.”

We’ve ignored challenges that boys and men face in other ways, and this can have a huge impact. Males commit suicide almost four times more often than females. Yet, Farrell and Gray point out that the media often focus only on girls and women. And social worker Tom Golden claims that the National Association for Social Workers studies only female suicide because there’s no funding to study male suicide. In addition, white males — especially if they’re from higher income families — are especially at risk. Why? High expectations for them to prove themselves.

Females attempt suicide more often, but a cry for help shows they think someone will listen. But if you don’t believe anyone will listen you don’t attempt suicide, you commit suicide. The authors point out that Lois Lane is only interested in Clark Kent after she finds out he’s Superman. He must prove his strength first to earn the privilege of showing his vulnerability.

Farrell and Gray warn us, however, that “boys who hurt, hurt us.” They claim most mass shooters come from father deprived families. And almost 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. But while Obamacare provides for free well-woman checkups (which include mental health screening), no such benefit exists for men. In fact, there are seven U.S. government agencies focusing on women’s health but zero for men. Yet, addressing the male suicide crisis won’t only save male lives — it’ll save the lives of others.

Though “toxic masculinity” is a popular topic, the term “hyper-masculinity” is a better description. Reading The Boy Crisis I realized that father deprivation is a significant cause of hyper-masculinity due to the lack of a mature male role model who can teach boundaries to a young man who is too eager to prove himself.

In an age where women don’t need men to earn a living (but still value a man’s ability to provide), and where the warrior role is no longer as valued as it was, young men face a crisis of purpose. And being involved fathers — or a positive role model if a man doesn’t have children — can become that purpose.

This is a particular challenge for divorced or unmarried dads. The authors say there are four essentials when dealing with this:

  • Equal time for each parent.
  • No bad-mouthing.
  • Parents living within 20 minutes of each other.
  • Counseling as co-parents.

They detail research showing how this benefits mom as well.

We need a shift in the way we think about the male role, the authors advocate. The hero sacrifices himself to take of others. Today’s man needs the “health intelligence” to know that he must take care of himself in order to take care of others — “healed people heal people.”