How to fix the boy crisis: What does it mean to be a man today?

By Emma Reynolds

They're playing up at school, getting bad grades and developing mental health problems, before growing up to be troubled men. Photo / iStock
They're playing up at school, getting bad grades and developing mental health problems, before growing up to be troubled men. Photo / iStock

We often worry about the future for girls, but it's boys who are locked in a crisis that's been building for a decade.

They're playing up at school, getting bad grades and developing mental health problems, before growing up to be troubled men.

Men are far more likely than women to commit violent crimes, go to jail or take their own life, and these struggles affect the entire population.

The term "boy crisis" was popularised by Newsweek in 2006, when it asked why male children in the United States were falling behind females at every level.

Ten years later, US sociologist Dr Michael Kimmel is focused on figuring out why this is still happening all over the world.

Two and a half times more likely to commit suicide

"Boys are doing less, getting lower grades, they're two and a half times more likely to commit suicide, three and a half times more likely to be suspended and five times more likely to be expelled," he told news.com.au. "These are the three elements - attendance, achievement, behaviour. They're not really engaged."

Dr Kimmel, one of the world's leading experts in men and masculinity, takes issue with many of the reasons that have been suggested as the debate has raged.

Some people believe there aren't enough male teachers and boys don't have adequate role models. But when it comes to the classroom, the sociologist says there is "no empirical evidence the teacher makes a difference" when you remove other factors such as curriculum and student-teacher ratio.

Others say the quiet, formal school environment is a "feminised" one that doesn't suit boys coping with growing levels of testosterone. There is often discussion around different ways boys and girls learn and how we can acknowledge those differences.

But Dr Kimmel thinks the tradition of single-sex schools in Australia isn't helping our youth.

"The single greatest educational reform of the 20th century was co-ed schools," he said. "It's successful around the world.

"We know from every psychological study that boys and girls are more similar than different. "There are some differences in mean distribution but nothing categorically only seen in girls or boys."

Rambunctious girls and sensitive boys might relate. "Children want to be dealt with as individuals, not stereotypes," says Dr Kimmel.

More similar than different

According to the sociology and gender studies professor, boys tend to over-estimate their ability and girls to underestimate it. Photo / iStock
According to the sociology and gender studies professor, boys tend to over-estimate their ability and girls to underestimate it. Photo / iStock

So how can we make sense of the achievement gap?

According to the sociology and gender studies professor, boys tend to over-estimate their ability and girls to underestimate it. That's why you may find fewer girls taking top-level maths and sciences courses, but those who do are often supremely gifted.

"I think the real key is boys believe academic engagement is a negation of their masculinity," says Kimmel. "Academic disengagement is a way to prove masculinity to other boys.

"That notion keeps a lot of boys from being studious. 'Real boys don't study.'"

Young men face this dilemma far more strongly than girls: hang out with friends and be popular or work hard and do well at school.

Our perception of what it means to be a man is at the heart of this, says Dr Kimmel. "Unless you talk about masculinity, we won't be able to address the boy crisis," he says.

He holds workshops in schools and with men, looking at how and why they learn to be disengaged, and suggests fathers do the same.

"Look at the massive extent of change in our lives," he said. "There are some men frankly bewildered by the changes.

"My dad's workplace looked pretty much like Don Draper's, and when I was growing up, I expected that too. My son is 17 and he has no such expectations."

Is it all the fault of feminism?

It's tempting to point the finger at female empowerment for flicking the switch so far that man are left emasculated and flailing.

Men crave spaces where they can "be a man and relax" and we are seeing them "retreating to their man cave or the locker room", concedes Dr Kimmel.

"It has left us confused," he says. "If women are in law firms, hospitals, boardrooms, what's my special place?"

But he maintains that this is down to our inability to respond to the great changes in society, shift our perceptions about supposedly biological differences and stop "policing each other".

"Feminism is the best thing that happened to men," he says. "Giving women more control or power to make choices in life they want - isn't it true that gives men more choices?

"Gender equality is a win-win. It is almost never a bad idea to give more options and choices in how to express themselves."

There is hope. While some older people might want to go back to the past, Generation Y wants to move forward and have even more equality.

We have gone from the marriage equality debate to the gendered bathroom discussion in rapid succession, and boys and girls today firmly believe they will have both great careers and be wonderful parents.

With an ageing population, Dr Kimmel predicts "40 years of sandwich generation" where we have to care for our parents and young children at the same time - and we'll need to be in it together.

"We want the same things," he says. "If we were ever Mars and Venus, we are no longer."

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- news.com.au

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