“When you look at the kinds of kids who are in trouble in terms of – you name it – drugs and alcohol, suicide, attention-deficit disorder and learning disabilities, the prevalence statistics are so skewed toward boys that it’s enough to knock you over.”
– Dan Kindlon, Raising Cain
The confusions that arise in young males as they try to reconcile the traditional masculine values of their fathers, for example, with a postfeminist culture that celebrates sensitivity and openness have created a ‘national crisis of boyhood.’ Stephen S. Hall, “The Troubled Life of Boys”, NY Times Magazine, Aug. 15, 1999.
Men and boys are hurting. If you want to get a detailed picture of how badly read Susan Faludi’s book STIFFED. For a quick snapshot of how boys in particular are hurting take a look at this:
- Boys comprise 71 percent of all school suspensions and are expelled at even higher rates.
- Boys drop out of school 4 times over girls, receiving more failing grades.
- Boys represent more than 70 percent of all students labeled as learning disabled.
- Boys annually receive approximately 3 million applications of corporal punishment at school.
- More than 3 million boys are being prescribed drugs like Ritalin and Prozac to control their behavior. Over 10% of ten year old boys are on Ritalin.
- Males are the majority of the homeless, HIV positives, physically abused, neglected and murdered children, alcoholics, drug addicts, and foster kids awaiting adoption.
- The U.S. today has more boys locked up in juvenile institutions, jails, prisons, and mental hospitals than any other nation on earth.
For a snapshot of the next demographic up – young men – take a look at this:
- Women express far more confidence than men in their prospects for higher education and beyond.
- Women exceed men in university enrollments and graduate in greater numbers.
- Women exceed men in literacy and verbalization skills and that gap is growing. Men still exceed women in science and math skills but that gap is shrinking, almost to parity.
- Women in their 20s are twice as likely to be hired for new jobs than their male counterparts.
- In 2008, single childless women between ages 22 and 30 were earning more than their male counterparts in most United States cities, with incomes that were 8% greater than males on average.
The composite portrait of boys and young men today is painful to behold. But men still earn more on average than women. In 2007 the national female-to-male earnings ratio was 77.5 %. But unlike older women, younger women are rapidly approaching pay equity with males. The big question of course is “What accounts for all this bad news about young men and boys?”
Some women and many feminists take the position that if it’s good for men it’s bad for women. It seems men are as ready and willing to play the Zero Sum game as women, ie., if it’s good for women it must be bad for men. I find this unfortunate. Both sides are mirroring back to each other parallel distortions and intolerances.
First, the fact that women are doing better than men doesn’t mean that women are to blame. They’re not thecause of men doing worse.
The point of social engineering is to create a level playing field, to move past historical cultural and institutional biases, partly in an effort to reduce personal and interpersonal biases, ultimately to create true egalitarianism – where all are afforded the same opportunities for advancement. So it’s great that women are doing well. But why aren’t men?
The conclusion that I draw from the data around boys in school, particularly related to their being punished, to their being prescribed drugs, to their being depressed, even suicidal, is that normal adolescent male behavior has become increasingly unacceptable in U.S. institutions, especially schools. Speaking as someone who knows what it’s like to have testosterone rampaging through his body I know what it’s like to need outlets for that energy, to need exercise, to need safe places to go crazy, to be wild. 15 minutes of recess a day were never enough for me. (And nowadays too few boys even get that.) I used to average a minimum of two hours of exercise, playing sports, a day. All through my teen years. How many boys have that opportunity today? How many after school programs are there for them? How many playgrounds are there that are not only safe but also provide balls for them to use? How many boys and girls clubs are there for them to go to dance, swim, shoot around, interact in? Teen clubs? How many kids are safe biking around their cities? Even their own neighborhoods? How many even have bicycles?
There are simply too few healthy opportunities left any more for boys to be boys. So what’s left? The unhealthy opportunities: violence, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, STDs, petty crime… To bastardize a wonderful JFK quote (“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”) I say “Those who make normal adolescent male behavior impossible will make pathological male adolescent behavior inevitable.”
Boys would benefit enormously from having more male teachers in the schools. Boys need to be around men to learn how to become men themselves. Men are also more likely to give allowances for boys’ wildness than women. But where are the men who are willing to be teachers? Where are the men willing to stand up and defend teen boys? I do believe that many schools today promote an overly feminized school culture. One that is geared to the way girls learn best – methods of learning that are too sedate, too “nice” for boys. Studies have shown that boys learn best when their bodies are engaged. When, at the very least, they can walk around the classroom rather than sit still at a desk all day. So women and feminism are to blame, right?
No. In the 1950s, long before feminism, the gender make-up of teachers and staff was not that different than it is today. And yet the cultural allowances for normal boy behavior in the 1950s were no worse than today, perhaps even better. PE, recess, and after school activities were viewed as essential for normal boys’ well-being. And for bad behavior, the biggest difference then to now was boys would most likely be paddled or spanked rather than drugged, suspended, or expelled. And to top it off teachers could meet with parents more easily and often because parents were less harried. So why this difference in today’s schools?
I think it has to do with control. Schools today, especially public schools, are far more about control than they were 50 years ago. In fact many schools seem to place a greater emphasis on control than on education. Supposedly it’s all done in the interest of safety for the students but I’m not so sure. Security guards, metal detectors, special laws targeting school zones… none of these things existed in schools even 30 years ago. There have been numerous commentators on this phenomenon, some suggesting that schools are starting to resemble prisons. Googling “schools are prisons” will turn up a lot of interesting and credible sources; for further expansion on this argument I refer you to them.
Schools are simply a microcosm of what’s happened to the society as a whole. The sad truth is our society is far more controlled today than perhaps it’s ever been. Airports are only the most obvious example. The NYPD keeps tabs on Muslims, the U.S. government murders U.S. citizens abroad and is more concerned about Wikileaks than the content of their policies, Occupy protestors are removed from public spaces rendering their right to free speech meaningless, non U.S. citizens are kidnapped and tortured by U.S. services at secret sites worldwide, taserings and pepper sprayings persist for peacefully demonstrating students… The truth is we live in a far more militarized society with far fewer civil liberties now than 30 years ago. This past Christmas President Obama signed a bill into law allowing the U.S. military to hold U.S. citizens in detention on American soil indefinitely without charges, rendering the writ of habeas corpus and much of our justice system invalid. Now, whose fault is this? Women and feminism? I don’t think so.
So why do men continue to do worse than women after high school? Why are there more women students in college now than men? Why do they express more confidence in succeeding than men? Is it because the new feminist world favors them? I don’t think so. I believe it’s because men aren’t being taught who they are, aren’t being successfully guided across the pond of adolescence to manhood complete with their sense of purpose in the world. It’s because nobody’s teaching them how to be men.
Many men are lost. They don’t know how to make a difference in the world because they don’t know what makes a difference to them. They don’t know how to find fulfillment because no one’s ever taught them what fulfillment looks like for them. They don’t know how to achieve success because they were never taught to define success for them. It’s especially painful to see when it’s younger men. A man with little sense of himself as a man is going to be far less confident than his female peers, far less motivated to get a job and start a career, far less productive when he does have work, far less interested in starting a family, far less able to perceive himself as an agent of change. He will be far more inclined to see himself as a victim, far more inclined to blame women and feminism (and illegal immigrants and “welfare cheaters” and environmentalists and, and, and…[fill in your favorite target group here]) for his feeling like a 2nd class citizen. He’ll be far more inclined to be swayed by the bigoted rantings of talk show hosts and the fear mongering of politicians.
But who’s really screwed him? Who’s betrayed him? Is it women who are rushing through the doors of opportunity now that they’re open to them? No. The people who’ve deserted him are men – his father, his uncles, his grandfathers, the men in his neighborhood and church and workplace and sports teams. The culture that has betrayed him is the dominant culture, not feminism, that same culture that tells him that happiness lies in consumption rather than true maturity and missions of service. That corrupt, stultifying, all pervasive ideology that says fulfillment comes in buying things rather than mentoring and being mentored, rather than interconnection with and service to fellow human beings – whether they’re at home, in the workplace, the neighborhood, the street, or the next seat on the airplane.
And what underlies that all-pervasive consumerist ideology that is driving the planet to ruin? Capitalism. That system that puts profit and greed before the well-being of all. How does it impact men and boys? Easy. It teaches men and boys that they have to compete with each other rather than cooperate. It teaches them they have to fit in and “toe the line” rather than discover what is uniquely great and wonderful about them. It teaches them that if they’re unhappy they only need more of something – more money, more women, more sex, more booze, more food, more cars, more status, more fame, more privilege.
I don’t know about you but I don’t recall ever feeling more motivated to live my mission when I’ve received more of any of the above. When I’ve made more money that certainly motivates me to make more money. When I’ve bedded more women, had more sex, gotten more famous, achieved more status yes, it’s usually motivated me to reach out for more of the same. But I certainly don’t confuse any of those things with joy, with fulfillment. In my experience that’s not where they come from. The deepest joy and fulfillment for me usually comes when I’m connected to my deep sense of purpose while being of tangible assistance to another(s).
In Buddhism we often talk about “hungry ghosts” – ghosts who eat and eat and eat but never get full, never sated. Our consumer society has created legions of hungry ghosts – people who consume, consume, consume but never feel full, never complete, never whole. How can you? When you’re measuring your self-worth by standards of accumulation, by things outside yourself, you’re always going to have less than someone else. You’ll never have enough so you’ll neverbe enough.
But what if you weren’t measuring the worth of your life by those things outside yourself? What if you didn’t care about how much money or sex or food or cars or TV or booze or status or fame you had? What if all that mattered to you were living life in accord with your deepest sense of purpose and defining success by doing right by other people? I know some men like that. Some really good men.
Men like Tom who every month pours free sweat lodges for all comers seeking healing. Men like Tim who combines his 12 step practice with Buddhist teachings and has become a Zen priest dedicated to helping those with addictions. Men like Mha Atma who treats all patients at his chiropractic clinic whether they can afford to pay or not. Men like James who flies across the country on his own dime every opportunity he gets to go into the maximum security wing at Folsom prison to bring love and healing to lifetime inmates. Men like Stan who runs a dojo in East Harlem to teach young men martial arts and meditation. Men like Ed who guides youngsters through vision quests whenever they show up on his doorstep. There are many, many more of these brilliant, inspiring men. Men who I’m proud to call my teachers, my leaders, my friends.
These men define success through the hearts they touch – the men and women they’re able to help to stay sober, quit crime, get healthy, feel connected and empowered, possess a reason to live, learn what contribution theythemselves might have to give to others. When you’re giving freely of your medicine to a world in dire need that’s success! When you’re touching 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 people with your gifts that’s having an impact!
Being a giving man when the world tells you you’re a fool for not taking is big. Caring about generativity when the world tells you “look out for #1” is big. Living with integrity in a world of little integrity is big. Being a man of honor in a world copiously exhibiting dishonor is even bigger. Being a man who wants to see others flourish as much or more than he himself wants to succeed is huge. Do you know men like this? I hope so. They are the men pointing the way forward.
When men find their mission in service to others, and adopt a different set of values than what the culture offers, they will find joy and fulfillment. They will be successes. Then they, in turn, can offer themselves as mentors and role models to boys and younger men. Doing that will turn around the negative statistics for men and boys. Doing that will not only make happier, healthier men and boys, it will make for a happier, healthier planet. Not “Men’s Rights.” Not anti-affirmative action. Reversing 40 years of egalitarian social changes will not make men and boys any happier. Those statistics about their failures are not women’s fault. They’re ours, men’s. Do women and girls have a stake in the success of men and boys? Absolutely. Should they support men and boys coming together to teach each other how to be successful, how to be happy? Absolutely. But turning those statistics around for men and boys isn’t women’s responsibility, it’s ours.
The problem of uninitiated men in our culture carries import that reaches beyond the development of the individual man and affects the well-being of our culture as a whole. A healthy transition from a culture that has been dominated by the patriarchy to one which reflects a new integration of feminine with masculine values is dependent on the freeing of the masculine psyche from its adolescent-bound state. In this mission, women have no less stake than men, for the lesson to be learned in the new age is that the individuation of the one is dependent on the individuation of the other. Jerome S. Bernstein, “The Decline of Masculine Rites of Passage in our Culture: The Impact on Masculine Individuation.” Betwixt and Between.