Attention Must Be Paid: Warren Farrell and the Boy Crisis

Warren Farrell focuses on fathers, sons, and our need to truly love them.

Posted May 22, 2018

I do understand, sadly, why men — and their real problems — don’t get the attention they deserve by the academy, the media, and government (what Michael Gurian calls “The Big Three” in his 2017 book, Saving Our Sons). But what I still can’t fathom is why boys don’t either, except that they are men-to-be. 

Warren Farrell, who has been concerned about men for well over 30 years, has recently turned his attention to boys, and the result is The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It (which he has coauthored with John Gray). Actually, worry about boys is not new. In fact, a cover story in Newsweek magazine in early 2006 is titled “The Boy Crisis: At Every Level of Education, They’re Falling Behind: What to Do.”

cpradojr/pixabay - CCO
Source: cpradojr/pixabay - CCO

So how is it that a problem recognized more than a decade ago — even longer, if you consider Christina Hoff Sommers’ 2000 book, The War Against Boys — has barely been touched by the “big three”? I believe, and have for years, that a major reason is that with women viewed as a major cause for progressives, the problems faced by boys (and men) have been more or less ignored. But not by Warren Farrell, a liberal Democrat, who has gone where the data and his conscience have taken him. Farrell was early into second wave feminism, and was on the governing board of the National Organization for Women in the early 1970s. When he did talk and write about men, it was in that context, and I first heard of him when I came upon his 1975 book, The Liberated Man, which was lauded by, among others, Gloria Steinem.

But he experienced a crisis of conscience when he saw that NOW clearly favored mothers over fathers in cases of divorce and custody battles. As he writes early in The Boy Crisis:

“As NOW and the perspective of feminists went mainstream, especially in the universities, my speaking career boomed. I was delighted that the expansion of opportunities for women had begun to exceed my expectations.

“Later in the seventies, as I began to witness a sharp increase in divorces, I also noticed that many of the children were living primarily with their moms. The cultural meme about dads was focused on dad’s money, not on his involvement. So when dads did not pay child support, we labeled them “deadbeats.” I accepted that meme. Until I also listened to these dads in my men’s groups.

“Once I listened, I was struck by how much the dads cared. When they vented their anger about discrimination against them in family court, they sounded legalistic, angry, and bitter. But when I asked them about their children, tears flowed down their cheeks. Their anger was but a mask for vulnerability — the powerlessness they felt as words like “visitation” and “custody” made them feel like second-class citizens, and how being able to see their children only every other weekend made them feel that anything they had to contribute would be washed away between visits.

"I watched some of the dads spiral downward into depression, and others desperately try to finance court fights to be equally involved dads. Some of the dads couldn’t afford the legal fight. Other dads tried to earn enough money, only to feel they then didn’t have the time to be equally involved dads.”

Later in the book, he writes that feminist leadership — including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem — understood the importance of fathers. Steinem is quoted as saying, “What the world needs now is more women at work and more dads at home.” And he writes, “Betty Friedan was even more father-positive. While the first stage of Friedan’s message, The Feminine Mystique, was about the need for women’s liberation, Friedan’s The Second Stage was about the need for the liberation of men to complete the liberation of women. In this book Friedan predicted women’s career goals would never be achieved if men were not more incorporated into the fathering role.”

But the rank and file membership of NOW felt that the organization was for them and their rights as mothers, and thus the organization has never advocated for the importance of fathers. As Farrell puts it, “Mothers’ rights trumped equal rights. Politics trumped equality.”

Farrell’s overwhelming concern then — and now — and one absolutely captured in this book, is the best interests of the children. And as he points out with many references, not only does research clearly show how important fathers are in children’s lives, but their importance is even greater in the lives of boys. A major section of the book is titled “Dad-Deprived Boys vs. Dad-Enriched Boys,” and the evidence he marshals here for the importance of fathers is impressive.

Another key concept in The Boy Crisis has to do with male disposability.  For most of the last 30 plus years, his focus has been men, with his most famous book being The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, published in 1993. While his title was certainly provocative, his subtitle was an example — and there have been many in his life — where Warren Farrell was ahead of his time.

In fact, he is a very important figure in the cultural history of the late 20th and early 21st century if only because of that extremely important insight concerning male disposability, a topic which runs through The Boy Crisis. For all of our history, we have taken for granted that whether it’s war, dangerous jobs, and, more recently, brain-threatening games like football, it has been our husbands, fathers, and sons, who have borne almost all the burden. This directly relates to evolutionary psychology, since for species survival, the survival of individual men is far less important than that of individual women.

But today, in our actually less violent world (cite Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature), Farrell sees the conflict for boys — and how they are raised — between what he calls “heroic intelligence” and “health intelligence.” The former is the call boys feel to take risks, often — but not always — for the greater good. For better or worse, it’s what he calls “the (boy’s) need to prove himself.” The latter is what he needs to do to stay healthy and live a long life. It’s “what he absorbs about how to take care of himself.” He summarizes the conflict with these words: “A boy who tries to prove himself is at risk of losing himself.” 

Just as we have recognized for many decades now that women’s biology is not their destiny, that they can work outside the home, and serve in the military, and do all the other things once seen as primarily or strictly male, so too must we recognize that men’s biology does not absolutely require putting themselves in harm’s way. However, just as women in the workplace still feel a strong pull from home, so too do men, starting in boyhood, feel that pull toward heroic courage. Any parent who has watched their son take risks that their daughters typically do not, knows that terrible conflict between letting “boys be boys” (in the sense of risk and adventure) and reining them in.

Farrell recognized early on that boys and men are full-fledged human beings who have long been seen as disposable. While not overlooking the occasional need for heroism, Farrell is trying to tip the balance more toward the overlooked need for “health intelligence.” While he, himself, does not have any sons (and only one very young grandson), he understands the conflict that parents (and grandparents) feel about what to encourage and discourage in their sons (and grandsons).  With three sons and five grandsons, I have felt this directly for more than 50 years.

There is much more in The Boy Crisis, including material on how boys and young men are lagging in education, not just in our country but across the developed world; the “purpose void” which so many young men feel; and the overuse of medications to treat ADHD in boys (a section written by John Gray).  But for me, the crucial importance of fathers and the need to put a high value on our sons’ physical and mental health stand out.

Warren Farrell has been ahead of the curve in recognizing that we must cherish our males. And in this, his latest work, the focus is on the youngest of them, our boys. After all, they are a vital part of our future, and attention must be paid.

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