The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. By Warren Farrell, Ph.D. and John Gray, Ph.D. Dallas: BenBella Books, Inc., 2018. 493 pages. www.benbellabooks.com. www. warrenfarrell.com. US$25.95. Reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda
Disclaimer: Warren Farrell is a longtime colleague and friend of mine. I co-authored a textbook with him and James Sterba.
Warren Farrell has had a fascinating, amazing life. He started off writing books and giving talks that made him a darling of early feminism and the only man ever elected three times to the board of the New York National Organization for Women (NOW). Then he discovered another side of gender discrimination and started writing primarily about the male experience, after which the great majority of his speaking and television engagements tapered off.
To his credit and to our immeasurable gain, he has continued writing books on this current trajectory for close on to thirty years. The Boy Crisis is clearly unique among Farrell’s writings. For one thing, he has joined forces with John Gray, the well-known author of numerous self-help books including, most famously, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Farrell writes the great majority of the book but John adds a few chapters toward the end relating to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among our children and other broader health issues.
If there has been an arc in Farrell’s recent books, I would say he has become more adept at reaching a larger audience. Some recent videos with Farrell’s commentary that father-deprived boys are committing school violence have already gotten tens of millions of richly deserved views. Both authors have fairly radical viewpoints to propound in this book. Both bring them forward in a very accessible manner that makes ideas that might at first be a little difficult for some readers to embrace positively inviting and very reader-friendly.
The abundance of different types of abundance in this book is almost too much to believe. First, as always with Farrell, and for the first time with John, we get a wealth of footnotes, backing up any point we may wish to pursue further. Second, so many simple, important statistics are provided with which most readers, as I was, will almost certainly be unfamiliar. We learn on the very first page that as many white males have died from suicide as have been lost to AIDS. Typically with Farrell, there is more: It is only Native Americans who kill themselves at rates comparable to Caucasians. Latinos and Asian-Americans commit suicide at one-third the rate of Whites. The kicker? “African-Americans males, by contrast, stick with murder and being murdered.” Between ages fifteen and nineteen, there are four times more male suicides, and between ages twenty and twenty-four, the differential goes UP to six times. Toward the end of the book, we learn that the gap between males and females regarding suicide is three times greater than during the Great Depression.
We know that suicide is worse for males and it’s a scandal that our health care system and government are not doing much more to address it. Here’s another amazing statistic just a few short pages later: “Even in progressive California, twenty-three new prisons have been built for every one new college since 1980.”
Another very sobering statistic I wish I could unlearn for my peace of mind: The average US sperm count drops 1.5 percent each year. Farrell deftly follows the life journey of a piece of wood to track all the many, almost certainly male, workers who contributed to creating and using it in various highly hazardous professions. I certainly did not realize that “in hazardous professions, death after the job takes twelve times as many of our sons’ lives as death on the job.” [italics in original] Think of a coal miner’s black lung disease, or a firefighter’s lung cancer contracted later from chemical-laced fumes he breathed in over the years.
Are you ready for yet another astonishing number, still only nine scant pages into the book? Fully one third of our young males are “ineligible for military service owing to obesity and other physical and mental problems.”
By eighth grade, twice as many girls are at least “proficient” in writing relative to boys. Young women are now earning 61 percent of college degrees, and the number keeps creeping higher. Farrell notes that when females were having trouble graduating from college, we assumed the problem was with the schools, so we should do the same now, not blame males for lower graduation rates.
So what’s a male to do? Well, if he hopes to find a job, he’d better have at least a bachelor’s degree if not more, because median male annual earnings for high school graduates have plunged 26 percent in the past four decades. And if he hopes to meet a woman, who still is likely to prefer a man who earns more, he would be better off living in one of the three US cities where young men earn as much as young women, rather than the 147 such cities where they do not.
This all sounds pretty dismal. Farrell Farrell has however never been a defeatist. Far from it. We need to know the facts so we can solve them. One suggestion that we really ought to take to hard is to do as Japan has done and greatly expand our vocational schools. College is not for everyone and we need many different jobs to keep our economy humming. Farrell also suggests re-evaluating the male role so that if the woman earns more, the man can be a “father warrior” (Farrell’s properly empowering redefinition of “stay-at-home dad”), a job at which many men would excel and also greatly enjoy if they could follow it free of stigma. Farrell later adds that affirmative action to get males into social work and elementary school teaching would bring males into areas where they are sorely needed. Still later Farrell proposes recasting such stay-at-home fathers as “father warriors” to make the job more male-friendly with a sense of purpose and an understanding that his role is pivotal. As Farrell notes still later in the book, this would mean a full-time dad, when asked about his professional, can automatically respond, “I’m a Dad,” as easily as a woman might answer, “I’m a doctor.”
Later in the book, Farrell expands on these ideas, laying out a program to create a new paradigm for manning up. For example: “A boy thinks his façade of strength is his strength. A man doesn’t need a façade.” We should frame empathy as manly, and treat as courage listening first to peers, then speaking respectfully up to them.
Shockingly, our health care system has “Well-Woman Visits” that give a female patient a thorough check for mental and physical problems she is likely to have, but there is no such a thing as a “Well-Man Visit.” Similarly, the Affordable Care Act, while including a provision forbidding gender discrimination, provides suicide prevention services for females and not for males. There are seven federal offices for women’s health, and zero for men’s health. Several federal women’s health websites exist. No such men’s health websites are to be found.
Farrell adroitly sketches our gender empathy gap, which means that when a black male is shot by a policeman because of both his gender and racial identity, we focus on the latter and ignore the former.
Farrell’s compassion for all is clearly on display. He encourages children to ask their fathers about what put a glint in their eye when they were younger. Often it’s being a musician, or flying a plane, or acting, or drawing, something they gave up a long time ago for a more “responsible” job that didn’t fulfill their heart as much.
Later we meet a man who approaches him at a party and tells him a long story about how, based on a men’s group Farrell started and he joined, he was the main parent for his second child and chose to sacrifice his career and it was the best decision he ever made. Someone approaches to ask for his autograph and Farrell asks him, wait, aren’t you a musician? Turns out it was John Lennon!
Here’s another statistic: Fully 76 percent of firefighters in the US are volunteers. And they are almost 100% male.
Who knew that fatherless boys have significantly shorter telomeres? I certainly didn’t. Telomeres in our cells keep our genes from being deleted as our cells divide. We know that fathers help increase their kids’ IQ’s in a way that mothers typically do not, provide more roughhousing (which helps children to regulate aggression), and introduce the baby to more new objects. So it is that dad-deprived children have more problems with the law and are more likely to struggle with substance abuse. An appendix lists fifty-five benefits of fathers, which are also fifty-five dangers of dad deprivation. A father’s time with a child is one of the best predictor’s of the child’s ability to empathize with others as an adult.
One point that is critical to remember: Kids in lower-income neighborhoods do worse in school and life only because they are more likely to be deprived of Dad. If presence of a father is controlled for, a lower income can be more than compensated for by the presence of a father.
If you hear about the alleged male-female wage gap, the topic of an earlier book of Farrell’s (Why Men Earn More), just remember his pithy formulation: “The male-female pay gap is not a gap between between men and women; it is a gap… between men and women’s work-life decisions when they become moms and dads.”
This book is marked by far more personal stories than in Farrell’s previous book. Farrell shares a very long tale about a boy Nathan who was lacking in social skills when he stayed in a YMCA camp where Farrell was a counselor. Farrell recruited the rest of his cabinmates to work as a team to give Nathan positive feedback, transforming the boy’s self-image and camp life as well as that of all his fellows.
Farrell can write so movingly, as when he says: “As a boy in a dad-rich home roughhouses, is coached, or is read to at bedtime, his dad’s love and support becomes part of him the way syrup becomes part of a pancake. It reshapes him like the syrup reshapes the pancake, and neither is the same again.”
Then comes the time for John Gray’s chapters. Gray includes footnotes for the first time, bringing in all his multifarious healing experience to help us to understand how to help our children, especially boys, get back on track. Gray provides a long list of substances that are problematic in terms of ADHD, including sugar, pasteurized dairy products, video games, and pornography. The task of getting our teens to avoid these items frankly seems pretty daunting to me, and I have two teenagers right now!
Gray’s first chapters are a bit bleak especially when he surveys the many causes of ADHD. Later, however, the very nice, extended story of the boy Skyler comes in, as well as a story from the author’s own life on pages 379-381. Gray also goes into a number of health products and supplements he swears by, some of which are unfamiliar to me, such as Bravo yogurt (which you can apparently make at home) and whey protein.
I do feel duty-bound to note in case they are of relevance to potential readers of this otherwise absolutely superlative book: Gray’s chapters to include what could effectively be viewed as the author’s own advertisement for his products. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since some of us may want to explore these items and may not know where to find a trusted source. Secondly, a palpable “joint” can be discerned between the two authors’ quite different writing styles and subject matters. Gray does inevitably focus a bit less squarely on males and more on promoting overall health. Not that such a topic is a bad thing, not at all.
“Perhaps the most significant human accomplishment in the United States during the twentieth century was our awareness that defining our daughters in one way led to our daughters feeling confined to one way. It can be our most significant accomplishment in the twenty-first century to create an awareness that defining our sons in one way leads to our sons being confined to one way.” This requires, as Farrell writes in his final paragraph, “not a women’s movement blaming men, not a men’s movement blaming women, but a gender liberation movement freeing both sexes from the rigid roles of the past toward more flexible roles for our future.”
Don’t miss this awesome tour de force wherein two very different authors, each with amazing experience and wonderful authorial prowess, marshall their collective forces and achieve more together than either could achieve on his own.
NCFM PR Director Steven Svoboda, book review, The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, by Warren Farrell
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