In the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, school shootings, Father’s Day feels different this year. As the national conversation has again turned to the intersection of gun access and troubled young men, we are wondering what is driving this streak of nihilism. Are boys and men in crisis? Is there something uniquely worrisome about American masculinity?
These were some of the questions bouncing around my mind when I spoke with scholar and author Warren Farrell about masculinity. Before his foray into boys’ and men’s issues, Farrell, 78, was the only man elected to the board of the National Organization for Women three times. His commitment to feminist issues earlier in his career informed his passion to understand the experiences of men later in life.
Farrell’s 2018 book “The Boy Crisis,” which he co-wrote with John Gray, looks at why boys are falling behind girls, with an eye on the impact that absent fathers and male role models have. His work has been featured on the “Dr. Phil” show and Andrew Yang’s podcast, and he has been a repeat guest on Jordan Peterson’s podcast, most recently on June 13.
We originally met months ago in his neighborhood in Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge. On a balmy February afternoon, we walked alongside a meandering stream which cuts through the residential hillside bordering Muir Woods National Monument and the Pacific Ocean. Farrell took me to his “church,” the forest where he does some of his best thinking, and we walked under the canopy of 100-foot-tall redwoods. Here we discussed what issues are plaguing boys today and what can be done to help them.
This Q&A is a synthesis of that conversation and a recent phone interview. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Ari Blaff: I’m curious to get your reaction to the recent mass shootings committed by young men. Are they connected to what you have called the “boy crisis?”
Warren Farrell: We’ve been blaming access to guns, violence in the media, violence and video games, family values, replacement theory-style hatred (for mass shootings). And yet our daughters are exposed in the same homes with the same family values, the same access to the same guns, the same violence and the same media, the same violence and the same video games. They have similar mental illnesses, and our daughters have not been doing the killings.
What’s happening with boys is that there is a global boy crisis: boys committing suicide far more often than girls — five times more often in their 20s — dropping out of high school, dropping out of college more, dying from opioid overdose. All these are more than the 70 different ways that boys without fathers mostly do worse.
The difficulty is not just with boys. When boys don’t do well, girls can’t find good fathers (for their children) and that leads to children being raised by single mothers or divorcees.
The boy crisis resides where dads do not reside. There are about 10 causes of the boy crisis but fatherlessness, or dad deprivation, is the single biggest cause of it.
AB: You wrote an op-ed a couple of weeks back reflecting on the mass shooting in Uvalde. Is there something happening with American boys in particular? Obviously, there are instances of mass violence in Europe and even in Canada, but it doesn’t seem to be the same rate or at the same frequency. Is there something about American masculinity, or a broader social crisis in American society, which is impacting boys?
WF: Well, I think there’s two big things. One is the fatherlessness issue is the biggest here and in the United Kingdom. But the mass shootings are not as much in the U.K. as they are here. So it has to be more than just a fatherlessness issue. I believe that in the United States we have an addiction, and that addiction is to guns.
We also have very lax laws that a boy on his 18th birthday, without having any type of background check, was able to pick up a gun, despite having put threats on social media and showing many worrying signs of having significant problems, and none of that was detected or checked for. We have more guns in the United States than we have people. We don’t have mass stabbings. We have mass shootings. The more powerful the gun, the more the boy has an ability to express his anger, and behind almost all anger is vulnerability. What we need to understand is that boys who hurt us are almost always boys who hurt.
When you’re talking guns, you alienate the conservative community. However, when you’re talking dads and fathers, the liberals are not very responsive. We’re caught between a liberal and a conservative rock and a hard place. Very few people’s minds are opened to both issues.
Girls are not doing the mass shootings. And not all boys are the problem. It is more frequently the fatherless boys more than any other group of boys.
We need to pay attention to to three things. One is the boy crisis. No. 2 is the fatherlessness issue. And No. 3 is guns as the magnifying issue.
AB: How do you find your message is being received?
WF: Well, the people that interview me, if they are conservative, they want me to either minimize or leave out the gun issue. They are OK with my saying that guns are the third thing down the list and serve as a the magnifier for underlying issues. But if I start to talk about it in a more in-depth way, then they begin to get nervous. They get me back to families and fathers.
With liberals, I went out to interview the Democratic presidential candidates (in 2019) and there were a few people, like Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper, who really understood. The campaign managers were not interested in having the candidates make boys’ and men’s issues a feature of the campaign because they were afraid of alienating their feminist bases. They were also afraid that saying the father is important would alienate and offend single mothers.
AB: With Father’s Day upon us, what message do you have for parents?
WF: We really need to understand what I discussed in “The Boy Crisis” about the nine differences between dad-style parenting and mom-style parenting. Children do best when they have what I call checks-and-balance parenting which recognizes both mother and father communicating in a loving and respectful way.
Both mother and father bring unique parenting styles. Mom-style parenting focuses on protecting the child and being sensitive to the child’s needs. The importance of the dad-style parenting is enforcing boundaries. From that, children learn to postpone gratification, to fulfill their dreams.
AB: I find it fascinating that your background complements the journey of gender equality. You began as an advocate for feminist issues in the ’50s and ’60s when it wasn’t popular by any means and then expanded to men’s rights and the importance of fathers. But for that, you get a lot of flak. Unlike feminist activism, men’s rights activism appears to be a thankless pursuit. Does that surprise you?
WF: When I started speaking at colleges and universities, I’d hand out these yellow pads throughout the audience. This was before computers and people would sign up to see whether they would want to join either a men’s group or a women’s group. I would get together with all the people that were interested, often until 1 in the morning. I’d teach them how to run men’s groups and women’s groups and then keep in contact with them afterwards.
As I started paying attention to both of the men’s group in New York, and then also to the feedback from the other men’s groups and women’s groups, I began to incorporate some of their insights into my presentations. It was at that point that my standing ovations became mixed standing and sitting. Then they became not mixed at all. Just sitting.
At the beginning, when I was just speaking from a feminist perspective, I got about four or five speaking engagements in referrals per event. Whereas after I started incorporating the male point of view, I would get one or zero referrals. I started to see that if I spoke about the male experience, or what was happening with boys, that I would soon be more and more unpopular.
AB: Fatherlessness is a big issue but does flow downstream from our cultural values. How would you reverse that trend?
WF: First, it involves getting women to understand that we’re all in the same family boat; when you focus on only one sex winning, both sexes lose. As parents, we want our daughters to have a man who is worthy of her love and respect. Someone who is able to have his act together enough to be able to take care of her and do his part in taking care of the children.
Historically speaking, every generation has had its wars, and during those wars, if Uncle Sam said, “We need you. You are necessary to kill off Nazis,” men signed up and came forward when they were told they were needed.
We have had to tell males now that they are no longer needed so much to kill and be killed, but to love and be loved. Women need their support, their skills, their checks, their balances to help with protecting and raising children. We need them to be “father warriors” now. The real warriors in the future are the ones who share the responsibilities and joys of raising children.