What’s Driving America’s ‘Boy Crisis’
Daniel Davis /
Mass shootings like the one in California last weekend have caused many to wonder what’s going wrong with our young men. Warren Farrell has a book out on this. He calls it “the boy crisis.” Today, Farrell joins the podcast to explain what’s driving young men toward despair—and to outline a path to recovery.
We also cover the following stories:
- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks out on the Baltimore controversy.
- Federal Reserve cuts interest rates for the first time since 2008 amid trade war.
- Osama bin Laden’s son and heir is reportedly dead.
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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now in the studio by Dr. Warren Farrell. He is co-author of the book “The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.”
Dr. Farrell, thanks for being here.
Warren Farrell: I’m looking forward to talking with you.
Davis: We’re recording this interview after a shooting in California, and it’s the kind of shooting that’s caused a lot of people to wonder. What is wrong with our young men? What’s going wrong with our boys?” They often seem angry, they lack purpose, and it shows up in things like this.
You write about what you call “the boy crisis” in your book. If you could encapsulate that in a nutshell, how would you describe it?
Farrell: The boy crisis is very much connected to the mass shootings. … I looked at all 56 of the largest developed nations and in all 56 of the largest developed nations. there is a boy crisis.
So, when I started examining more carefully what developed nations have in common that led to that boy crisis, I found that they had two major things.
One is as nations developed and there was more survival, the nations were able to give more permission for divorce. And they were also able to give more permission for women to have children without being married.
So, I started looking more carefully in those two groups because I saw that the boy crisis seemed to be dominant in those two groups. But as I looked more carefully, it was especially dominant among divorce families, where the children saw very little of their father.
And then between the sister and the brother, both girls and boys—where there was no father in divorced families—suffered. But the boys suffered much more than the girls. I’ll explain why in a moment.
But then to go over to the single mothers’ families, in the United States today, 53% of women who are under 30 who have children have children without being married.
Then, the children either don’t know who their father is, or they know their father very minimally, or the mother and father live together when they’ve been married, even though they were not when they had the child, even though they’re not married.
But on average, within four years, those children don’t see their father at all, or they see their father very minimally.
And it was in those two groups, dad-deprived children, where the children did especially badly. But the boys did considerably worse than the girls did.
So, I came to understand that the boy crisis resides where dads do not reside.
Davis: Very interesting. What kind of activity and behaviors, what is it that actually constitutes this boy crisis?
Farrell: The boys are suffering in more than 70 different areas. They’re far more likely to commit suicide. They’re far more likely to do badly in school in every single one of their academic subjects, especially reading and writing, which are the biggest predictors of success or failure.
They do very badly in mental health. Not only suicide as an example, but they tend to be much more likely to be depressed, to take drugs, to do things that are symptoms of very bad mental health.
They’re far more likely to be the mass shooters. About 90% of the mass shooters that I studied since Columbine have been boys brought up in homes that have minimal or no father involvement or products of divorce or so on. And so that really shocked me to see that common denominator.
I then looked beyond that and went to ISIS recruits. There was a big study of ISIS recruits that found that the common denominator among ISIS recruits was dad deprivation, but not only among the boys, but also the female ISIS recruits as well, which, of course, are in much smaller numbers.
Then I started looking at prisoners and the prison population. We all know that 93% of the prisoners are male, but what very few people know is that about 90% of those 93% are dad-deprived boys.
So, I … asked myself, “Why is dad deprivation so powerful, and why even more so to boys than girls?”
And part of it is somewhat understandable, you know, at least children growing up with their mothers who are girls, at least those girls have a same-gender role model. Whereas the boys do not, and especially boys of divorce often feel that their father has abandoned them. Even when the father might be fighting in court to be more involved with the children. They don’t necessarily know that. And they don’t see the father.
But I was still asking myself the question as I was doing the research for the boy crisis, which is, “Is there something different that dads do than moms that’s making this difference?”
And I found that there are about nine different ways that I would call dad-style parenting that are very different from mom-style parenting.
Now, I want to make it clear that mom-style parenting is also important, but the children that do the best have what I call checks-and-balance parenting. There’s a tension between the mother and father that’s actually a positive tension.
The child says, “Yeah, mom, can I climb the tree?” And mom goes, “Well, I’ll tell you what, sweetie, maybe in a couple of years you can climb the tree, but not now.”
And Dad says, “Ah, he’s old enough to climb the tree.” And mom goes, “Uh, well if he,” you know, after a little bit of a fight, they go, “All right, if he’s gonna climb the tree, make sure you’re out there under the tree and they can’t climb above these branches and out. These thin branches are much too thin. And give me your cellphone. … I’ll get preoccupied with a call and not protect the child by being under the tree.”
There is this type of negotiation with boundaries, too. The moms and dads set boundaries very similarly. They both say you can’t have your ice cream until you finish your peas. The children, of course, test boundaries to try to find out how few peas I gotta have before I get my ice cream. The difference is in the enforcement of boundaries.
Moms will tend to say, “OK, sweetie, I know you don’t want to have your peas and you want to finish the ice cream, but I’ll tell you what, you’ve got to have this many more peas [before] you finish the ice cream.”
Then the child realizes, “Ah, I don’t have to finish the peas, I just negotiated a better deal here to have half the peas. I’ll tell you, I’m going to now try to have a quarter of those peas and then get the ice cream.”
And then mom goes, “All right, he did try to have a few more peas, or she did, so I’m not going to get into a big argument over a few peas. That’s insensitive.” Especially if there’s a divorce. You know, there’s a divorce, the child’s feeling like he or she doesn’t know the dad. They know this tension. They don’t have another … something like that. Finds excuses to let the child get away with less.
The dad is much more likely to go, “Excuse me, we have a deal here. The deal here is no ice cream until you finish your peas. You know, I have the deal. I know I have the deal, and you know I know you have. Yeah, I have the deal.” And so, “Oh, dad, you’re so mean.” “Well, then there’s no ice cream tomorrow night if you want to keep whining like that.”
Farrell: And so—
Davis: That’s so interesting that in some ways the dad can be more permissive when it comes to, you know, outdoor stuff. But in other ways he can be more strict on the rules. That’s something that I can certainly relate to in my own upbringing.
Farrell: Tell me more about that.
Davis: Well, growing up I feel like you’re almost describing my dad. … If my mom was a little being really overcautious, but I wanted to have fun, my dad, I think, saw that it was important to let me go out and do a boy thing. You know, buy me the big rocket and go out and shoot rockets together. And that’s just not something that my mom would have been eager to do.
But I can see that being a healthy balance because the mom also is considering other factors that also matter.
Davis: So, I can experientially relate to that. But you’re saying the data actually show that this is something that statistically is true?
Farrell: Well, A, this is statistically true, but what I didn’t even have a clue about before I did the research for “The Boy Crisis” was that the roughhousing, for example, is highly correlated with empathy.
Can you imagine a father saying to a mom, “Oh, I wanna roughhouse with my child because it’ll make them more empathetic.”? It’s like, you must be kidding. You know, it doesn’t seem to be connected at all.
It’s also more likely to be connected to the child being able to make a distinction between being assertive versus aggressive. I’ll put all those together in the roughhousing example.
So, the dad will sort of throw three kids on the couch and say, “OK, your job is to jump on my back and pin me down before I pin you down. All right?” “All right, Dad!”
… And mom’s looking on and saying, “Oh my God, I have like one more child to monitor, called the dad.” And mom [is] going, “But the children are having fun. I don’t want to interfere, let them. But I just fear, intuition wise. I think that sooner or later … somebody’s going to end up getting hurt.”
However, she’s only about 99.9% likely to be right. So sooner or later, one of the children gets hurt, the child starts crying. And Dad goes, “OK, what happened there is that Jimmy, you stuck your elbow in Jane’s eye. So you can’t do that anymore if you want to continue roughhousing.” “OK, OK, dad, let’s go back to roughhousing.”
But then they experience what the psychologists call emotional intelligence under fire. So the children, when they’re really excited, they forget about their agreement to not hurt the other child or push the other child aside.
But the father then says, “OK, you did that. So there’s no more roughhousing tonight. … We won’t roughhouse until tomorrow night.”
And mom goes, “Haven’t you learned your lesson? You’re going back to the roughhousing?” And now she’s really feeling guilty.
But the purpose of all this, without the dad even knowing it—and the dad doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t understand what he’s doing. He just does it intuitively. And I don’t want to blame moms here because moms can’t hear what dads don’t say.
And so the dad, the following night … Jimmy pushes Jane aside again and dad goes the following night, “OK, no more roughhousing.” Or Jimmy realizes that when dad says there’ll be no more roughhousing if I push my sister aside, I’d rather not push my sister aside and have more roughhousing.
Now Jimmy is learning to think of his sister or be empathetic to his sister’s needs. Not because he’s being really inherently empathetic, because he knows that he gets what he wants when he thinks about somebody other than himself. And that’s the empathy connection.
But the child also, somewhere during that process, will maybe push aside too hard and the boy might say, “Well, you didn’t say I can’t push this hard.” “Well, this is too hard. This isn’t.” Now the child’s beginning to learn what’s assertive versus what’s aggressive.
Now, when a child has empathy and assertiveness and not aggressiveness, and he has that and she has that because they’ve learned boundary enforcement from the dad, because when the dad says there will be no more roughhousing, and you violate it, there is no more roughhousing.
So, the children with boundary enforcement are also learning postponed gratification. And postponed gratification is the single biggest predictor of success or failure, or success, if they have it.
And so—and here’s the slippery slope to the boy crisis—the children with postponed gratification who have social skills and have empathy skills, they’re far more likely to have friends and they’re far more likely to feel less depressed and positive about themselves.
But with the postponed gratification, they’re much more likely to be able to know how to finish their homework, not get sidetracked by an offer to play. And they’re more likely to be able to, you know, rehearse for the basketball team, or whatever.
And so, those children are more successful. So, therefore, they’re more respected by their teachers, their peers, and they get more … positive comments at home. And when it comes to boy-girl time, girls don’t want to go out with losers, they go out with the winners, which means performers.
The guys who are the losers, they become depressed that they’re constantly being rejected by the girls. They turn to pornography, get addicted to pornography, and then the girls feel, when they do get interested in possibly being with the boy, they see that the boy is treating them like somebody in a porn movie. They feel objectified because they’re being objectified.
So, they withdraw, which only proves to the boy that he’s no good and is not going to be able to be accepted. And which turns them back to pornography, back to depression, often to drugs, often to video game addiction.
In the worst-case scenarios, [he] becomes so angry because he’s often brought up by a mom who says, “You have special sensitivities and you’re wonderful this way and that way.” So he’s very sensitive to all this rejection. But then he sometimes becomes, as a result of that, extremely depressed and angry because anger is vulnerability’s mask.
Beneath his feelings of vulnerability, he’s angry that the kids don’t pay attention to him, that the girls aren’t paying attention to him, that the teachers aren’t appreciating his special sensitivity, that mom and dad are talking about the other children, not him.
And that’s what can lead, in worst-case scenarios, to mass shootings or school shootings.
Davis: That gets to what you describe in the book as something you call the purpose void. Explain what you mean by that.
Farrell: Historically speaking, every generation of boys had purpose. Because every generation had its war and parents and the society said, “If you participate in this war and you’re a Marine, or whatever, or especially like a Navy SEAL, an elite person, you will be a hero.”
So, the boy learned that he had purpose. He could be a hero by participating in war. He could be a hero as a sole breadwinner because the moms didn’t participate nearly as much in the breadwinning process.
Or he could be a sole breadwinner in a hazardous job, or he could be a sole breadwinner in an executive position and maybe die of a heart attack at an early age because he’s overworking.
He learned to feel obligated to earn money that often somebody else spent, while he died sooner. And he learned to call that power. But he also learned that if he thought about this process, which he never did in these terms, he learned to be disposable. Disposable in war, disposable in the hazardous jobs in the workplace, and so on. Or overworking at work. But he had purpose.
The good news today is the same as the bad news. The good news is, and the bad news is, that we need fewer men and males for war. Males are not the sole breadwinner in most cases anymore and … they don’t have as much pressure to go to the top of a ladder and die sooner as a result of that pressure. But the bad news is that they don’t have purpose.
The purpose void is actually a wonderful opportunity if a boy has a mother and father that are helping him discover his own unique self and the purpose that might emanate from the unique self. But when he doesn’t have a mother and father, oftentimes … the mother will be very supportive of him discovering his purpose.
But then he doesn’t have the discipline and the postponed gratification to achieve his purpose. So he becomes disappointed in himself that his special gifts that are recognized at home are not being achieved by, you know, being an actor because he doesn’t have the discipline to rehearse all his lines.
So, he starts to be afraid to dream. And when he’s afraid to dream, he becomes depressed. … When a boy has a purpose void and a dad void, those are the ingredients of the boy crisis.
When dad is saying, “It’s not good enough to have a dream to be a musician, you’ve got to practice six or seven hours a day. You want to be in the Olympics? I’m sorry, that’s a trade-off. You can’t go out with Joe and Jane and go out at night and get drunk and whatever. … You’re not going to be an Olympic star if you do that. So you don’t give me this stuff about wanting to be in the Olympics if you’re not willing to do what it takes to be there.”
And the mom feels that, “Oh my goodness, you’re really being mean to him.” And, “Why are you putting the rules down?”
Because if he wants a new sense of purpose, something different that is fulfilling, the more fulfilling an occupation is, the less it pays. Hence, we [say] “starving artists.”
Davis: Right, right.
Farrell: Or, you know, radio broadcaster. You know what I mean? This is why they don’t have here in the studio 70-year-old men or 50-year-old men that [are] earning $300,000 a year as a radio broadcaster, because it’s fulfilling … to do what we’re doing here, and, therefore, there’s lots of people who want to do it. Therefore, it doesn’t have to pay as much.
Davis: Yeah. It sort of reminds me of Socrates walking around in poverty. But you know, he had wisdom, so what else does one need?
Farrell: Yes, yes. Socrates. Jesus. They’re all people who didn’t live in mansions.
Davis: You’re right.
So, you talk about a lot of the healthy norms that parents can enforce to help their kids become disciplined and to succeed in the world, to fulfill their dreams. But it’s a painful topic for a lot of people because they haven’t had that in their lives. I think this conversation probably evokes pain for a lot of people who are listening or reading.
For those who have grown up in a broken household or lacked one of their parent figures, what hope would you hold out for them to overcome and break the cycle and to provide for their kids what they didn’t receive?
Farrell: That’s such an important question.
For every single mom who’s listening here, step one is take a careful look in the boy crisis, at the differences between dad-style parenting and mom-style parenting. And all the things that dads do that seem to have no purpose whatsoever, see if there’s any possibility [of] appreciating your ex-husband for doing that.
When men are appreciated, they do what they’re appreciated for. … we were called a hero for being in war, we were willing to die so others would live. That’s what’s inside of men. That’s the core of masculinity.
So, you start understanding what your ex does or what the dad does and you start saying, “I really need somebody to enforce those boundaries. I need somebody to go out camping with him. I need somebody to encourage him to climb the tree when I would not be naturally encouraging to do that.” And you understand … all the connections to a healthy upbringing. So, that’s No. 1.
But let’s say this is outside of the realm of possibility because he’s not either alive or he’s just not a constructive person at all. Then the best data is available showing that helping your son get involved in Cub Scouts is very positive about developing character.
Helping him become involved in Boy Scouts—in “The Boy Crisis” book I talk about, I deconstruct the whole process that the Boy Scouts have created over centuries, and it’s an amazing process to bring out the best of masculinity without getting the worst of masculinity. And so very often Eagle Scouts are very productive in the world.
A third, it’s very important to get your son or daughter involved in a faith-based community, but particularly a faith-based community where two things exist. If you have a son, get him involved with a leader in that faith-based community that you trust and sense that he is a strong but gentle leader.
But also, that’s the less important thing. The most important thing is that the boy gets together like weekly with a group of other boys about his age and talks what’s going on inside of him. Because if he doesn’t have a father around, there’s a lot going on inside of him.
And when he keeps it to himself and he learns to repress his feelings rather than express his feelings, that’s when it starts, when he starts turning on himself and boys who hurt us.
I gave examples before of the mass shooters. Those are boys who hurt. Dad-deprived boys who hurt from dad deprivation, who hurt us, mass shootings. Prisoners are all boys willing to hurt us. And boys go from mother-only homes to female-only schools, and then we wonder why they are attracted to gang leaders, why they’re attracted to drug dealers.
Historically speaking, when boys were without dads—Hitler recognized that that’s where they were vulnerable to join Hitler Youth.
… [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan in 1965 discovered that the problem in the inner cities was not African Americans per se. It was only those portions of African-American families where there was dad deprivation.
At that point in history, 25% of African American boys grew up without dads. Today, 33% of Caucasians grow up with minimal or no father involvement, and 74-75% of African Americans grow up with minimal or no father involvement.
The issue isn’t race. The issue is the dad deprivation. And again, I started out with 10 causes of the boy crisis. I did not expect to be focused on the dad deprivation as being as important as it is.
Davis: Toward the end of the book, you write about the importance of what you call extending gender liberation to dads. That’s a really interesting way to put it. Explain what you mean by that.
Farrell: Yes. I was on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women in New York City for a number of years and … the feminist movement has been very disappointing to me because the way Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and I used to talk about it was—Gloria Steinem used to say there’s a need for more women in the workplace and for more men at home.
And Betty Friedan said that the women’s movement would plateau if we didn’t start understanding that boys and men also have issues that we need to deal with.
The way I used to put it was I said, “I’m not in favor of a women’s movement saying men are the oppressors. I’m not in favor of a men’s movement saying that we’re oppressed by women or women have more advantages than we have. I don’t want that fight.”
… And the reason I’m involved in this is because I want a gender liberation movement where both sexes can be free from the rigid roles of the past and have more flexible roles for our future. Where we value men who are heroes, who are our firefighters, who are doing the construction for every building that we are living in. Those are men that are contributing an enormous amount to society.
But not every man is that way, and every young man is that way. He should also be valued if he can contribute something as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, or as a father. And … because we had a purpose void in the past of warriors, we no longer need as many warriors to kill and be killed in the fields outside the home.
What we need is more fathers to love and be loved inside the home. So, we need to start training father warriors.
So when women want to be successful at work, they don’t have to say, “I can’t have it all. I’m so angry that I can’t have it all. I want to be a woman who succeeds, but I want to have children that are successful also. And I want to have a husband and a happy marriage.”
Well, that’s possible. And one of the ways it’s possible is to choose a man who is interested in being a father warrior, to overcome all the discrimination against fathers being fully involved with the children, and because we know that when children are involved with their fathers full time and they also have a mother.
Mothers do not tend to neglect children even if they’re climbing up the corporate ladder, they make sure they get home for the children’s birthdays and special events. Whereas fathers sometimes get carried away with feeling that, “OK, I have to travel across the country to do this. I’m so sorry, I’m going to miss your birthday,” and so on.
And without recognizing the toll, feeling that the father, who is only a corporate person and identifies [as] that, oftentimes doesn’t understand how much the children need his set of parenting style as well.
Davis: It’s a fascinating discussion and I really encourage our listeners to check out the book. It is so important for our culture and society moving forward. The book is called “The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.” It’s available on Amazon, also on Audible.
Davis: Dr. Farrell, thanks for joining me.
Farrell: It’s really been a pleasure. You asked very good questions and listen very well.