My comments on Wednesday about losing our men deserve some further elaboration. Because the problem is, I believe, tremendously serious. What is more, the reasons for our difficulties may not be that hard to grasp, and in those reasons we may discover the path to progress.
I’ll suggest, quite simply, that one (perhaps the) most important reason we are losing our men is that it isn’t clear to our boys and young men what a good man is supposed to be.
This is admittedly difficult turf to tread. Notions of masculinity and femininity are, at least in significant part, culturally constructed (though, as one of my colleagues at the University of Tampa, who cut his academic teeth on gender construction as a graduate student and as a professor, recently acknowledged after considering observations of his own children, there may be more to this “nature” thing than he once thought). So I’m not trying to make a statement about what good men are supposed to be like across all times and cultures.
But I think we can agree that people who have certain attributes are more likely to make a more positive contribution to the well-being of society, at home, at work and in general. Whether these attributes need to be gendered, we can see them as worthwhile for men to have and boys to acquire.
If young men don’t see these positive attributes as part of the male skill-and-value set, we’re not likely to see them in their adult manifestations.
So where does a boy learn what it is to be a man?
Well, from Dad, for one. But today, married couples make up only 63% of the households where there are children under the age of 18. Of single-parent households with children, more than three times as many are headed by a woman as by a man. All told, a comparatively small percentage of girls and young women are likely to grow up without at least the prospect of a persistent and positive female role model, compared to the percentage of boys and young men who are growing up without any hope of a persistent and positive male role model at home. Diprete and Buchmann argue that there is good scientific evidence that the single-parent home experience is markedly more detrimental for boys, at least in terms of academic success, than for girls.
Of course, many of us find a life-saving role model in our public school experience. One of my adopted daughters still remembers how vitally important certain teachers were to her survival and ultimate academic success (she is a teacher today, in fact, in part because of their inspiration and their belief in her).
These memorable role models were all women . . . which was great for my daughter. However, a boy looking for a positive male role model in school is much less likely to find one . . . and that reality has been getting steadily worse. This chart, from a 2011 report by C. Emily Feistritzer for the National Center for Education Information, reveals the disturbing trend in the percentage of K-12 public school teachers that are male.
So while a growing percentage of boys face the prospect of not having a positive male role model at home, an even greater percentage will be unlikely to have one at school.
Where home and school may fail, youth programs have, in the past, often picked up the slack. Scouting and youth sports programs were designed in part to help boys find that positive male role model in case it was absent at home, and to develop a positive set of values for manhood. But a recent Gallup poll suggests that Scouting’s impact is diminishing dramatically; 45% of men over the age of 50 indicated that they had been involved in Scouting as boys, compared to 27% of men 18-24. Declines in major youth sports (including soccer) also have been documented.
So much for counting on a scoutmaster or coach to provide that positive male role model.
Role models matter. Gender models matter. However we think about gender and identity, each of us strives to develop an identity that seems suited to who we understand ourselves to be. Inventing such an identity out of whole cloth is difficult if not impossible.
We are creatures of imitation . . . for better and for worse.
The concern, then, is what our boys find to imitate as they journey from childhood into adulthood. Look at what they see: spend an evening watching television, or flipping through YouTube videos, or exploring other social media, seeking to discover what “men” are like.
I think you’ll be terrified, as I am.
Real human, flesh-and-blood, physically present men . . . dads and big brothers, bosses and neighbors and, yes, political leaders, have an incredible opportunity to make a difference, even if only in the life of that one boy in your circle.
As I said Wednesday, gentlemen . . . this one’s on us.