In the movie Failure to Launch, Matthew McConaughy plays a 35 year-old man named "Trip" who still lives with his parents who are growing increasingly desperate to have him leave the house. Unfortunately, McConaughy is in no hurry to give up this comfortable arrangement, and so the parents hire the services of a professional "interventionist" (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) to woo him out of the nest.
The movie is humorous, but Leonard Sax, a family physician and research psychologist, takes the main theme seriously. He cites a lot of evidence to support the claim that there is a growing and worrisome epidemic of boys and young men who seem listless, alienated from school, and unmotivated toward doing the things that one must do to achieve success in life. It's not that these boys aren't bright, many of them are. It's not that they're unmotivated, many of them are highly driven but not toward the goals that parents and teachers would prefer.
Sax assumes that boys themselves haven't changed much in the last thirty years but that our culture has. He discusses five changes in particular that have had a profound effect on young males and which he believes to be largely responsible for the lassitude many of them exhibit. Not every boy is affected to the same extent by these five factors nor do the five affect every boy, but, Sax argues, enough boys are harmed by at least one of them to have created a serious problem for many parents and teachers, not to mention the boys themselves. He concludes the book with some advice as to what parents might do to help their sons.
The five factors Sax discusses are these:
Changes at school: Many schools, particularly in the early grades K through 2 or 3, are not well-structured for boys. Consequently, boys fall behind early, become disengaged and often never develop an interest in academic success.
Video games: Sax points out that gaming often takes over a boy's life. He can have success, power, and thrills through video games that his normal activities can't come close to providing. As a result he's often not motivated to do much of anything but compete on-line and on-screen and this he often does for hours everyday.
Medications for ADHD: Alderoll and Ritalin are often over-prescribed and are now believed, according to Sax, to be damaging to a boy's brain.
Endocrine disruptors: This one was the most surprising to me. Some of the chemicals which leach out of the clear plastic bottles which are used to contain so much of the liquid we drink mimic estrogen, a female hormone. Some scientists believe that this is at least in part responsible for the decline in male fertility in much of the developed world. It has also, Sax, suggests had a number of other side effects which are harmful to male development.
Revenge of the forsaken gods: Recent generations of boys are unique in our history in that many boys have grown up without positive male models in their lives to pass on to them what it means to be a man. There are few masculine heroes today and many boys grow up surrounded only by their peers. Such boys tend to become either "slacker dudes" or they seek to emulate Akon, 50 Cent and other thugs.
There's much more to each of these factors than what I've sketched above, and the material Sax lays out for the reader in each of the chapters devoted to them is often fascinating.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is one titled End Result: Failure to Launch. In this section Sax shares e-mails and other correspondence he has received from parents, girlfriends, and wives of boys and young men who exhibit the characteristics he talks about in the book. The e-mails are riveting in their pathos and the sense of wasted lives that they convey.
If you are a young man, the parent of boys, a teacher of boys, or one who cares about our future then this is a must-read. I'm buying a copy of the book for my daughter and daughter-in-law for Christmas. It may be the best present you can give a parent of a boy you care about.
You can order a copy of Boys Adrift for someone you think should read it at Hearts and Minds bookstore.RLC