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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 3, 2023

Why boys are struggling (and what educators can do about it)

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Why boys are struggling (and what educators can do about it)

By Angela Watson

I recently read a powerful book called, “Of Boys and Men: Why They’re Struggling, Why We Should Care, and What We Can Do About It” by Richard Reeves.

It’s not the first piece of media I’ve consumed about the crises men are facing in the U.S. right now, but IS the first I’ve seen with a deeply comprehensive, intersectional understanding of the problems AND practical solutions.

In this article + podcast episode, I wanted to open a (hopefully ongoing) conversation about this topic, sharing what I learned from the book and what educators should be aware of when considering how to support the boys in their classrooms.

I’ll discuss:

  • Just a few of the ways in which outcomes for men are lagging behind those for women, leading to an increase for men in fentanyl and opioid use; deaths of despair; unwillingness to enter college or the workforce; and vulnerability to groups that push harmful misogynistic ideologies
  • How older millennials, Gen X, and Boomers may be unaware of how much boys are currently lagging behind girls in key areas of success because the opposite problem was more prevalent when we were younger
  • Why acknowledging that structural and institutional support for boys/men does not negate the different types of support that are still needed for girls/women
  • How schools can use redshirting, male staff members, and vo-tech programs to improve outcomes for boys
  • What unlearning needs to happen around “women’s work” so that activities/careers coded as female are seen as desirable by boys (and are better compensated for everyone)
  • Why the opening of doors for girls in STEM fields needs to be paired with role models and opportunities for boys in HEAL fields (health, education, administration, and literacy)
  • Why we can’t keep condemning “toxic masculinity” without offering a broad range of possibilities for healthy masculinity
  • How educators can be conscious of the messages that boys receive about what expressions of their identity are acceptable
  • Ways educators can help boys embody their full authentic selves and be free from limiting social constructs around what men are (and aren’t) allowed to feel, think, be, and do

This is a controversial and delicate topic, so please read or listen when you are in the headspace to extend grace if some of my phrasing or examples aren’t ideal! I plan to address this topic again in at least one future episode with the support of a guest expert as well as the voices of male students themselves. Resource recommendations, interview suggestions, feedback, and additional perspectives are welcome in the comments below.

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Yes, boys/men really do have unique struggles we need to address

Today’s topic may seem sort of surprising because I feel like it’s something that maybe isn’t being discussed enough yet in education. There are certainly folks who are talking about the crisis of masculinity and toxic masculinity, but how does that tie into what’s happening in schools? And I think it’s really important for us as educators to be aware of.

I hope that this episode is like the start of a conversation because I’m very aware that in doing a solo episode here, I am a woman who is talking about the experience of boys and men, and I think it’s important to have representation, right? If I’m talking about a particular racial group, I’m certainly going to have someone from that group. If I’m talking about, you know, folks who have a disability, I want to have someone there speaking on their own behalf.

So I attempted to get Richard Reeves to speak in this episode. He is the author of a book called Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It. I read that recently and I found it a very important read. It was something that I would recommend to anyone — I thought he did an excellent job.

I was not able to get him as a guest on this episode, but I would definitely like to talk to him or other people who have done more research in this area, as well as male teachers and male students who I think can certainly speak for themselves. But I’ll approach this episode as basically a community stakeholder — I’m a part of our society that I’m sharing with boys and men who are struggling, and I care about that and I think it’s important that we talk about.

I feel like a lot of the conversations around masculinity center on toxic masculinity, at least among progressives, liberals, and democrats. So, quick content warning here. As I get started, I will mention suicide rates. So if that’s something that it’s not the right time for you to listen to, feel free to come back to this episode at another time.

Here are some of the things that are happening right now with boys and men, statistically, just to lay a little bit of the groundwork around things that are concerning to me. In 2020, the US decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students. So we’ve got far fewer women enrolling in college, going to college now than men among men with only a high school education. One in three is out of the labor force. And for those who have a job, typical earnings are $881 a week. This is down from $1,017 in 1979. So among the only two out of three men who have a high school education, who are actually in the labor force, they’re making less now on average than they were making in 1979.

And mortality from drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related illnesses are almost three times higher among men than among women. So I think there’s a lot to unpack here. So we’re gonna do a pretty deep dive, and we’re gonna touch on a bunch of stuff. We’re gonna touch on some research-based factual stuff, some opinions, some patterns that I’m noticing, and of course, what to do about it.

So I think that the role of men right now is rapidly changing in our society. So we no longer need men to, you know, to hunt, for me, to build a house from scratch, to protect us from war, at least here in the US right now, right?

So many men are experiencing an identity crisis as women are succeeding in greater numbers. Young girls are getting the message that they can be anything they want to be, and they can succeed in any role, but that’s leaving a lot of men feeling like, Okay, so what is my unique gift? What am I bringing to the table?

Supporting boys AND supporting girls isn’t a zero-sum game

And I think compounding this issue is the idea that the needs of boys and men are not a popular topic, particularly among progressives, liberals, democrats, or people on the left end of the spectrum, and I count myself among them. I think we often don’t address this issue because there’s some fear that if we admit that men need structural and institutional support, it will somehow undermine the support and resources that women do still need, or that if we talk about men, then somehow we’re going to erase the progress we’ve made for women.

However, just as we would say black lives matter, doesn’t mean other races don’t matter, or other lives don’t matter. I think we have to do the same thing here and recognize that focusing on the needs of men and boys doesn’t mean that girls and women don’t also have needs. It doesn’t mean that girls and women don’t still need structural and institutional support, or that we don’t have our own challenges.

So I want to say upfront that I think we have to be really careful not to play a zero-sum game here. You know, what we want is equity, right? We want everyone to have a chance to succeed and to get the resources they need. And I think if we ignore that boys and men have specific needs, then we’re missing something. The other piece that I want to say upfront is that I am not addressing trans issues here partly because that’s beyond my scope of expertise, but also because what we’re talking about here is really more of a gender construct.

So when I say boys and men, I’m referring to anyone who identifies as a boy or a man. And when I’m talking about people who have been assigned that gender at birth I’ll say that because we will talk about, for example, testosterone levels, right? So that will differ according to whatever sex you were defined at birth. But know that when I say boys and men, I mean anyone identifying as, and I won’t speak specifically to trans issues, but certainly trans folks could be included in that.

So this is part of why I think progressives are not talking about this, right? Because we’re worried that if we focus on boys, then we’re going to lose sight of what girls need in order to have their support and to experience their success. And I think what’s happening on the right is that conservatives are pushing a traditional version of masculinity in which the value of a man comes from being a provider and a protector.

The traditional role men played in our society has changed, but expectations haven’t caught up

That’s been the traditional role of men in most cultures throughout most time periods. And that version of masculinity that conservatives in the US are pushing is really steeped in patriarchy. So it doesn’t work for everyone, you know, not everyone fits that. Not every boy and man wants to be the tough guy, wants to be the provider and the protector. Additionally, it’s much harder to be a provider in this area. It’s extremely difficult to support a wife and children on one income. Most people can’t do that, male or female.

So we don’t want to erase women’s options or limit their education or their career or push them back into the home. So therefore, the traditional male role is going to have to shift. In a lot of cases, we’re going to have to offer a version of masculinity that isn’t centered just on being the provider and the protector, because that man may be with a woman who earns more money than him and the role of protector is really not that needed.

In our modern 2023 society, we’re not facing the saber-tooth tigers here on a daily basis, right? Men need to be contributing different things in order to add value to the household. Like, I think you know, the role of child-rearing, for example, laundry, meal preparation, running errands is far more in the front of a woman’s mind in this day and age than like, being my protector, if that makes sense. So what is that going to look like for boys and men? That’s the thing that I think is really sort of up in the air right now with our culture.

And I think that when you are told that your role is to be the provider and the protector, and you don’t see a path for it, and you don’t see women asking for someone to provide for them or protect them, which is I think another issue there.

I mean, I’ll speak for me personally — I don’t want a  provider or a protector. I would like to earn my own money, thank you very much. I would like to be independent, and I don’t want to be protected from anything. I can defend myself. There have been very few occasions during my 16-year marriage in which I wanted my husband to protect me. That is like 0.0001% of the value that he adds to my life. And if he derived his identity from being my protector and my provider, he would feel useless. He would feel not wanted.

I think that’s in some ways what’s happening with men. If you don’t feel like you have a purpose for your life, you don’t have a value to add, that maybe if you’re straight and you want to marry a woman and have children and have these traditional families, and you don’t feel like the women actually want that back, you’re going to feel a little lost.

Similarly, I think that if you feel like you can never get ahead and accomplish things for yourself, then you’re going to feel lost, right? And I think that’s the case, in general, with Gen Z right now. They’re worried about climate change … like, Is there even going to be a planet? Why am I bothering to save money when I don’t even know if there’s going to be a future? Why am I bothering to work hard when I’m never going to be able to save enough money to own a home? Like, Home ownership is out of the question. I’m never going to be able to marry, move out of my parents’ house. So why even bother getting a good job? Why even bother going to college? So there’s a lot of that going on. And then when you layer on that, the social construct for men to be the provider, to have a good job, you know, we’ve really complicated it more.

If a woman were to choose to get married and have kids and not enter the workforce, she would be seen by many people as successful. And I think rightfully so, but I don’t know that that’s an option for a lot of boys. You know, I think they would feel pressure to earn a living. Like if they were the primary childcare provider and their wife was the breadwinner, they would feel like, Oh, I’m living off of my wife … I’m mooching off of my wife, or, I’m not a real man.

I think there’s still a lot of that kind of pressure in there. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about here. And when you feel like you are pushed into this role, and there is actually no space for you in this role, you have this very limited definition of what a man can do, and you don’t see the need for that or the path to do it, it leaves you very vulnerable to destructive forces.

So a lack of healthy masculinity roles, I think, is really leaving our boys vulnerable to incel groups, which, if you’re not familiar with these, are groups in which men bond together over a shared hatred or degradation of women. They feel like women owe them attention. And more than that, which I won’t say because this is a G-rated podcast, they’re vulnerable to that. They’re vulnerable to white nationalist groups who intertwine racism with patriotism in very dangerous ways. They are vulnerable to suicide. And what we’re now calling deaths of despair, which are rising particularly among white men with high school educations or less, they’re vulnerable to opioids and other drugs that numb the pain.

So what I’m attempting to offer in this situation is an opportunity for you as an educator to reflect on the boys that are in your life, in your classroom, in your school, in your community, maybe in your home, and think about what are the versions of healthy masculinity and the options that we’re presenting to them.

Because we’ve spent so much focus — most of us I think, on showing girls that they can do anything and be anything. We’ve shown girls how to lead, but who’s following? We haven’t shown the boys how to follow. And if they see that as being weak, as in you know, having a woman boss or having a woman in charge of you, then we haven’t done all the work. And I think there’s a lot of stuff happening in schools that could change this.

So here’s where we enter with Richard Reeves’ book Of Boys and Men which is a 2022 release. Again, I highly recommend it, as it’s extremely thought-provoking. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. I’m not necessarily endorsing everything that he says. Although I will say as a side, I do agree with the vast majority of it.

Girls believe they can grow up and do “men’s work” but boys aren’t receiving the same messages about “women’s work”

I disagree with him on the fact that he doesn’t think that we should ever refer to toxic masculinity. I have a few other little quibbles — I think he said in one of the stories that he tells in this book is he’s taking his son to the doctor, and they leave the doctor’s office and he says to his dad (Richard Reeves), “Hey, dad, can men be doctors too?” And he looks at his son and he’s like, Oh, my son has only ever had women doctors. He’s never seen a male doctor. So he was like, “Yes, son, men can be doctors, men can be nurses as well. Men can do all kinds of roles in the profession.”

And I started thinking about my own experience in the medical field. My dentist’s office is all female. Every single person working in that office, all women. My GYN is all women. My dermatologist’s office, all women from the receptionists all the way up to the actual dermatologist themselves, all have exclusively women staff. And I thought that was a great thing, right? Like being a woman myself, I think it’s wonderful.

But how would I feel if I was a man, you know, walking into, let’s say the dentist’s office and it’s all females working there? How would I feel as a young boy? Would I see myself represented? Would that maybe be a place where I don’t feel totally comfortable, where I feel like I’m the other, or I’m the outsider? This is something that as a Gen Xer, I truly had never thought about before because when I was younger in the early 1980s, only 4% of attorneys were women. 4%. Now it’s 43%, okay? This is in my lifetime, when I was a little girl, all the lawyers were men. And now it’s almost half women.

And anytime I’ve had any kind of dealings with legal systems, I see women represented all over the place. I certainly see men as well. That’s something where I feel like there’s more gender parity and that anyone can see themselves represented there, right? In terms of gender at least. So it’s hard for me to realize that boys may be growing up in a time in which they’re not seeing themselves in some of these fields.

That was certainly not something that we were worried about in the eighties or the nineties, but it’s a newer problem now that we have to think about — the youngest millennials and Gen Z who have not seen women underrepresented in some of these career paths like we did growing up.

We have a teacher shortage which young men could fill if they saw education as a viable career path

So today, girls see themselves in almost every field, but we should consider that boys do not necessarily, and this is especially true for teaching. Now, this is something that Richard Reeves talks a lot about in his book, about how many kids go their entire K-12 career without ever having had a male teacher. And we know how much representation matters, and there’s tons of research and data to back this up. For example, the benefits to black students for having a black teacher are tremendous with no detriment to the kids of other races. And the same is true in the research for male teachers.

All students, particularly boys, benefit from having male teachers. So one of the solutions here that Richard Reeves poses is recruiting more male teachers, particularly teachers of color. But definitely, we need to have more men in there because I think there is actually a declining number of men entering the profession in many states.

And this means that fewer boys are seeing education as a possible field for them. Meanwhile, we have a teacher shortage. We need more folks going into education, and if only one gender sees a place for them, we’ve got a problem. So that’s one of the things to really think about is how we can get more men into schools and more representation.

The lack of vocational tech training in schools has made it harder for students to begin careers in highly valuable “blue-collar work”

Another suggestion that Richard Reeves makes is to bring back the vo-tech programs. So these are vocational things we used to have, like woodworking or car repair. This was actually before my time. By the time I was in high school, these kinds of programs were no longer really taking place either. But there used to be woodworking, stuff like that.

So in the fifties and sixties, the boys would go do those things. The girls would take home ec to learn about how to create a budget for your household, how to sew, how to cook. There were also the old stereotypes, if you think about it, like when kids had to carry around like an egg or a potato sack or, you know, a pretend baby doll and try to keep it alive for a week.

These were the kinds of things that we used to include in high school education. And this is life and career skills, right? But in our push to make sure that we are not excluding kids from a college path, now we are trying to push them all toward college. So we’ve got civil rights activists noticing that more black boys and boys of color are being taken off the college track seeming as seen as not appropriate candidates for AP and advanced courses, and pushed to go into things like auto repair or something like that.

And we have the feminist movement who’s saying, Wait a second, why are girls being pushed into home ec? Maybe she doesn’t want to be a homemaker. Maybe she wants to be a career woman. So there were a lot of social changes happening. And then, of course, budget cuts as well. You’re not going to cut a math class or a science class, but you can cut woodworking, right?

At the same time, we’re cutting art, music, and all these other types of things. So there were social changes and there were changes in schools in which we, for many reasons, beyond even what I articulated here, we got rid of vo-tech. And now in a lot of situations we are trying to push kids, even in elementary school to attend college. I’ve coached in schools where they refer to all of their students as scholars, and they encourage them to pick a college early, and they start prepping for college from 5, 6, 7 years old.

They want them to see that as something possible for them, which is great in some ways, but also not realistic. And just as a little side note here, I don’t know about you, but anytime I need any kind of repair work done, it is impossible to find someone to do it. I feel like we have such a shortage of plumbers, house painters, electricians, of people who know how to do work with their hands.

These things are essential to making our lives run. These are valuable professions that we cannot live without in this country. And I think part of the reason that we have a decline in people doing it is because we’ve gotten rid of VO tech. They’re not learning how to do that. And so I think boys in particular, but students in general are seeing college as their only option.

That’s the only way to be successful. If you’re not going into college, then what are you doing? And they graduate from high school and they don’t have a path, they don’t have skills, and they feel less than the students who are going to college. And so I think we really have to do something about that. Richard Reeves recommends bringing back vo-tech programs, but you know, in terms of what you can do as a listener to this is think about how you are valuing vo-tech skills, life skills, non-college skills, blue-collar work, work with your hands, work in fields that were traditionally male.

Are we showing that the level of respect that it deserves? Are we showing kids that we value it and that those are important professions? And that if they want to be a plumber when they grow up, or they decide to get an apprenticeship painting houses or something over the summer, that we’re impressed by that, that that’s an important skill. I mean, if you wanted to open a landscaping business, that’s another business that I feel like is very easy to get into, requires a lot less training, and you could make a good living owning your own business, doing something like that.

If we value it, you know, we won’t make kids feel like they are less than for doing that instead of going to college. I think we’ve done a decent job showing girls that they can do this kind of work. I think we need to continue that to keep these kinds of professions from being coded as male. But we also need to show men we value this kind of work. Not everyone is going to go, you know, be the next Steve Jobs.

You can do so many other things. And if you were the type of person who likes to work with your hands, our world needs that. So be thinking about how you’re valuing vo-tech with your students. Think about how you’re exposing students to male teachers and just men, in general, in school so that it’s not this all-female space where everyone in charge is a woman.

Starting boys’ K-12 education one year later than girls has proven benefits

A third recommendation that I have from reading Richard Reeves’ book that may be helpful to you is the idea of redshirting. So this is where we hold students back an extra year before they start kindergarten. And there is extensive research that he points out showing that boys would benefit from being redshirted. And Richard Reeves recommends actually that be our policy, that girls start kindergarten at five and boys start kindergarten at six, and that you know, parents would ultimately have the right to decide if they want to hold a girl back.

If they want to have a boy start at five, absolutely they can do that. However, as a general rule, we would expect boys to not start kindergarten until age six because they will do so much better. They will not only not have to worry about being the smallest or the weakest in their class, which is unfortunately still an issue for boys, but also they will have the maturity, the developmental readiness for things that girls tend to be ready for earlier.

I thought that was a really interesting suggestion. And being someone who has taught pre-K before, the difference between a September birthday and a January birthday is hard to overstate at that age. The difference between a 4.5-year-old and a 5.2-year-old can do is absolutely worlds away.

And then you add in the gender disparities as well. Redshirting basically is being proposed as a very easy solution. And he says, unfortunately, the families who are most likely to keep their boys back are affluent white families who could also afford tutoring and all these other kinds of things as needed for their boys. The vast majority of them are happy with their decisions and their boys do very well.

But he says the ones who would benefit the most are actually boys from low-income families. He has an entire chapter specifically about boys of color and particularly black boys, and the risks that they face, and how redshirting could be one of the most powerful things that we do for low-income boys and boys of color to help them have a chance to compete on the same level as the girls who are, in general, more mature than them and more developmentally ready for these skills.

Maybe that could be something that we as educators could start to normalize are these conversations about just because your kid is eligible for kindergarten, are they ready? Like, are they going to be successful? Because the thing is, if you’re always the youngest and you are not quite where your peers are at, you’re going to struggle through your entire career.

This is not just kindergarten, it’s all the way up through high school. So it’s definitely something that we can think about and maybe normalize those kinds of conversations with families where if you have a child in your class and they have a younger sibling, talk to them — do you want them to start kindergarten in the fall? Do you think this is the right year or the next year? And I think this is especially possible now that we have universal pre-k offered in so many states because a big motivation to get your kid off to kindergarten is the fact that you need childcare, right?

You don’t wanna pay for daycare anymore or stay home with them or whatever. But if we have you know, a pre-K option and you can just send them to another year of preschool to get them extra ready before they begin kindergarten, I mean, that’s just a win-win. So I really like that idea, of giving boys this extra year to kind of get themselves together. So I wanna posit my own theory and my own solution here.

Boys are held back by the social norm that emotional intelligence and communicating about feelings are only for girls

So this one is not from Richard Reeves’ book. This is not coming from any kind of expert who has done research either. I’m not an expert in this, but I am an expert in education. And a theory that I have about why more girls are thriving in school and boys are not is because I think in many ways girls are less lonely.

There’s definitely an issue amongst many girls for bullying, with the misuse of social media and that sort of thing around girls. There are all kinds of body image issues that come up with girls in social media, and social isolation is a leading factor in suicide among girls and young women. But overall, girls are much more likely to have friends or a friend that they can confide in. And girls are also more likely to form strong social bonds in which they share their deepest feelings and their deepest fears, right? I mean, that’s a core activity of what girls do, right?

If you think about a trope of middle school girls, they’re whispering to each other, right? Like they’re sharing things with each other. Whereas boys’ social networks tend to revolve around sports or gaming or other activities in which you’re doing something together, you’re bonding, but you’re not really having those deep conversations. You’re not talking about how you feel, you’re not processing trauma together. You’re not connecting on that deeper level. And when you couple this with gendered expectations around emotions, that’s when we have a problem.

So I interviewed Soraya Chemaly about this in a previous episode about her book called Rage Becomes Her. It’s about the power of women’s anger and she explained how women, especially white women, are not socially allowed to feel or express anger — it is something that is sort of off-limits to us. So we can be frustrated or sad or fearful, but to be angry and to openly embrace that anger is something that is sort of off-limits in traditional white femininity, whereas men are only allowed to feel and express anger. So that’s the only emotion that is coded as masculine. There’s been research where she’s found that shows when women feel angry, they feel powerless and makes us feel like, you know, out of control.

We don’t know what to do with the anger. And when men feel angry, they feel powerful. The anger imbues them with this sense of power and entitlement and rage that they’re able to use and express in ways that may or may not be constructive, but it is permissible. You are not less of a man for feeling anger — it’s not unmasculine. That is the primary emotion that men are allowed to feel.

So in modern American society, it is much more socially acceptable for women to cry, for women to laugh out loud, for women to dance, for women to be afraid, for women to express a wide range of emotions, much more acceptable for us than for men. Anger is the only emotion that is coded as male. And in fact, men have somehow rebranded anger as not an emotion.

You know, when we talk about the trope of men saying women are too emotional, and then they smash their fists through a wall because they’re angry. Their first instinct is to inflict physical violence when they feel threatened, but they’re saying they’re not emotional, right? But anger is indeed an emotion. It’s a natural one and it can be a healthy one. So Chemaly argues that both women and men should be allowed to express anger in healthy ways.

But we also want boys to be able to express other emotions. Everything can’t just be bottled up inside and then explode in rage. And we know where that leads with boys in our society, right? Like how that can manifest in some of the worst ways. So what I’m getting at here is that men often, not always, do not have relationships with each other in which they can regularly confess their deepest, darkest secrets in which they can just laugh genuinely and lighten up, and not just be sarcastic or make fun of someone, but share and genuinely enjoy together.

Men don’t often have relationships in which they can grieve losses with another male friend, relationships in which they can cry openly, in which they can express fear, and which they can talk about their mental health issues, and so on. All of these kinds of things are things that are acceptable for women to do. Whether or not a girl or a woman has someone in her life that she feels safe enough with is a different story. But it would be acceptable if I were to start crying in front of one of my friends. They would know exactly what to do, and they would be comfortable with that.

And not all men have that kind of relationship. They would have to worry about being perceived as weak. So when women hit a low point, in many cases, we’re able to be more resilient, not only because we have stronger social networks in general to support us, but because we have developed a fuller range of emotional intelligence.

And this is a skill that is so, so needed in this day and age that we are not fostering the same way in boys as we are in girls. Emotional intelligence is everything. When we as women feel we are wronged or we feel rejected, we have the societal permission to cry, to feel upset, and to talk about the situation. But for men who need to be seen as tough and masculine, they end up staying in that space of anger.

And I absolutely believe this factors into why the vast majority of mass shootings are committed by men. They’re turning their rage outward because they don’t have another outlet for it. Men who don’t have confidants, who are not in touch with their feelings, and who don’t know how to communicate seem far more likely to be the ones to pick up the one thing that is guaranteed to make them feel like a man. The one thing that is guaranteed to command respect, and that’s a weapon, a gun in particular.

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Creating a broader vision of masculinity

So I think we need the structural and institutional supports for men and boys that researchers like Richard Reeves recommend, such as more male teachers, more representation of men in schools so men are influencing the way that lessons are taught. They’re influencing the school culture. You know, if you have an all-female environment or an all-male environment, there’s going to be some different energies and different norms in there, right?

And right now, a lot of schools are almost all-female in terms of the staff. So getting more men in there, redshirting, having these boys start kindergarten a year later, as well as bringing back vo-tech programs and life skills training and not pushing every student towards college — these are some of his recommendations.

These are all things that will help boys be more cognitively and emotionally mature when they enter kindergarten and help them perform at the same level of girls in their classes. The male representation is particularly important, but what I’m getting at here in addition to those things is that I think we as a society need to care about what healthy masculinity looks like and open up more pathways to boys who are currently much more limited in what is socially acceptable to do.

Part of this is decoupling gender from everyday preferences. So let’s just take for example, clothing, right? Girls can wear any colors they want. You can wear pink, you can wear brown, you can wear gray. All of those things are generally socially acceptable for girls to wear. Boys, on the other hand, may feel limited to what is perceived as a masculine color.

You know, if they’re wearing pink or purple or a floral print or something, they may be perceived as feminine and therefore weak. I mean, that’s the root of it here, right? Is that if you are more masculine, including if you’re a girl and you’re doing things that are intended for boys, that makes you stronger and more powerful. But if you’re a boy who’s doing things that are coded more for girls or wearing things that are coded more for girls, then you’re weaker.

Similarly, girls can pursue traditionally male-dominated professions. When we do that, we are seen as strong, we’re seen as powerful and when we succeed, we’re applauded for it. But boys who enter female-dominated professions are often looked down upon. They’re seen as not having reached their full potential. I mean, most female-dominated professions also pay less. So that also doesn’t help things because they’re making less money.

So it sort of seems settling, like why would you want to be a nurse or a teacher when you could be a doctor? Or you could be something else like someone who runs a tech company that is more lucrative, more masculine, and that sort of thing.

So we’ve created a situation as a society in which girls have more options, but boys don’t necessarily. And the cost that boys pay for doing things, wearing things, and behaving in ways that are coded as feminine is extremely risky. If a girl wants to play football, she’ll be applauded. If a boy wants to dance in ballet, he may have some things questioned, right? He may be made fun of, and not to say that the girl won’t experience some pushback too, but again, this is not outright stated to children, but things that are coded as masculine are seen as better.

They’re seen as superior, they’re seen as more powerful, stronger you know, it’s the better choice. And girls are sort of leveling up when they enter male-dominated fields, and boys are settling or lowering their standards or, you know, doing something that is less than what they could be doing or should be doing. And that’s some of the pressure that I think they’re feeling.

We tell girls their hormonal changes and natural inclinations are nothing to be ashamed of, but we don’t send this message to boys about their hormones

Another aspect of this that I find really interesting and here we’ll get a little bit more into actual genetic differences between boys and girls — this is also a very controversial thing, right? I want to say upfront that just because there are biological differences between boys and girls, that does not mean that trans people don’t exist. They absolutely do exist, and they have every right to exist, but at the same time, we can’t deny the fact that there are biological differences, and we need to factor that in whenever we’re talking about expectations for students.

So Richard Reeves talks specifically about the levels of testosterone — those who are biologically born male generally have higher levels of testosterone than girls do. And testosterone leads to risk-taking behavior, and teenage boys are infamously full of testosterone.

The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is also not fully developed, but the testosterone is really what creates more risk-taking behaviors in boys than girls. And it can also lead to a desire to conquer, right? Like testosterone makes you more aggressive, it makes you more violent and it makes you risk your life, risk your money, risk relationships. You will risk things and not understand what it is that you’re risking. And, you know, throughout most of human history, there was a need for this kind of risk-taking behavior every time you go out and hunt, for example, that’s a risk-taking behavior. And you may need to be violent and aggressive, that those may be important skills in your society. In our modern American culture, you’re expected to use your words, right?

We’re not solving problems with violence anymore. If you want to have a happy, healthy, stable life, then we want to try to avoid that as much as possible, right? So the testosterone fuel behaviors don’t really have a good outlet. A lot of times it manifests as the need to conquer, right? So this is why we had so many explorers. If you think about that, you think about the gold rush and those kinds of things, a lot of that was possibly at least partially testosterone-fueled, right? It’s this desire within some men and certainly some women as well, to go out and and conquer a new land, have this new experience, and we don’t have much of an outlet for that anymore.

And I think that’s how teenage boys get into video games because, in video games, you can still conquer and achieve. And you can build things in Minecraft, you can shoot people in other games and take people down with violence, and get that aggressiveness out through that. Mastering a game where there is that chance to conquer, to beat the game, to reach the end level — technology is another area of that. And we hear a lot of these like tech bros, right? They’re like, No one’s ever done this before, and this is brand new. And, you know, this chasing of a new frontier is something that has historically been very much a male trait that can manifest through technology if you’re the type of boy whose brain works in that way, right?

Not everyone is into tech like that, or not everyone has the types of intelligence that are valued in that profession or wants to be a technology entrepreneur and have a startup. But that’s one way that we see this testosterone-fueled desire for conquering new lands conquering new ideas like taking charge. This is one way we see it manifest. It could be sort of healthy. And I believe video games can be a healthy outlet for that too, in some cases.

When you’re full of testosterone, fixing things isn’t as fun as breaking things. And we see that sometimes with boys too, right? The same thing really could be said for pornography, because pornography is really about conquest. It’s about power, it’s about control, it’s about domination. And so that may be another outlet for boys as well as their in-person relationships.

We have a lot of ways that things can not go well if we’re not acknowledging the fact that it is normal and healthy for boys to have a lot of testosterone that fuels their decision-making. And I think this is one point that Richard Reeves makes very well, is that we were teaching girls that their hormones are natural and healthy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your period. You shouldn’t be ashamed of menopause. You shouldn’t be ashamed of the things that your body goes through during pregnancy, which is all true.

But we’re telling boys that their hormones are wrong. That their hormone is testosterone and it makes them do all of these terrible bad things, and I found that really thought-provoking.

Liberating boys from narrow expectations around what they can and can’t be

I don’t have answers for that, and neither does he necessarily, but it was definitely thought-provoking because it’s important to me that I want a world in which people can be themselves. And I feel very comfortable embracing my female body and my identity as a woman. And I want men to feel the same way. I want to feel secure in that. I don’t want teenage boys to feel like they are toxic.

You know that just by virtue of being a man and having testosterone, and higher testosterone levels than girls, that there’s something wrong with them. And that’s a message that I think comes across very subtly to boys sometimes. But we need to be aware of this. We want to have a healthy version of masculinity, just like we want to have a healthy version of femininity. And all of these things, I think, are moving in the right direction.

All of these things are changing slowly. You know, it’s no surprise to me that Gen Z is rejecting the older generation’s gender norms. And it makes me so happy to see boys stepping out of these very narrow boxes that the patriarchy has constructed for them. White supremacy doesn’t only harm, on a greater level, people of color, but it also holds white people back. And it’s the same thing with the patriarchy.

Women, I think, experience the most harm or some greater levels of harm because they are the intended recipients of that harm. But it also restricts boys’ choices. And it keeps them in these positions where they are not free to be everything and all that they are, and embrace all of them. So I do see change coming, and I do see things moving in a positive direction, but the change is just not coming fast enough for some of them.

This is why we have the deaths of despair. This is why we have opioids, the fentanyl use, the one in three men with a college education are not in the labor force. This is why we have boys who are staying home with the stereotype of playing video games all day in their parents’ basement with no desire to partner up to have kids, to have a career, or seemingly no desire.

And I wonder how much of that stems from them not seeing a place for themselves. And I want everyone to see a place for themselves in our world. The truth is we need everyone. You know, every single one of us has a valuable role to play. And I think my challenge for you as an educator and and for myself as an educator, is to expose our male and male-identifying students to just as many counter-cultural narratives as we do for our female and female-identifying students.

Girls need STEM career opportunities, and boys need to be supported in HEAL careers

So as educators, it’s been ingrained in us to make sure that girls are receiving the message that they can be whatever they want to be, study whatever they want to study, and that all career fields are open to them, including STEM. I mean, there have been tons of dollars pushed toward getting girls into STEM programs.

Instead of also opening our boys up to know that they can be anything they want to be, we need our boys to grow up to be teachers. We need them in our schools. Half of our student body is males. We need males badly. And we need our boys to grow up to want to do this work in education. We need them to be nurses and doctors. We need them to grow up and do that blue-collar work that men have done for generations.

But that has become inaccessible to so many boys due to the lack of vo-tech programs and this push to send every student to college. Richard Reeves talks about how we need to open up opportunities for girls in STEM and for boys in HEAL — meaning health, education, arts, learning.

We also need male therapists. Do you know how many men really need a therapist and can only find female therapists? Because men receive this idea that women are the ones who talk about their feelings. That’s like this weak feminine trait. It’s not masculine enough. We need to reframe that. Men absolutely have feelings and they need to talk about them, and they need to be able to talk about them with other men who understand them the same way that I as a woman would rather have a female therapist. You know, that’s my personal preference.

A boy should be able to get the same thing. And particularly black male therapists, Hispanic male therapists, and so on. All those kinds of things really matter. So getting them into healthcare, into education, these are two of the major fields that you know, are going to need to be hiring tremendous numbers of people in the coming years.

Any male student graduating and going to healthcare or education is not going to have a problem finding a job, supporting a family, supporting themselves, and really making a difference in the world, contributing good work in society. But these things are not things that boys are necessarily attuned to. And I will say also, as a side note, one other thing that Richard Reeves points out in his book Of Boys and Men is that we should not expect total gender disparity in professions.

That there is some sort of biological difference in which we will probably have more men in STEM and more women in HEAL. And he points to Scandinavian countries, which have better gender parity and more equality between the sexes than probably any other part of our modern world. And he says still in education, the vast majority of teachers — or not the vast majority — but the majority of teachers are female. And when you look at car repair and automotive type of work, construction work, it’s still more men than women.

And this is in a place where you are much more likely to be able to break gender roles in gender stereotypes, and you have a better social safety net and much higher incomes across the board. So you don’t necessarily just have to pick the job that is going to make you a lot of money.

They also have good paternity leave. So you also don’t have to pick a job based on if you can care for your child. Because in some of these countries, for example, men can take an entire year off with the baby. They’ve put all the social structures in place for men and women to be able to do any kind of job they want to do. And they still found there is a proclivity for men towards certain types of jobs and women towards some types of jobs. Whether that’s all nature and maybe there’s still some nurture, certainly, larger cultural values still type some of these professions as either male or female. It’s hard to say. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really care if it’s more biology than it is social conditioning.

The point is that we don’t have to have exact gender parity in every single profession, but we want to make sure that boys are going into these fields that have been coded as female, and they see that as a choice for them if they want to do it.

Beyond the stereotypes

And that’s really my larger picture here, thinking about ways that we as educators can show boys a wider version of masculinity beyond just the stereotypes. You know, we’ve shown girls that you don’t have to be “just a mom”, right? You don’t have to wear high heels and be into makeup or like girly things, or whatever those kinds of stereotypes are. That if you want to do more male-coded things, we accept you, we love you, we want you to be able to do that. And we just haven’t done the same in reverse to quite the same extent because there is still such a stigma socially for boys to be into things that are [for] girls.

Girls can play with cars, boys cannot play with dolls. The pushback is just going to be very different. So I think we need to just examine that and be aware of that and think about what we can do to show boys their inherent value. I think we need boys to see fatherhood as important and something that is worthy of respect for those who choose to have children — that can be an important part of their identity if they want kids.

For women, we’ve always gotten the message that there’s so much value on us being mothers; boys, not quite to the same extent, but I think that’s a great healthy way to root in your masculinity is providing and protecting for children. I think we can dispel the myth that men just aren’t good at that kind of stuff

You know, that women are the natural child-rearers and that it’s harder for men. Not necessarily. It comes easy to some men and it doesn’t come easy to some women. So can we open up fatherhood as something important? A guy in the Gen Z generation who wants to have a female partner is probably going to have to contribute equally in household tasks and parenting in order to attract a partner. That’s what most young women want, right? They want an equal partner. They don’t want to be expected to do all of the laundry, all of the child-rearing, all of the cooking and cleaning.

But if we’re sending boys messages that this is women’s work, then they’re going to feel useless. And even if we as the educators, or we as their family members, aren’t sending them this message, they’re getting it from popular culture.

And I’m telling you, they’re some really deeply disturbing stuff happening on social media that is clearly sending these messages to boys if they end up on the wrong side of TikTok, YouTube, et cetera. Like they’re hearing these messages.

So we have to actively offer a different narrative that you’re not just marrying a woman so you have a servant, right? You’re not just trying to find a woman who can cook and clean and bear your children, but that you’re finding an equal partner. Because that’s what the girls are wanting, and that’s what the girls are being told that they should want. They’re being told that you’re not just the man’s servant, that you should be respected and listened to and valued, but we’re not showing the boys that it is masculine to respect and love and value a woman. So I think we’ve got to retire this bumbling idiot husband stereotype.

Remember the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, where the husband is just this idiot? There’s so much of that that is just steeped in the popular culture. And you know, the uselessness of men is almost a stereotype at this point.

And I think we have to stop making excuses for boys being messy and disorganized, as if hygiene and cleanliness and organization are traits that come naturally to all girls and only girls. These are teachable skills that all humans should learn. You know, coding, organization, and cleanliness as something that only girls care about. Boys can color code things too, and some of them want to do that. Boys can organize a desk or their bedroom or a shelf, and some of them really like to do that, but they don’t have the male role models for it.

And I think we need to think of these as human skills. This is not gender coded. Everybody needs to learn how to keep track of their belongings and keep them clean and keep them safe. This is something that shouldn’t be limited to just one gender.

And I think just as importantly, and maybe even more so, we need to send the message to our boys that they can and should be emotionally available. That healthy men and healthy masculinity involves emotional availability. We need them to understand themselves and their feelings. We need them to be able to communicate about themselves and their feelings effectively. We need them to know their own needs, to have those introspective skills as metacognition skills as well, and be able to talk about them, to tell other people what they need and make sure that they can get their way and get their needs met in appropriate manners without resorting to aggression or violence or other behaviors that are coded as more masculine.

It’s unfortunate that even in this modern age, things that are coded as exclusively the domain of women are seen as inferior. And that’s where this whole realm of feelings and emotions is — it’s still coded as something for women. If we want boys to have an interest in talking, in reading and writing, and forms of effective communication, they need to see themselves in those tasks, and in those careers, they need healthy representations of men doing these things well. They need to know that not only are these essential life skills, but that these are skills that people of any gender can acquire.

So those are my thoughts on Richard Reeves’ book called Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It. And it’s a few of my own sort of opinions and ideas mixed in there too.

Let’s show boys a broader definition of masculinity in which there are so many healthy ways to be a boy, to be a man, to contribute to society, and to be a value in use. To let our boys know, just like we try to let our girls know, you have inherent worth as a human. You can be anything you want to be. Get to know yourself. Get to know your needs. Get to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and then you can make your best contribution to the world. You can show up fully as your whole authentic, healed self, ready to participate fully in our society and make the world the place that we want it to be.

Continuing the conversation

I would love to hear from you on your thoughts and experiences. What are you seeing in your boys, maybe your personal children or your students? What are you seeing in your community? If you are single and you are dating men, what are you seeing in that? And of course, if you’re a man yourself, I would love to hear, what do you think I got right here? What did I get wrong? What am I missing? What’s your experience?

Again, I want this to be the start of a conversation. This is not my final once-and-for-all episode in which I’m sharing with you the plan forward. I just want to open the conversation. I want to get us thinking about these things and I want to think about it together. So please feel free to use the comment section below to let me know what you think and what your ideas are so we can keep talking about how we can support boys and girls.


Of Boys and Men

The War Against Boys

Redshirt the Boys: Why boys should start school a year later than girls

The Men and Boys Are Not Alright

Men are struggling. A new book explores why and what to do about it

Men can HEAL (in Richard Reeves’ own words)

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Thanks for sharing this. It’s a lot to digest, so I just wanted to add two things that I think should be part of the conversation.

    1. Recruiting more male teachers — absolutely, this would be great, but it’s not just about helping boys imagine themselves as future teachers. Higher pay, more autonomy to make decisions that matter, and fewer useless drains on the worker’s time and energy would make the profession more attractive to more people in general. I remember reading that in Japan, schools decided to offer extra pay to teachers going into 1st-3rd grades, because those were the most important years. Guess where all the male educators wound up? (Of course, the fact that the highest-paying jobs went to men is its own problem, but I tell the story to point out that people need not only role models, but actual money.)
    2. Redshirting — this is a practice that can only benefit people who can afford it and who choose it. We could provide all boys (and girls, too) with tremendous benefits by fostering play and exploration in the early grades, and not expecting 5 and 6 year olds to sit through lessons and quizzes all day as if they were miniature high school students. If the curriculum of kindergarten revolved around things like circle time, sharing, taking turns, building, singing, dramatic play, crafts, games, and running around outside (and for generations it did, with no apparent detriment to the young people as they grew up), then everyone could move into 1st grade with a greater degree of readiness for formal instruction. (Which should still be balanced with lots of time for running and playing!)

  2. Thank you for writing this article on this very important subject. I believe this problem starts at a young age for boys, but is not limited to school, however a lot can be addressed there. True, we don’t have enough male teachers. I considered teaching math as a career, but when I talked to women who were teachers, and heard about some of the things male teachers went through with regards to protecting themselves from false allegations of SA I decided not to pursue that course, and that problem is far worse today than it was back then. Red-shirting could help, having more male teachers and male administrators, breaks, physical education (boys have a harder time sitting still all day and get shamed for it. It’s not their fault, it’s male physiology) and paths into vocational occupations.
    You can tell them it’s OK to go into normally female dominated fields like nursing, and they could do that. But how many female doctors want to marry a male nurse? Women with college degrees don’t marry men who are plumbers or electricians for the most part. Many women divorce their husbands as soon as they start making more money than him, even when they are able to do this as a result of his help. It’s not just the men that need a reeducation here.
    Then there’s the matter of role models. Who are the good male role models today? Homer or Bart Simpson? 007 Died. The only male role models in media who succeed with women are criminals, thugs, gang members, hit men, cartel bodyguards, secret agents or freaks of nature. Normal men are losers.
    In other words, you could do everything right to change schools, but if boys don’t see a reason to try they probably won’t. Why play a game that’s designed to make you lose? And where are boys supposed to congregate together and learn from each other, bond with each other? There are no more men/boys only organizations. Boys and girls club/scouts? Organizations where boys could learn about maturing and being a man are gone.
    Of course you have to do what you are doing. You have to help boys every way you can. Bring them some hope, because so many of them have so little.

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