Boys lost in a world of Homers

culture | Boys Adrift, By Leonard Sax. Basic Books, $25, 267 pages

Save the males.

This sentiment used to poke gentle fun at feminists, but it has become serious business. More than a decade after Mary Pipher's best-selling "Reviving Ophelia" galvanized the nation to the crisis facing teen girls, Dr. Leonard Sax is now alerting us to the predicament of boys.

Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist, wrote "Boys Adrift" as a sequel to his controversial "Why Gender Matters," in which he laid out the argument for bringing back traditional gender roles into child-rearing. Feminists objected, but judging by sales figures Sax seems to have touched a nerve.

"Boys Adrift" contends that many boys and young men have lost their traditional moorings and are drifting into an aimless un-manhood. Instead of taking their places as heads of household, professionals and role-models for younger males, they lack motivation and drive, and are content to float through life in a haze of lowered expectations, staying in their parents' homes as adults in a "failure to launch" mode.

Sax adduces five "Factors" for this new aimlessness, and offers remedies ("Detox"), but the reader may wonder at first, does what Sax has perceived qualify as an "epidemic"? The good doctor does his best to answer that question yes.

First factor: Modern educational methods have now skewed away from boys' psychological strengths. Forcing students to sit still and learn to do math and reading from kindergarten on, with homework aplenty, makes boys suffer. Boys need to be active, need to discover at their own pace, need to play competitive games. They need both book knowledge ("Wissenschaft") and practical knowledge ("Kenntnis") -- such as how to identify a tree by feel only. Sax concludes that insistence on desk work is causing boys to hate school and turn them off from achievement later on in life.

Modern education may furthermore be causing the proliferation of "hyperactive" boys. Sax is convinced that most hyperactivity is not a true childhood pathology, but rather a misperception of boys' normal behavior. Boys have always been full of energy, and only recently have they been universally asked to hold it in for six hours at a time at school. Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs may make restless boys behave in school in the short run, but are full of disturbing side effects and, Sax argues, may permanently damage a boy's desire to succeed.

Sax also considers motivation-sapping factors in the home, prime among them the proliferation of video games. Boys have a natural "will to power," Sax believes, fancying themselves special and having "a destiny that will be revealed in time." Video games indulge this will to power, gratifying boys who practice the games diligently. Success in real life is harder, and perhaps the challenge becomes too great after the easy success of the games. Boys thus lose interest in the real world, and if they play anti-social video games, the risk of damage increases.

The environment may also come into play. Studies tell us that phthalate, a substance in many a plastic container we buy, has disrupted the sex characteristics of male animals in the wild and caused laboratory animals to be less curious. Sax warns that the damage from ingesting plastics has probably already reached boys. Don't feed your boy babies from plastic baby bottles, and don't microwave food in plastic containers.

Finally, the loss of traditional paths to manhood has crippled a whole generation of adolescents. Here Sax becomes an anthropologist, adducing examples from traditional cultures across the globe, showing that when boys have strong male role-models in their lives, and traditional rites of passage to manhood, society and the boys benefit. Sax proposes more emphasis on single-sex schools. Boys' schools concentrate masculine issues, male rites of passage, and male role models in one place.

The result of all this data can feel like a sledgehammer -- or a feather, depending on one's own political or personal convictions. But to this educator of adolescents, perhaps the most telling evidence for Sax's theories is what he might call the Homer Simpson effect: the pervasiveness of unmotivated male characters in popular culture. From commercials to sitcoms, we are being encouraged to laugh at -- and therefore consider normal -- the incompetence, spinelessness and laziness of American men. There is nothing more powerful than a story told over and over again.

We may disagree over the extent of the "Boys Adrift" epidemic. But it is true that the gender landscape has changed. Women spent the 20th century gaining access to the world of achievement that men have taken for granted. Now, in the 21st, men are having to re-examine the desirability of remaining in this new, more crowded world.