Let’s Talk About the Boys (Again)
Updated: May 2
There’s a predictable level of patter and talk about boys and young men lately. They are, again, in crisis. They are, again, receiving a lot of attention.They are, again, falling through the cracks and needing to be rescued from their terrible circumstances.
Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute has put them front and center (again) in his new book, Of Boys and Men, and the energy around, “but what about the boys?” has risen its head like the appearance of the whales every season off the coast of my home state of California. Everyone is rushing to get on boats for a quick view, hear some facts and then will, as predictable, forget about them until another season.
So what is happening? Why is this current round of attention a good news/bad news situation and why should we care?
I am by no means a prophet, but when the #metoo movement started to rise to full crescendo, I predicted two things based on previous historical experience: that there would be a conservative backlash (welcome to “wokeness” destroying America) and that we would shift our attentions away from the tangible claims and legitimate concerns of women and start focusing on how bad it is for men.
...the energy around, “but what about the boys?” has risen its head like the appearance of the whales every season off the coast of my home state of California.
We’ve seen this before. Susan Faludi, in her brilliant work of journalism, Backlash, outlines the social forces that pushed back violently on the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s with the men’s movement led by such figures as the poet, Robert Bly. Feminism was destroying manhood! And, men needed to start pushing back by forming drum circles, reconnecting to primal masculine selves (think a notch above cavemen), and even showing women they were much better off pushed back into their traditional roles, safe and sound protected by their alpha males.
The second round that I can remember was with the awareness and recognition of eating disorders and the social and economic shaping of girls’ experiences seen as physically and psychologically damaging. Then predictably, a whole host of books started to appear in the late 1990s and early 2000s talking about the life of young boys and how they were struggling.
And now, as predicted, we are back to the boys. It almost feels like we can’t put the entire gender picture together, that it’s a jigsaw puzzle where we keep misplacing some of the pieces.
The good-news part of this round is that there seems to be less of the misogynistic backlash or the need for men to take up space because they feel displaced. While there is the ugly voices such as Andrew Tate and Senator Josh Hawley to contend with, there is a greater understanding that 1) we need to look at gender issues in a more holistic manner in order to make progress and 2) that boys and men need to own their destructiveness, violence, and general lack of responsibility if we are going to make things better for everyone.
It almost feels like we can’t put the entire gender picture together, that it’s a jigsaw puzzle where we keep misplacing some of the pieces.
The bad news is that the solutions are often still contextualized as addressing surface level concerns and considerations. We refuse to examine how deeply entrenched systems and biases are at play which make this appear and feel like a static, predictably biological issue that cannot be fixed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Reeves, in focusing on two specific recommendations for schools, primarily relies on biological determinants. The evidence for both issues are correlative at best and do not address core issues, academically and socially, which boys face from the first days of their formal education.
The first has to do with an age-old trope that boys mature more slowly than girls and therefore he proposes what seems to be a thoughtful solution: to hold boys back a year so they are a year older when they actually begin their education. There are ways that boys mature more slowly than girls but many of these traits are actually linked to environmental determinants, not biological ones. Boys have skills and abilities that girls only develop later. Brown University biologist and geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling outlines how, from the moment a child is born, males are handled physically with much greater confidence and with less fear than female babies. Males are engaged with greater levels of motor play activities as well. Our tendency is to assign biological reasoning to the systemic issues that begin the minute a child enters the world irrespective of any hard evidence regarding genetics or DNA. All you have to do is watch an early childhood classroom to realize that there is a great variance in maturity with all children as they enter school for the first time and gender has little to do with it.
The second solution he proposes is starting school later in the day, a recommendation that has been around for many years and is thought to be beneficial for all children. The difficulty again is that there is no hard neuroscientific evidence to suggest that teens, particularly boys, are more nocturnal than anyone else. Teens do seem to need more sleep on average but again the nocturnal nature of pre-teens and teens seems to be more of a cultural and social issue than a biological one. These solutions are largely cosmetic and do not address what boys have been experiencing for over 100 years in American education. There are actually much more concrete issues that contribute to their massive mental health struggles and to constructs of masculinity which lead to pain for them and destructive, violent and unfair systems for women.
Anne Fausto-Sterling outlines how, from the moment a child is born, males are handled physically with much greater confidence and with less fear than female babies. Males are engaged with greater levels of motor play activities as well.
Reeves tends to do what many of the past well intentioned thinkers examining this issue do, which is to throw enough terrifying data at us about the state of boys and young men that it will scare the shit out of everyone as a call to action. The problem is that the data has been a rising tide for over 50 years and there is just too much at stake in our current patriarchal culture to really restructure experiences like school, where students spend between 6-10 hours a day, to make real change.
I have written previously in a number of blog posts about some real deep dive changes, both socially and academically, that could make a real difference for boys. One became part of a chapter of my book The Gender Equation in Schools and it has to do with the way we talk to boys about achievement and their successes and failures. (On Kept Princes, The Bell Curve and Our Boys) The very way we contextualize school for boys has very little to do with their education, a lot to do with putting them into a gender box and therefore making the experience of school a negative one.
Another piece focuses the narrow and destructive social circumstances that boys construct for themselves inside of schools. Wrapped inside of a protective and often insulated cultural context, boys and young men create categories, the alphas, the betas and the gammas, (The Myth of Bullying and Harassment: Redefining Masculine Culture in Schools) which are specifically designed to reinforce masculine ideals, leading to many of the negative and harmful outcomes which Reeves describes in his book.
The very way we contextualize school for boys has very little to do with their education, a lot to do with putting them into a gender box and therefore making the experience of school a negative one.
The issues that boys are facing and which Reeves raises in this country and globally are not to be dismissed. They accelerated during the pandemic and will have real implications for all of us if not addressed. What I take issue with is approach. The more we frame these issues as biologically based, the less we become willing to even consider that they are solvable through the way we construct and reconsider our social institutions. The struggles boys face are part of systemic ways we construct and maintain gender perceptions. Once those begin to fall, boys will find themselves in a much kinder, supportive atmosphere and able to become their best selves.