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The lost boys of America: Leonard Sax’s book ‘Boys Adrift’ puts focus on raising young men

UPDATED: Mon., April 27, 2020

Honest, strong and responsible were just some of the adjectives that described my venerable father. My pillar of granite, so fitting since he worked in construction, was honorable and very hard-working. Life was practically drained from his handsome yet weather-beaten face when he would stumble in with his dirt-covered work boots from a grueling day out in the elements erecting a building. Somehow he would find the energy to hoist his 3-year-old bundle of energy over his shoulder.

What a great role model for his namesake. My dad, who was well into his 40s when I was born, had little luck. He turned 18 just before WWII commenced and served for the entirety of the war. My father, who was intelligent but lacked education since he was forced to quit school early to provide for his Depression-era family, never complained and persevered.

What a contrast with a few of my friends who admit their goal is to work the least for the most amount of money. They’re actually proud of hoodwinking their bosses. I never understood that since I grew up the son of a proud member of the aptly titled Greatest Generation. My mother and father admired nothing more than grit and tenacity. Perhaps it’s best they’re no longer with us since they would have grimaced if they experienced how our boys have devolved over the last generation.

A few years ago at my children’s school, a kindergarten class was preparing for the annual field day. A neighbor’s child was practicing his event: picking up an orange and racing across a finish line. At the run-through, the child dropped the orange and was teased by a peer. The child told his father, who declared it bullying. The dad decided to boycott the event. His family eschewed the field day, which divides the school via colors, the blue vs. the red, until his family attended two years ago. His brood was clad in brown and gray in protest.

Contrast that approach to an elementary school basketball game I witnessed about a half decade ago. A fourth-grade boy elbowed a girl in the face who was getting the best of him during the game. He bloodied her nose. Her dad implored her to get back in the game and play tough. She bucked up and sank the game-winning shot.

There seems to be a gender reversal. Dr. Leonard Sax backs up the notion with his fascinating book “Boys Adrift.” Sax, who also has written the New York Times bestseller “The Collapse of Parenting,” notes five factors causing the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. Teaching methods, prescription drugs, video games, environmental toxins and the devaluation of masculinity are what negatively affect prepubescent and teenage males.

“I was visiting a middle school, and they posted the honor roll,” Sax said while calling from his Philadelphia home. “The list of 22 outstanding students included 19 girls and three boys. I asked one of the boys to explain the disparity, and he simply said, ‘Girls are smarter than boys.’ Much has changed since I was a kid.”

Sax is spot on. When I was growing up, boys were typically the achievers. The environment in my parochial school was set up for males when it came to testing. Boys were expected to be at the top of the class. Girls were second-class citizens. I’ll never forget when a male classmate vomited by his desk during the fifth grade. Our nun ordered one of the female students to clean up the mess. No one questioned the sister’s action. Females were subservient.

However, women are thankfully on the rise, and perhaps it’s partly due to males’ lack of interest in excelling. Sax nailed the state of many men in “Boys Adrift” by focusing on the forgettable blockbuster “Failure to Launch,” which hit screens in 2005. Matthew McConaughey portrays the amusing, friendly, middle-aged hunk who lacks ambition. The slacker protagonist, who has the tools to succeed, lives with his parents. He has no desire to leave.

“Failure to Launch” was the top-grossing movie in America for three weeks and grossed more than $128 million at the box office. Familiarity apparently led to success. Just after the movie’s release, Sax wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, “What’s Happening to Boys?”

“What was in the movie was what I was seeing in my practice,” Sax said. “The perfectly capable who have no desire to accomplish anything. They lack motivation.” The Washington Post was inundated with letters to Sax with folks who could relate all too well with the piece. Parents of boys can’t help but be concerned. Every parent should look at their situation. I have four children, bookend girls who are 21 and 10 and boys who are 18 and 14.

My daughters Jillian and Jane are remarkably similar. Both are responsible and very good students. My eldest, who is a junior in college at Pace University in Manhattan, has yet to post a grade less than an A and has a 3.9 GPA. Prior to the hiatus due to the novel coronavirus, she juggled 18 credits, worked 25 hours a week and somehow fit in a demanding music industry internship. Dating isn’t a priority for Jillian since she is consumed with achieving while hoping to land a job in music management or publicity.

“Life starts for me after I graduate,” Jillian said. Her sister, who has better elementary school marks than any of her siblings, is remarkably driven. An hour after arriving home from school in March, Jane was told the coronavirus would prevent her from attending school for weeks. Jane proceeded to knock out two hours of homework. “I don’t want to fall behind,” Jane explained.

Jane surprised me by saying she’s 30 pages into writing a novel. I initially wondered if it was akin to the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” from “The Shining.” But Jane is writing a book about a pair of prepubsescent siblings who left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit since their dad had died (thanks, Jane).

A week ago, Jane asked me to read the start of the screenplay she hopes to direct. I’m not saying Jane is going to be the next J.K. Rowling or Greta Gerwig, but she is adamant about becoming a writer. “I’m going to need great grades to get into a good college,” Jane said.

And then there are her brothers. Eddie, who just turned 18, was a solid student until he entered high school. Fun became a preoccupation. Eddie never cared for video games but loves girls and hanging out. All that Eddie excels at, aside from having a good time, is baseball. Since he was 8 years old, he’s been diligent about becoming the best pitcher possible.

He studies videos, reads about the art of pitching and works out at a baseball gym when he’s not with his team. The work paid off, as he was offered a college baseball scholarship. However, books are akin to kryptonite for him. For a freshman paper, I recommended he read “Ball Four,” the late major leaguer Jim Bouton’s hilarious and revealing behind-the-scenes baseball epic. “I can’t find the big white book,” Eddie once said, sounding like the epitome of a dumb jock.

Eddie had a great SAT score, eclipsing his sister’s mark. However, he refused to take the test a second time to hopefully improve his score, and his GPA would have been abysmal if it weren’t for a strong junior year. When I asked him why he finally excelled, his answer left me slack-jawed. “I just didn’t try,” he explained. “The last time I tried was in middle school.”

His brother, Milo, takes the lack of motivation to new heights, or is that depths? When Milo was in the fifth grade, I asked him why his grades were so erratic. “Because it doesn’t matter,” Milo explained. “My grades now are like exhibition baseball scores. They post a score, but no one goes back to see what the Yankees did against the Blue Jays last March.”

That same year, Milo made like Fonzie and told me one of his friends cried after earning a B in a test. “I told him that it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Milo said. “Now quit it.” Milo’s marks have improved in high school, but they’re not where they should be. “I know what grades I have to get to play baseball in college,” Milo said.

Milo and I had a long discussion after he made that statement. It’s easy to become exasperated as a parent. “A journalist recently asked me if we’re doomed,” Sax said. “We’re not. We need to be parents,” Sax said. “Parenting has changed. Instead of giving kids a kick in the pants, like we used to do, many parents now only give the children praise. We need to tell them the truth.”

It’s a great point. What are kids like the aforementioned child, who refused to take part in his field day, going to do when they graduate from college? Return to the safe haven of their parents’ home after hitting the first speed bump? That’s likely. How can we turn our boys’ lives around? Sax recommends limitations on video games. No games until all homework is done. No devices after 9 p.m.

Sax also recommends examining whether your child really needs attention deficit disorder medication. “There are more kids in Spokane on ADD medication than in all of France,” Sax said. “Boys are bouncing off of the walls in kindergarten. That’s normal. But teachers expect them to sit there like girls.”

It’s not an easy thing to do, but parents must inspire boys to do their best at school. “Sam Cooke once sung about not being an A student but that he was trying to be since he could win a girl’s love (during ‘What a Wonderful World’),” Sax said. “But today pop stars don’t have that message. Their message is that it’s cooler to be a convict. You have to watch what boys do, what is consumed and try to be the best parents you can be.”

It’s not hopeless. As Sax notes, many countries don’t have as many lost boys as there are in America. It’s up to parents to shepherd their boys. Parenting is the toughest job, but it also is the most rewarding. Bob Harris, the character Bill Murray plays in “Lost in Translation,” sums it up. “It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids … (But) they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.”

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