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Book Review: Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. Leonard Sax, M.D.,Ph.D., New York: Basic Books, 2007. 267 pages.

Despite the fact that Boys Adrift was published over a decade ago, it remains pertinent today as raising issues that continue to remain unaddressed and of growing importance.  The author possesses the distinct advantage of not only having a medical degree but also a Ph.D. in psychology which in this case serves to demonstrate a competent handling of research data while at the same time resisting the temptation to over-medicalize behavior. 

As of the time of writing the book, the author notes that one third of all men in the United States between the ages of 22 to 34 were still living at home with their parents representing a 100% increase over the previous 20 years.    He goes on to say “I’ve seen hundreds of families where the girls are the smart, driven ones, while their brothers are laid back and unmotivated.   The opposite pattern --- with boys being the intense, successful child while his sister is relaxed and unconcerned about her future — is rare.”  He then goes on to say that as of the time of writing there are 2 boys for every three girls attending college and that in some larger colleges the ratio is 2 girls to each boy.  He provides the following statistics of male attendance at colleges:

1949          70%

1959          64%

1969          59%

1979          49%

1989          46%

1999          44%

2006          42%

I could find no data to update this to 2019 but can only assume that the numbers have continued to deteriorate.  Based upon the patterns indicated however, a rough estimate would place the current numbers at between 38% and 40%.

Having stated the problem, he goes on to examine the causes.  Sax goes on to identify five causes.  These are (a) changes at school (b) video games (c) medications for ADHD (d) endocrine disruptors and (e) a lack of appropriate male role models exhibiting responsible behaviors and the values of civility.  Each of these requires attention and raises interesting issues.

Sax maintains the changes made to school environments have resulted in taking less account of gender differences and promoting a system more favorable to the inherent characteristics of females. He argues that gender related behaviors were viewed in the progressive 1960’s and onwards as being merely the result of social conditioning.  However, current research contradicts this assumption and supports the view that many of these behaviors are genetically predetermined.   Girls, he maintains, are generally less aggressive and more likely to be compliant with adults.  Boys tend to be more aggressive and prone to test limits and defy authority.  He makes reference to the fact that boys are diagnosed with ADHD three times more than girls.  He cites a 2006 University of Pennsylvania study that “…girls’ greater self-discipline and self-control- perhaps deriving from their greater motivation to please the teacher-appears to be a key distinguishing factor that has enabled girls to survive and thrive in the accelerated world of twenty-first century education.”

The other issue that he raises is the decline in learning by doing and direct experience as opposed to learning through books or interacting with a computer screen.   In simple terms this can be stated as knowing through experiences as opposed to learning about something.  The emphasis upon the latter as opposed to the former “…may seriously impair development---not cognitive development but the development of lively passionate curiosity.”  And again “The end result of a childhood with more time spent in front of computer screens than outdoors is what Louv calls “cultural autism".  The symptoms?  Tunneled senses, and feelings of isolation and containment…(and) a wired know-it-all state of mind.  That which cannot be Googled does not count.”

The second major contributing factor Sax identifies as being video games.  He argues that video games have replaced playing outdoors with the result that boys are four times more likely to be obese than boys of one generation ago.  As completion has been reduced or removed from most school settings, it has re-emerged as a primary attraction of video games in which there are clear winners and losers and opportunities for public glory.  Physical education and team sports have given way to non-participation and watching others. This lack of inclusiveness provides little outlet for male competitive drives within a real environment.  Video games, on the other hand, can provide an outlet for male aggression and role playing as well as feed a sense of maleness but within an alternative reality not grounded in the here and now.

The third factor identified is medications for ADHD. The inflated and inappropriate attribution of the diagnosis together with the rampant prescription of medications to curb behaviors has created a near epidemic.  This has happened as a result of schools pushing for a diagnosis and medications to control behavior and sanctioned by psychologists too weak to resist the pressure.  Also because “…primary care physicians  --- pediatricians and family physicians --- are not usually well-versed in the diagnostic subtleties involved in distinguishing ADHD from other explanations for why a boy might be “hyper” in the classroom.  Too often primary care physicians --- particularly in affluent suburban communities ---may suggest a trial of medications “just to see if it works”.  Bad idea.”

And again:

“…these medications may damage a crucial area of the brain responsible for drive and motivation. What’s not to like is that young children are being medicated to make the teacher’s job easier---not because it’s in the best interests of the child, but because it simplifies classroom management.”

The fourth factor identified by Sax is endocrine disruptors.  Endocrine disruptors are environmental chemicals that interfere with the endocrine or hormone systems in the body of both humans and animals.  These chemicals consist of drugs, pesticides, compounds used in plastics and consumer produces as well as industrial by-products and pollutants.  They are associated with causing a wide range of cancers as well as with learning disabilities including extreme cases of ADHD, cognitive and brain developmental issues as well as sexual development problems including the feminization of males and masculinization of females.  Research in these matters is ongoing as well as steps being taken to remove or reduce certain chemicals.  Being aware of the issues and the identified toxins makes some constructive reaction possible as does the mobilization of public opinion and enhanced government regulation.

The fifth and final factor discussed is the loss of positive role models.  Sax argues that not all traditional gender roles should be dismissed as gender stereotypes and that the deconstruction of images of ideal husbands and fathers has resulted in more men becoming self-centered and irresponsible.  He cites the fact that in the USA a little over one third of all children are born to unmarried mothers.  The decline of married couples with children is not confined to any one racial or ethnic group in America where only one in four households is made up of a married couple with one or more children.  The image of the responsible, mature and presentable father prevalent in television series through the 1950’s and 60’s has given way to the Homer Simpson stereotype:

“To become a man, a boy must see a man.  But that man doesn’t have to be his father.  In fact, ideally, it should not be only his father.  Even if your son has a strong father or father figure in his life, he also needs a community of men who together can provide him with varied models of what productive adult men do.”

In addition to the lack of positive male role models there is also the growing disconnect between the generations in which the influence of guidance of adults is replaced by other teenagers.  The immediate affect of this is to succumb to immediate pleasure and avoid any personal responsibility.  All traditions, he maintains “…embrace the truth that children and teenagers must be taught by adults, not by one another.”  Between the pulling away from adults by children as well as the lack of assuming responsibility to guide, influence and direct, the relationship between the generations has broken down.   

In the final section of the book the author concludes with outlines of possible solutions for the problems that have been identified.  These solutions involve some basic responses in terms of diet, exercise, changes to the prevailing educational philosophies and practices, sensitivity to gender differences, as well as the delivery of lessons in single sex classrooms as an option in addition to co-educational models.  However, identifying the problems as he does provides an obvious set of solutions even though those solutions may be problematic and in some cases even impractical.   Setting a good example for children and being a good role model is one example, especially in a society in which values have become so questionable and exposure to negative influences so pervasive.

I urge anyone interested to order a copy of this book.  It is well worth reading and I think attacks the problem well by first identifying it for what it is and then looking objectively for causes and contributing factors.   Many medical practitioners place emphasis on symptoms rather than causes.  In some cases this is accompanied by the assumption that there is some underlying physiological root cause yet to be identified.  In other cases, as long as the symptoms can appear to be addressed through medication the matter is considered as having been successfully dealt with.  Sax explores the sociological implications and causes of behavioral patterns and challenges much of the political correctness of gender identity in the interests of truth gathered from empirical research.