Lost boys: Are we raising a generation of Peter Pans?

Richard Handler column

I received an e-mail the other day from someone I thought was a student. He had heard of me through a friend of a friend and he wrote asking help because he wanted to get into radio. I thought, sure I'll speak to him.

In the conversation, he told me he loved music. He also loved people and, oh yes, he liked history, too. Currently, he was working in a store selling suits but he wanted to host his own radio program.

As we talked, he was very vague about his past. He had never gone to university or college. When I asked him how old he was, he said 33. I was amazed. He sounded 23. What had he done with that crucial decade?

It was a sad, "cold call." But he was not unlike the young men who leap out of a startling book by Dr. Leonard Sax: Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

Now, I hardly know the history of my caller (all of us have our own unique, personal histories and I was wary of prying, afraid of what I might turn up). Truth be told, I had wasted a few years myself as I drifted through my twenties. But I always knew I should be doing something as I struggled to find my direction.

But the boys who fill Sax's book don't seem to be burdened by that anxiety. These young men are the "failure to launch" crew.

No motivation to learn

Leonard Sax is a family physician with a practice in suburban Washington, D.C. He also has a Ph.D. in psychology and he is a compelling speaker, as listeners to The Current discovered recently. (You can also catch many of his talks and interviews on the internet.)

Sax travels America, Canada and even Australia sounding the alarm about the state of boys and ever-young men.

He has become an advocate for single sex education, which in this case means educating boys apart from girls. He came to this after hearing from the parents of these boys, who began alerting Sax to the "crisis," as they saw it, in their sons' education.

Here's how Sax opens his book: "Dr. Sax, my son Billy is very bright. We've had him tested, twice, and overall his IQ is in the 130 range. But he has just no motivation to learn."

The parents who streamed into his practice appear to be upper middle class. Their stories fill Sax's book and his website. These folks are attentive and ambitious for their children, but now they are beleaguered, perplexed and panicked.

Something scary

"Something scary is happening to boys today" is Sax's call to arms. And while we really don't know how exactly how many boys Sax is talking about, he does give us some statistics that appear to outline the problem.

Here is one from his book jacket that frames the top of his website: "A third of men ages 22-34 are still living at home with their parents — about a 100 per cent increase in the past 20 years."

Many of these boys, says Sax, are sitting at home playing video games. They are not exactly listless: They live in virtual worlds and are excited by the imaginary challenges of their online gaming.

But they are indifferent to the real world. They are perpetual adolescents who do not even seem to know they are lost.

Behind the epidemic

Now, you might ask: Is what we are witnessing here the revenge of the entitled culture? Perhaps we're seeing boys who don't grow up because they don't have to? "Hey, I'm OK, dude! Leave me alone, and close the door after you."

When I was crashing about, lost like so many of my sixties generation, I still wanted to find a place for myself. I had bouts of doubt and anxiety, real confusion. But today's boys, says Sax, seem content to remain in a bubble, incomplete and unaware.

In one chapter, Sax seems so overwhelmed by the crisis that he replaces his own commentary with the pained letters of parents.

But then he bucks up and gives us five reasons for this epidemic. Many are familiar but Sax puts them all together like a brick thrown through your window:

  • Video games. These addictive activities disengage boys from the world. Some young men even seem to prefer online porno to the prospect of sex with another human being.
  • Teaching methods. Girls develop intellectually up to two years ahead of boys. Boys in grade school are naturally rambunctious. They need ways to express their native energy. They are being taught to read and write too early. Their mostly female teachers prefer compliant, dutiful girls.
  • Prescription drugs. Hyperactive, frustrated boys are increasingly being medicated. This we all know. What Sax claims is that these drugs shrink the motivational centres of the brain and that the effect of this lasts years, well after these kids stop taking their meds. I hadn't heard this before but if it's true, it is truly frightening.
  • Endocrine disruptors. Chemicals from plastic bottles, canned food linings and some shampoos mimic natural estrogen, the female hormone. Boys' testosterone levels are half of what they were in their grandfathers' day. Also, their bones are significantly more brittle.
  • The devaluation of masculinity. Boys don't know how to become men. They no longer have appropriate rights of passage. Once Father Knows Best was the paternalistic model but now he has been replaced (and mocked) by a dopey Homer Simpson. Sax likes the old virtues of courage and temperance, with a good measure of intelligence.

What to do

I am in no position to contest the science or assess the multiple elements of Sax's five-pronged argument (at least in this short column). But clearly something is happening to boys, particularly in school. The statistics Sax cites are increasingly showing up elsewhere, too.

In 1949, for example, 70 per cent of undergraduate students in the U.S. were male. In 2006, the figure was 42 per cent, virtually the same as in Canada.

In the interview with The Current, Sax said that some universities in the U.S. (he mentioned Princeton) were adjusting their admission standards for males so their student bodies would have more gender balance.

Imagine, affirmative action for males! How quickly things have changed in a few generations. Will the locus of gender grievance change, too, right from under the clueless noses of once mighty men?

Sax has his solutions. He wants a widespread "detox" program and for physicians to be cautious about prescribing medications to kids. Parents, curtail those video games. And school officials must take seriously boys' developmental needs.

Oh yes, he also wants us to find new ways of being a male in today's culture.

Of course, it may be easier to ban hormone-altering plastics than change a culture overnight. But Sax, at least, is willing to criss-cross the continent to give it a try. A generation of Peter Pans is calling out for help, and they don't even know it.