When American parents think about their kids becoming successful adults, it’s boys, not girls, they worry about the most. But they struggle to admit it.
That’s according to the sixth annual American Family Survey, a nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, conducted by YouGov.
Parents who were asked about their sons and daughters reported being equally worried about both. It was only when survey participants were asked about their sons only, or their daughters only, that a 15-point discrepancy emerged. When asked about one gender, 45% of moms and dads said they were worried about their boys becoming successful adults, compared to 30% who said they were worried about their girls.
“If you made people stop and really think about boys, they were more concerned,” said Richard Reeves, a senior fellow and director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
The finding is nontrivial and speaks to the cultural moment we are in, said Reeves, an adviser to the survey.
“There is a general anxiety about the modern male, a sense of there is a crisis of masculinity,” Reeves said.
As the father of four sons ages 4 to 17, Jon Larsen, 41, has thought a lot about the challenges boys face. Those include cultural pressures to excel and ultimately get a job that will earn them a lot of money, said Larsen, who lives in Millcreek, Utah. While the definition of success as well as the list of acceptable careers for women have expanded rapidly in recent decades, Larsen feels that boys still feel pressured to fulfill the traditional role of primary breadwinner, even as it is becoming increasingly difficult to support a family on a single income in the U.S.
Reeves said a desire to be egalitarian can mask true concern about boys’ futures. On reflex, people want to be respectful to the problems faced by both boys and girls, acknowledging the significant barriers women still face in the workplace and elsewhere. And so, they rate them equally. But when the survey was just talking about boys, eliminating direct comparison between genders, people respond with much higher levels of worry, Reeves said.
“People are afraid that their concerns about boys will be interpreted as a lack of commitment to equality for girls and women. Somehow to acknowledge boys might be struggling is to betray yourself as an enemy of the women’s movement,” said Reeves. “It’s become a fragile conversation about gender and quite politicized.”
Stress for boys
Gender stereotypes have an impact on how we measure success as a society, said Mike Bulloch, clinical director and co-founder of the WayPoint Academy in Huntsville, Weber County, a residential treatment center focused on treating boys with debilitating anxiety disorders.
While an American woman who pursues a career in education or nursing might largely be seen as successful, a man who choses a lower paying job in education or music, or who opts to be a stay-at-home dad might not be, Bulloch said.
“This can be viewed as settling for less, and failing to reach their full potential,” said Bulloch. “Boys get mixed messages that these are less attractive options, which contributes to pressures to live a life that may not be of their own choosing.”
Larsen has seen these expectations cause stress for his boys at times.
“There’s so much pressure to be perfect churchwise, extracurricularwise, to get a scholarship, to get into the right school so you can have a great job and be a good provider and have it so a girl would want to marry you,” said Larsen. “It can be crushing.”
Cancel culture and the fact that everything lives forever on the internet, contribute to a feeling that it’s not OK to make mistakes, Larsen said. He wants his kids to be successful academically so they can grow up to be financially independent, but he has tried to teach his kids to balance outward achievements with an emphasis on learning, growth, and healthy risk taking.
“I didn’t realize that by the time I had teenagers, I would spend more time reassuring my boys that what they are doing is enough, and they are enough,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, boys between the ages of 2 and 8 were more likely than girls the same age to have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Mary Alvord, a Washington, D.C.-area psychologist and author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens,” said that her practice has twice as many boy groups as girl groups. That’s because boys and girls express frustration differently, she said. While girls are more likely to verbalize their feelings, boys tend to externalize their feelings by acting out. A cultural stigma against boys showing weakness and talking about depression and anxiety exacerbates this divide, she added.
In the face of pressure, some boys may also retreat and use screens, especially video games, as a way to distract from overwhelming thoughts and feelings, Bulloch said.
The American Family Survey found that when it comes to emotional health, moms and dads are more worried about their daughters. Fifty-six percent of parents said they worried about girls’ emotional health, compared to 49% who said they worried about boys’. In terms of screen time however, parents are more concerned about sons.
“That’s where it’s been a huge issue for boys. If you are avoidant and receive a tremendous amount of accommodation at home, your skill development is stunted and you aren’t well-equipped to go out and deal with things,” Bulloch said.
Those who identify as conservative note the greatest concern for boys, said Reeves. About half of conservatives are worried about the country’s boys in general, vs. 28% who are worried about girls, the survey data shows. On the other hand, those who identify as liberal are slightly more worried about girls than boys overall.
Reeves said that liberals are more likely to be concerned about girls receiving fair and equal treatment than the challenges that boys might face.
Sabrina Ricks Avery, 42, lives in Woodbridge, Virginia, with her husband and four kids, including two sons, ages 7 and 1. She does not identify as liberal or conservative, but she does worry about her boys. She is happy that people are bringing increased awareness to stories of oppression, exploitation and sexual violence, but at the same time, she is concerned that her white, male children will continuously see themselves as the villains in those narratives, which could have a negative effect on their self-images.
Jenny Howe, a licensed therapist who works with anxious and depressed teens in Farmington, said she is not worried about boys’ self-esteem being affected in that way.
“I work with a lot of wealthy, white males. The top 1%. I don’t know if they see themselves as a villain,” said Howe. “I think our younger generations that are growing up now, that I’m observing in my office every day, really understand the context of where that oppression is coming from, and they tend to be a little bit more open-minded.”
The American Family Survey also asked parents how well certain institutions cater to boys vs. girls. Parents felt that churches and friend networks cater a little more to girls, while ‘sports and other clubs’ treat boys slightly better. The biggest difference was in education though. Sixty-three percent of parents thought the education system catered well to girls, compared to 55% who thought it catered well to boys.
“Girls are way ahead of boys in education,” said Reeves, noting that college graduation rates are higher for girls, and dropout rates are higher for boys.
A lack of male teachers in primary education could play a role, according to Reeves. At the elementary school that Rick Murphy’s oldest son attends in Idaho Falls, Idaho, there is not a single male teacher or administrator, he said.
“A young man who is in elementary school is looking around trying to find someone like him to gauge — how am I supposed to act? What am I supposed to be doing? What does a man look like in our society? And the first thing he is learning is that men don’t belong in an educational setting, which I think is completely untrue,” said Murphy, age 33. Murphy thinks a lack of positive role models could be a reason why so many men mistreat women.
“I think a lack of male mentors in general, especially in our lower-income communities can be a huge problem for boys growing up,” said Howe.
Larsen is happy to see men that his sons look up to, like BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, setting good examples and speaking out about mental health. Despite the challenges boys face, Larsen is optimistic for his sons’ futures.
“This rising generation is healthier than some of the previous generations at being willing to work and talk through some of those challenges,” Larsen said. “We are turning in the right direction.”
- Natalie Larsen talks with son George, who wants to play with tennis equipment, while son Peter plays the piano and son Eric works on the computer at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Jon Larsen plays with son George at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Jon and Natalie Larsen talk with son Eric as they sit in front of their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Jon Larsen plays with son George as his oldest son, CS, practices his saxophone at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- George Larsen laughs with mom Natalie at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Jon Larsen poses for a photo with his sons — CS, Peter, Eric and George — at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- George Larsen tries to hit a tennis ball a he plays with his brother Peter at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Peter Larsen practices his clarinet as his brother George hides under the table while playing hide-and-seek with mom Natalie at their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
- Peter Larsen plays with his brother George on the front lawn of their home in Millcreek on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News