Tag Archive for: FatherlessMen

Recovering the Path to Manhood

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

It may have been the worst Super Bowl commercial ever. Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman are competing with one another, trying to use their cell phones in preposterous places. Silverman, still talking to Handler, is delivering a baby in an underground bunker. Handing the baby to the mother, she glances down and sees the sex. “Sorry!” she tells the parents. “It’s a boy.”

I flinched. I’ve never heard these words in the delivery room, but the sentiment is familiar. I’ve made the “it’s a boy” announcement five times; some people just can’t resist offering their condolences. This poor woman! Will she ever “get her girl”? They probably had a mental picture of me buried in fire trucks and plastic soldiers, while baseballs crashed through my windows.

That’s not really so far wrong, but I don’t mind. Little girls are delightful, but I love my band of brothers. I am very conscious of the tremendous honor and obligation of being, at least for the present, the defining female presence in the lives of six males. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. My eldest sons are just reaching their teens. Already our conversations are vastly more interesting than most of the classroom discussions I remember from my days as a college professor. All five of them were born within nine years, so they’re truly growing up together, and their schoolteachers comment on what a tight-knit bunch they are. Some days, when I’m writing or working on dinner, I’ll break off for a few minutes, and step out on the back deck. The boys might be throwing a football, or fishing off our dock. They might just be sitting around laughing at one another’s dumb jokes. Who could witness that, and feel sorry? Life doesn’t get much richer.

I regret nothing, but I do fear. Young men as a group are struggling mightily in our day and age. Silverman’s tasteless joke has a frighteningly clear underlying logic. Parents who want their kids to make them proud—and who doesn’t?—are statistically better off having daughters. A daughter is likelier to become her school’s valedictorian. A son is likelier to drop out of school or get arrested. She is likelier to get into and through a good college, to find decent employment, and to live a stable life. He’s likelier to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and six times likelier to commit suicide. I feel indignant when I read how adoption agencies are struggling to place boys, even in infancy. But I understand it. Boys may break your heart. And I have five.

This is why I read the “boy books”: literature discussing the struggles of boys. I need to understand this as fully as possible. I have a lot of “boy lit” on my shelf, but here I will discuss five significant figures in this conversation: Warren Farrell, Leonard Sax, Anthony Esolen, Jordan Peterson, and Brad Miner. Among these, only Peterson has not written an entire book specifically on the subject of manhood. I will mention him nevertheless, because his influence with young men is particularly noteworthy. 

I disagree with all of these writers at certain points, and in some cases the disagreements are serious. Nevertheless, I look on them all with a certain gratitude. They care. To me, they all feel like allies in what has become my primary life’s work: the task of raising boys into good men.

Farrell and Sax Raise the Alarm

For a quick read on the boy problem, Warren Farrell and Leonard Sax make a great pairing. Sax is a psychologist and family physician, who has written three books on gender and youth development. Boys Adrift is his latest. Farrell is harder to classify. In broad terms, it may be most helpful to describe him as a true-believing second-wave feminist (once deeply involved with the National Organization for Women) who ended up developing a masculinist counterpart to his 1970s feminism. He isn’t any sort of traditionalist; indeed, he clearly wants to dismantle traditional masculine ideals in at least some key ways. Still, he has been thinking about boys and men for several decades now, and I find his arguments helpfully challenging, even when I think he’s wrong. The Boy Crisis applies some of his long-developed thoughts on manhood to developmental issues for boys.

Sax and Farrell are interesting both for their similarities and for their differences. As social scientists, they both present a lot of data, giving rise to shared concern about boys’ mediocre performances in school. Worldwide, boys are falling behind girls, especially in reading. Their test scores are lower, and they are less likely to enroll in universities. The structure of modern schools seems uncongenial to boys’ developmental needs.

Sax and Farrell agree as well that fatherlessness is a huge problem in our time, in general, but especially for boys. The statistics on this subject are harrowing. Fatherless boys fare worse in virtually every measurable way. Of course, when that cycle of family breakdown is perpetuated, that means another generation of at-risk kids, as well as stressed-out single moms, and lower social productivity. 

Finally, both Sax and Farrell have many interesting things to say about the masculine loss of purpose. They understand that many men today are suffering from a kind of existential crisis. Men aren’t sure what role they are meant to play within society at large. Once, able-bodied men were genuinely necessary to keep their families and communities alive. Today, robots do much of our heavy lifting, and our meat mostly comes from factories, not forests. We do still need strong men to do a number of jobs, some of which are desperately seeking eligible workers. If a man wants employment, it’s still very possible to leverage bulging biceps, in more ways than one. Physical strength is no longer essential to the family’s survival though, nor does it command tremendous earning power. In market terms, manly muscle has lost its edge.

From here, Sax and Farrell diverge. Sax focuses on cultural phenomena that undermine discipline for boys: video games, pornography, and over-indulgent parenting. His book feels like the adolescent prequel to Nicolas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work, and recommends, stricter rules, fewer indulgences, and less coddling. Farrell’s focus is quite different. In broad terms, he thinks that boys’ social and emotional development has been stunted by maladaptive masculine norms, which send boys charging off on quixotic manhood quests while the girls are becoming prudent, socially savvy, and self-aware. Farrell is deeply suspicious of cultural messaging that teaches boys to aspire to heroic self-sacrifice. In his view, this understanding of manhood makes it hard for boys to navigate the complexities of interpersonal relationships, and the nuances of our complex workforce. They are incentivized to do dangerous and self-destructive things, instead of developing the workaday healthy habits that so often make the difference between success and failure in modern life. Farrell’s book is full of “conversation starters” for parents; he wants us to plumb the depths of our sons’ social and emotional lives. His larger goal is to give men the same range of options and possibilities in life that feminists have (in his view, rightly) demanded for women, moving them towards self-actualization and a comfortable life.

It can be hard for parents to make sense of seemingly contradictory advice, but in fact both men make some good points. Sax is certainly right to call our attention to distractions and cultural trends that undermine discipline, although I myself haven’t always had success with the authoritarian disciplinary approaches that Sax recommends. Sometimes a fruitful conversation is worth a thousand rules. Here, Farrell’s insights can actually be genuinely helpful, especially because we do live in a world in which social polish, emotional self-awareness, and prudent life skills are critically important for adults. If a young man is too socially inept to be presentable in a job interview, or too emotionally closed to cultivate intimacy with a wife, then he may end up bankrupt and alone.

Having said that, I think Farrell underestimates the extent to which boys are naturally attracted to heroism, honorable self-sacrifice, and the stiff upper lip. I don’t think it’s wise to jettison these chivalric impulses. If young men are indeed suffering from a loss of purpose, financial planners and radio shrinks may not be the ministers they need. 

Anthony Esolen Waxes Nostalgic

Anthony Esolen would agree with this point. His newest book, No Apologies: How Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men seeks “to return to men a sense of their worth as men, and to give to boys the noble aim of manliness, which is their due by right.”

Esolen wants to return men to their traditional role, as society’s protectors, providers, and citizens. He doesn’t see technology, market forces, or women’s education as significant factors in men’s changing social roles. Rather, he thinks men have been sabotaged by resentful feminists and equality-obsessed social planners.

Esolen proposes two remedies. First, we should renew our appreciation of men’s unique potentialities. Second, we should embrace the natural complementarity between men and women. The first will keep the lights on in society at large; the second will keep romance sweet and domestic life stable.  

Esolen’s ode to manhood is stirring, and at times quite beautiful. Is it credible, though? An economist would have some quibbles, and the historical narratives are a bit rose-tinted at points. But the biggest problem with No Apologies is its dependence on a false and degraded view of womanhood. Esolen loves the idea that men and women complement one another, but in his division of the sexes, virtue is mainly for the vir.

He obviously anticipates objections on this point, because he warns readers in his introduction that even if he appears to be disparaging women, in reality he is “doing nothing of the sort.” “Every strength in one respect,” he tells us, “is a shortcoming in another respect.”

I want my sons to be man enough to handle real womanly excellences as they find them, with grace and gratitude. I would like them to aspire as well to friendship with women, and especially their future wives.

That’s hardly reassuring. Even in his disclaimer, it sounds as though Esolen is applying the principle of corruptio optimi pessima: men can be worse than women precisely because they are by nature better. The same principle could be used to characterize the relationship between men and beasts; a dog cannot reach the same level of depravity as a malevolent human master, precisely because he lacks the master’s rational potentialities. Men and women might stand in a similar relationship (though possibly with a narrower gap), and in fact, Esolen’s women do seem uncomfortably canine even in their more positive qualities. They are affable, affectionately nurturing, and fiercely but instinctively loyal. Men, meanwhile, are stronger, more disciplined, more fully governed by reason, and focused on truth and justice (as opposed to the provincial and personal concerns of women). Men have a capacity for civic engagement and creative cooperation that women lack. Their unique “rage to master” leads them to explore, learn, and understand a whole range of things that are of little or no interest to women.

I am squinting very hard at this picture, trying discern some sort of moral equality. Is it possible that Esolen, looking through the eyes of Dante, can do it? Perhaps so, but I cannot. Looking through a more Aristotelian lens, it just seems obvious that men in this view are the morally superior sex. “Masculine” strengths as Esolen describes them in the early chapters map quite nicely onto the classical picture of virtueWomen, driven by instinct and passion, seem more like beasts or natural slaves.

These themes are further developed through the book. Esolen’s description of male friendship sounds essentially like the Aristotelian friendship of virtue; women’s friendships are grounded instead in affection and pleasure. In each chapter, Esolen seems to be explaining how men pursue the unique human telos, as understood within the Western tradition, while women nurture, emote, and navel-gaze. Possibly, he might hold (with some medieval thinkers) that women can achieve equality with men on a supernatural plane, once they are perfected by grace. In the natural sphere, men clearly rule.

Mulling over all of this, I find myself pondering a very practical question. What’s a lady permitted to like nowadays? Feminists are continually issuing lists of things we are meant to shun, for the sake of snubbing the patriarchy: the Founding Fathers, Shakespeare, the Bible. Now it seems the other side has its own taboos for women: competitive games and sports, maps, epic poetry, intellectual exchange, the weight room. To be fair, Esolen isn’t walking around ordering women to drop the barbell and shelve the Beowulf, but he is arguing that cultural renewal, and the thriving of men, depend on the recovery of robust gender complementarity. What should a wife and mother do, then if she really aspires to fill her half of the natural gender pairing? Should she box up her workout gear and philosophy books, trade her fishing pole for smelling salts, and bid longtime male interlocutors adieu? Perhaps she might cultivate more hair-trigger sensitivities, and blind herself to her children’s faults? No reasonable person would aspireto the qualities that Esolen sees as defining of womanhood.

I have known and liked Esolen for some years; I read him with interest for several more before that. He has tremendous talents, and I also truly believe that he likes women. Some of his claims about the sexes probably could, with more care and nuance, be unteased in more helpful ways. It will not do, though, to try to make men taller by asking women to slouch. Even if the women were willing, I want my sons to be man enough to handle real womanly excellences as they find them, with grace and gratitude. I would like them to aspire as well to friendship with women, and especially their future wives. For all of his interest in marriage, this never seems to be much of a focus for Esolen.

No Apologies demonstrates the hazards of pairing a call for sexual complementarity, with a single-minded focus on the needs of just one sex. I can understand how a sincere zeal for defending men might lead to this rather proprietary seizure of virtue, on behalf of the male sex. I appreciate the goals. It seems to me, though, that men need to face their situation with a more realistic assessment of where they stand in today’s world.

Jordan Peterson and Brad Miner Raise the Bar

Is this possible? In concluding this piece, I will briefly mention two writers who do show some success at adapting traditional masculine ideals to contemporary circumstances.

Peterson is by no means a favorite writer of mine. He can be mean-spirited, and he rivals Thomas Friedman in his ability to belabor obvious points. Those defects seem fairly trivial, though, when I hear testimonials from ecstatic mothers whose teenaged or young-adult sons are cleaning their rooms, exercising, or wearing ties for job interviews, all under Peterson’s influence. Why are young men willing to take this commonsensical advice from a Jungian psychologist, and not from more traditional sources of wisdom, such as pastors, parents, or youth sports coaches? That’s a fascinating question, but in the end what matters most is that they take it. 

Peterson’s success calls into question Farrell’s theory about the malign effects of heroic masculine norms. Peterson loves heroic language, but somehow persuades his admirers to eat their vegetables and floss. Young men feel like he understands their problems, but he uses that rapport to urge them not to wallow in self-pity. That’s commendable.

Miner’s The Compleat Gentlemanis winsome, charming, and not the least bit belittling to women. His ten-thousand-foot history of chivalry obviously makes some very sweeping generalizations, but it has a serious purpose and a hopeful message. Like Peterson, Miner acknowledges that the world is hard, but urges young men to strive for excellence anyway. It’s not easy to become a “complete gentleman.” If it were, what would be the point? Also like Peterson, Miner wants young men to understand that it is always better to be manly, regardless of the consequences. Fashions change, and good deeds often go unrewarded, but a gentleman has the kind of integrity that motivates him to continue even without applause or medals. This is the foundation of the purpose that so many men today crave. To find meaning, you must dedicate your life to something larger than yourself.

Perhaps this is the real point, threading its way through all these authors. A man is truly a remarkable creature, with tremendous potential to do good. This is what I see, watching my sons from the back deck, and the implicit realization of that potential may explain why boys from their earliest years are thirsting for a quest, and spoiling for a noble fight. This desire is not toxic, or at least it need not be. But realizing that potential is much harder than the lightsaber-wielding preschooler can possibly understand. It takes the discipline of Sax and Peterson, the social savvy of Farrell, and the high-flown ideals of Esolen and Miner. When that potential is not achieved, bitterness and despair often follow.

Boys can break your heart. I have five. I’m not sorry, but I never let myself forget that the path to manhood is a hard one.


This article was published in Law & Liberty and is reproduced with permission.

Strong Families Are Worth Defending

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a landmark report in which he contended that the rising number of black families headed by unmarried mothers would reduce the prospects for Blacks to rise out of poverty, in spite of that era’s landmark civil rights legislation.

Moynihan was furiously denounced for his efforts. But he was proven right and he would be even more correct making the same observations today.

It’s been a tough half-century for families. Although Moynihan focused his concerns on Blacks, family breakdown correlates as much with income level as it does with race.

Because there are more low-income Blacks, more black children are raised by single mothers, but the overall percentage of births to unmarried women has gone from 5% in 1960 to 40% today. In 1970, 84% of US children spent their entire childhood with both biological parents. Today, about half do.

Partly because of the withering criticisms directed at Moynihan, the chattering classes have mostly avoided the issue of family deterioration, at least until recently. But the consequences have been enormous.

Harvard economist Raj Chetty analyzed the causes of income disparity and concluded that “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.“

In fact, there is scant evidence that race or racial discrimination causes the multiple economic and societal problems associated with family breakdown. Government spending doesn’t seem to have any effect, nor even does education explain the income gap. It is family status itself.

So what caused families, long our core civic institution and the means for passing on our values, to falter? There’s no easy answer, of course, but scholars note a sea change in our views of almost everything that began about the middle of the last century.

Especially in developed countries, people became more anti-authoritarian and more critical of traditional rules and roles. Views about sex outside of marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood significantly changed.

It wasn’t all bad. Many of the changes extended civil rights and created a more fair society. But some of the “progress” has been tough on the kids.

For example, it’s not judgmental, just descriptive, to note that the increase in cohabitation has resulted in more unstable family structures.

Even with children, cohabiting couples break up faster and more often than married couples. Unmarried fathers are even less likely than divorced dads to form lasting bonds with their children. What may appear to be simply a matter of documentation can have a profound impact on the well-being of children.

Changing mores regarding sex before marriage has resulted in millions of young women bearing children for which they have made no financial or other preparations.

It’s not judging, it is the essence of caring for each of us to do a better job of informing these potential mothers of the catastrophic lifelong consequences of their casual decisions, both on themselves and the new life they are bringing into the world. We should also do a better job of making unwed fathers, many of whom openly boast about the children they are not raising, accountable for the consequences of their actions.

As Ronald Reagan might say, the government is not the solution to this problem. It is the problem. There’s no question that the Great Society welfare rules, requiring recipients to be unmarried and unemployed to qualify for benefits, led to countless women making the sensible decision to “marry the government“ rather than the uneducated, undependable father.

The government has also mortally harmed families by taking over many of their traditional functions, especially care of the young and the aged. Families traditionally stayed together to assure that those unable to provide for themselves would be sustained.

Today, it is assumed that the elderly are entitled to be cared for by the government. Some adults are known to simply walk away from their families because they don’t see the need.

We need sound strong families for all Americans, not only the wealthy and privileged. It would help if the government did less harm. But we need to do a better job of protecting and prioritizing our families, respecting the outsized role they play in making our country strong and our lives worthwhile.

A Conversation About Gun Violence

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

We need to have a conversation about gun violence!

OK, you start.

You hate children!

That’s slander, not a conversation, but go ahead.

Schools should be Gun-Free Zones.

Those signs have been up since 1990. I said then that Gun-Free Zones wouldn’t work, and I was right, wasn’t I? What else?

Background checks!

We’ve had background checks since 1985. I said then that background checks wouldn’t work, and I was right, wasn’t I? Almost all of the mass shooters passed background checks. So, you want to do even more of what hasn’t worked; got it. What else?

Ban assault weapons!

We did that for 10 years; and as I predicted, it didn’t work, did it?

Yes, it did! The president said so!

The president also said he drove an 18-wheeler, graduated at the top of his class, hit a baseball off the wall in Nationals Stadium, was recommended for the Naval Academy, and was arrested in South Africa while protesting apartheid. The president is one of those people who say things that are not true. There is a word for such people; the president is a … you know, the thing. The Department of Justice study concluded the Assault Weapons Ban didn’t do a damn thing. What else do you want to have a conversation about?

If the shooter had not had an AR15, he would not have killed so many children.

Yes, he would have. In most mass shootings, the shooters have used handguns, shotguns, and hunting rifles. When victims are trapped and helpless, weapon type is irrelevant, because the shooter can take his time. What else?

Then ban all guns!

Yeah, that would work as well as banning alcohol did, and how is that War On Drugs coming along? Lots of people have been killed in those noble, well-meaning experiments. Anyway, when psychos don’t have guns, the body count goes up… way up. They use truck bombs (Murrah Building), pressure cooker bombs (Boston Marathon), fire (Happyland Social Club), and vehicles driven into crowds (Waukesha). Why are you proposing something that would cause more people to be killed? Whose side are you on? What else?

Red Flag Laws!

Those have failed just like background checks have. Many of the mass shooters and school shooters were already on the police radar with red flags flying all over the place. Many states already have red flag laws, and mostly they get used by vengeful ex-spouses and co-workers trying to make trouble with false accusations. Because (as you probably don’t know), the essence of a red flag law is taking somebody’s guns away without due process — just an accusation, no hearing, no right to deny the accusation or show exculpatory evidence. Somebody makes an accusation and that automatically makes someone guilty.

But we have to Do Something!

Something stupid and counterproductive, or something that might actually help?

Well, what are your child-hating ideas, you child-hater? Arming teachers?

Glad you have an open mind. Not “arming” teachers, but “allowing” teachers to carry guns if that is their choice. (You’re in favor of choice, right?) Take down those stupid Gun-Free Zone signs, and assure teachers they will not be arrested and fired if they are serious adults who actually want to protect their students.

You are crazy! What other crazy ideas do you have that I have already decided not to listen to?

Long-term, work toward encouraging families with fathers. Almost every mass shooter has come from a family with no father, an absentee father, or a father who was abusive and/or a criminal. There is no correlation between mass shooters and any particular gun or gun law, but there is a strong correlation with fatherlessness.

You hate children! Also, you are a racist.

Thanks for the conversation.