Last week, we published part one of our exclusive interview with best-selling author, educator, and activist, Warren Farrell, Ph.D., on his new book, The Boy Crisis (Jan. 2018). This is the second installment of that interview, which focuses on solutions to the crisis facing boys.
Alysse ElHage: One area where boys are really struggling today is in the classroom: they are less likely than girls to graduate high school on time and to earn a college a degree. You argue that one reason boys are falling behind is the lack of male teachers. Why do boys benefit from male teachers? And why don’t we see more of them?
Warren Farrell: Boys in divorced families often go from mother-only homes to female-dominated elementary schools, sometimes seeing no constructive male role model who specifically sees something special in him. With this void, when a gang leader takes an interest, the fatherless boy sees a male role model who wants him and is vulnerable.
We don’t see more men as teachers, in part, because we don’t have a cultural push for males to feel they are needed as kindergarten or elementary school teachers. Males go where they are told they are needed—even if it’s to die. However, the young man who does contemplate becoming a kindergarten or elementary school teacher is often afraid for fear that holding a crying child on his lap, or even holding a child to comfort her or him, could lead to an accusation of molestation that will stick in everyone’s memory even if he is found innocent. He’ll go to war to risk death because he wants to be thought of as a hero; he will avoid being a kindergarten teacher because he never wants to be thought of as a villain.
AE: You offer fathers a lot of advice in the book, writing that: “The pathway to your son becoming a healthy hero is nurtured by dad as a crockpot, not dad as a microwave.” Explain what you mean by that.
WF: Yes, children need time with dad—especially hang-out time, rough-housing time, game-playing time, time to be teased and knowing how to appropriately tease back, and in cases of divorce, equal time (rather than visitor time) with approximately equal overnights. Dads tend to encourage more risk-taking, but when a boy takes a risk at his dad’s encouragement, he needs his dad there to process the risk, not to just feel he was pushed out there and then dad disappears.
Dads need to be aware of what I call the three C’s: Consistency; Consistency, and Consistency. Add lots of time to consistency, and you have the crockpot, not the microwave!
AE: You also suggest family dinner nights as a way to help boys. And by this, you don’t just mean simply eating together as a family but a sit-down dinner. Tell us more about family dinner nights and why they matter for boys especially?
WF: Family-Studies readers already know that families that often have dinner together do better together. But while togetherness is important, a family dinner night can sometimes become a family dinner nightmare. So in The Boy Crisis, I outline six essentials to maximize family dinner night effectiveness.
And it isn’t easy. Parents encounter a Gordian Knot with boys: preparing him to “be a man,” yet allowing him to be the open, curious, sensitive boy that you know is under his mask of masculinity.
One reason is a lack of judgment. When it comes to emotions, few boys are good self-starters. Boys need parents to “kick the ball into play” and give their son time to see if it is safe for him to join the game—to have an opinion that varies, or is even outrageous. If he feels he won’t be judged for his input, then he’ll share what rings true and false, and his own story will unfold. However, if parents give advice—even excellent advice—he’ll often experience that as judgment, a lack of trust in him, and withdraw.
So, I explain the importance of everyone at the table making it part of the routine that anyone posing a problem is asked to give the advice he or she would give if someone else had that problem. That starts with the assumption that within the person sharing the problem is a “best guess” as to a solution. And if the boy is first asked, and has no answer, then he’s more willing to hear others’ answers.
While family dinner nights need to delay advice-giving, they need to be fearless when it comes to discussing “the elephant in the room” or tough topics. Kids are attracted to videos that deal with plenty of tough stuff and are turned off by boredom and euphemisms, which they often label as hypocrisy—especially boys. So make the family dinner nights something his friends would beg to come to because the conversations are so interesting and real.
For our children to not fear marriage, they need to see that their parents have learned how to do what does not come naturally: sustain love.
AE: Can mentoring help boys—particularly fatherless boys?
WF: Yes, yes, and yes. Both being mentored and being rewarded by becoming a mentor. A boy who becomes a mentor begins to become an adult as he watches himself vigilantly to see if he is a good role model. Being mentored and mentoring is important for all boys, but it’s crucial for boys raised by single moms.
I outline in The Boy Crisis how the Boy Scouts have honed over the decades an almost-perfect developmental program to develop the best of masculinity. They introduce character and then solidify it through ritual. Their merit badges reward boys for learning by doing—the way boys tend to learn.
The Cub Scouts, Boys’ Clubs, and the Mankind Project offer very well-vetted programs for boys. Many faith-based communities also offer much-needed support, and if yours doesn’t, consider helping them create that support.
If you are vetting for an individual as a mentor, vet for consistency. If long-term consistency is not available—for example, an older boy who will be going to off to college in a year or so—let your son know that ahead of time, so he won’t feel he wasn’t good enough to retain his mentor’s interest.
AE: Another solution to the boy crisis that you suggest is to make marriages better. What do healthy marriages have to do with how boys are doing?
WF: Boys are even more vulnerable to broken families than girls. In addition to it usually being their role model who is disappearing, studies of children years after divorce report moms of divorce are five times as likely to bad-mouth the dads as vice versa. So a boy’s attachment to his role model often becomes precarious.
Making marriages better serves everyone. Many couples with children who are legally married are psychologically divorced. Divorces are due less to problems with money, sex or children, and more to each partner feeling that her or his perspectives on money, sex, or children are rarely heard. When our partner airs her or his perspective, we often take it as criticism, and the Achilles’ heel of human beings is our inability to handle personal criticism from a loved one without becoming defensive.
That is, we have a “love dilemma”: while “falling in love” is biologically natural, sustaining love is biologically unnatural. For our children to not fear marriage, then, they need to see that their parents have learned how to do what does not come naturally: sustain love.
This creates the greatest single opportunity for the most radical solution to the boy crisis: parental modeling of how to sustain love. I introduce in The Boy Crisis my “Altered Mindsets Method of Non-defensive Communication,” which has allowed couples to emotionally associate their partner’s criticism as an opportunity to deepen their love. It’s a method I have honed over two decades via couples’ communication workshops… [E]mpathy communication skills need to be part of every elementary school’s core curriculum… This is the most important single global change for love in our families and peace in the world.