Boy trouble

A discussion of Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up and Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The Strong Man of the Police School (1906) - TIMEAWhile men have long been stereotyped as perpetual teenagers, a swath of recent books and articles have expressed rising concern about the failure of boys and young men in the United States to achieve traditional markers of adulthood. Young men appear to be falling behind young women in educational achievement, meaningful careers, and social relationships, and often seem unmotivated to move forward in their lives.

I have been reading both Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up and Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift, two books that take jarringly different perspectives on what is happening to boys and young men in America, and what needs to be done about it.

As a social critic, Hymowitz is unconvincing. Manning Up reads like more like the off-the-rails final essay from her Marriage and Caste in America than the sharp, concise and well-supported other essays that led up to it. In Manning Up, Hymowitz far too frequently relies on anecdotes as evidence, as if Sex and the City reflected the average American woman’s daily life. Manning Up displays assumptions about feminism and suggestions about men that Hymowitz never bothers to defend, like the notion that men marrying at later ages is bad for women and society. The book is not as shrill as some of its Amazon reviews would have you believe, but neither is it particularly strong in landing its argument. That argument essentially is that feminism is to blame for the struggles of boys and young men, but it is up to men to adapt to the changing world, and they’re dropping the ball so far.

Boys Adrift is a welcome contrast. It frames the problems American boys are facing in the context of five causes: Video games, teaching methods, prescription drugs, environmental toxins, and devaluation of masculinity. Some of those proposed causes may strike you as questionable at first (that was certainly my reaction), but Sax lays out the research on each quite well.

Perhaps more importantly, the tone of the book is right. Sax strikes the difficult balance between objective researcher and social activist, landing somewhere in the neighborhood of a concerned, but not panicked, parent. Boys Adrift is clear and convincing, and while it makes a number of public policy arguments, it focuses primarily on what parents and family members can do to ensure their own sons are the motivated and active young men we would all want them to be.

By simply confirming what some may want to believe about men, Hymowitz is likely to enjoy higher sales. But Sax wrote the better book.

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What are your thoughts on the struggles boys are facing in the United States? Have either of these books, or others, changed your thinking? Your comments are welcomed. You can also email me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or share your reactions via Twitter.