Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Boys Adrift

by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

This is the second book I've read by Leonard Sax. You can see a brief review of Why Gender Matters here. I'll always remember that book because Kansas Dad read it first, suggested I read it, and joked that maybe we should homeschool. And here we are, seven years later, homeschooling and usually thankful for the experience.

In this book, Dr. Sax addresses a problem he sees manifesting in young men in America: men without ambition or desire to get a job, marry and raise a family, or really grow up.
Certainly, not all boys have been infected by this weird new virus of apathy. Some are still as driven and intense as their sisters. They still want the same independence, financial and otherwise, for which we expect young people to strive. Because we still see some of these successful young men around us, it's easy to miss the reality that more young men than ever before are falling by the wayside on the road to the American dream. The end result, then, are frantic parents wondering why their son can't, or won't, get a life. He's adrift, floating wherever the currents in the sea of life may carry him--which may be no place at all.
While reading this book, I  asked Kansas Dad if there really were grown men living in their parents' basements, playing video games all day. I certainly don't know any men like that. Being a professor, Kansas Dad said he recognized many of the symptoms Dr. Sax mentions in his students. Not all his male students, of course, but enough that he agrees it seems to be a common problem. I remember seeing in the book a particularly startling graphic from two researchers at Queens College at City University of New York (Andrew Beveridge and Susan Weber-Stoger). In it, they showed a steady and unequivocal increase in able-bodied men aged 30-54 who are not looking for work (and therefore not included in unemployment statistics). From 1950 to 2004, there is a startling increase every decade in every state.

Dr. Sax gives five reasons he believes a larger number of young men in America are disengaging from life. (You can find a summary of the five factors on his website)

1. Change in schooling - Kindergarten now is much more academic than it used to be. As many boys are not ready for such academic work at five years old, they are learning to dislike school.

2. Video games - There are some references in this chapter to good studies showing actual deficits linked to playing video games. They are, in fact, not good for you at all, and some many be especially bad for young boys. (As I write this, First Son is playing on the Wii...)

3. Medications for ADHD - Though he is careful to caution against changing any medications without working with a doctor, Dr. Sax gives some strong evidence for the over-medicating of boys in our country.

4. Endocrine disruptors - This chapter outlines research linking materials in plastics (like PBA) with gender-specific effects in boys. This book was published in 2009 and I think much of this information is pretty commonly known among parents today.

5. Neglecting the transition from adolescence to manhood - This was one of the most interesting chapters. Here, Dr. Sax looked at how we as a nation teach our sons what it is to be a man, suggesting that our method for doing so (or lack thereof) is one of the reasons boys are apathetic.
A boy does not naturally become a gentleman--by which I mean a man who is courteous and kind and unselfish. That behavior is not hardwired. It must be taught.
He suggests
[B]eing a real man has nothing to do with drinking any particular brand of beer. It has to do with using your strength in the service of others.
That definition--giving all you have in the service of others--is an integral part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has animated Western history for the past two millennia.
I am not suggesting that this definition of real manliness is the only one...But a culture is defined in part by how it answers the question "What defines a real man?" Every culture must make choices and value judgments...We must choose, individually and collectively, how we are going to define masculinity. If we abstain from this choice, that failure to make a choice is itself a choice--and the marketplace will make the choice for us...
The end results of ignoring this question is not a generation of androgynous flower children. The result is, on the one hand, young men who have no motivation to work or to serve, young men who feel no shame in living indefinitely in their parents' homes, no shame in taking much and giving little in return. These young men--many of whom are white men living in the suburbs--don't have any concern about being seen as "real men." It's not important to them.
It's not important to them because our culture has taught them a real man isn't to be respected or honored. Dr. Sax makes this argument based on how grown men are portrayed in contemporary television shows.
On the other hand, we are beginning to reap a fearful harvest of young men who do care about being real men and who--receiving no guidance from the adult community about what that means--are turning instead to gang violence, or street racing, or drug abuse, for affirmation of their masculine identity and for their rites of passage. The devaluation and disintegration of the masculine ideal is the fifth factor driving the growing epidemic we've been investigating.
In the eighth chapter, he gives recommendations for what we can do as a society to bring young men back into the community, addressing each factor in turn.

I found this book a little frightening in the bleak picture it paints for many young men in this country, and perhaps he overstates his case a little. I thought it was enlightening, though, and it definitely gave me some ideas on how to interact with our sons as they grow.

Here's a link to the website focused on the book. (He should use some of his profits from his books and speaking engagements to hire a designer for his website.)


  1. This looks very interesting. Do you own this or did you check it out? I would be interested to read it!

  2. I checked it out from the library.


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