"The Boy Crisis" by Warren Farrell & John Gray – a review

The thesis of this pivotal book by Warren Farrell and John Gray is that American boys are in trouble. Farrell, who contributed most of the writing, is an American educator, activist, and author of nine books on men’s and women’s issues, including the best-sellers, The Myth of Male Power and Why Men Are the Way They Are.

He establishes with copious citations that boys, in larger numbers than girls, drop out of high school, take drugs, live with their parents, commit suicide, are unemployed, homeless, obese, diagnosed with ADHD, or become drug- or video game-addicted. They are less likely to be employed, go to college, graduate college, go on to graduate school or receive advanced degrees.

There are ten causes of this, Farrell writes, the most important being the absence (or insufficiency) of a dad in their lives, what he calls “dad deprivation.” This lack of dad causes a purpose void in a boy’s life. It is the “leading cause of more than twenty-five social, psychological, academic, and physical health problems for boys.”

Though dad deprivation affects both sons and daughters, “the impact on boys is proving considerably greater. … Whether because of the slower maturation of boys’ brains or poorer social skill socialization, our sons are more vulnerable [to dad deprivation] than our daughters.” A boy needs to have purpose in his life, one his father’s presence affords him. Without it, he will experience a failure to launch into adulthood, a syndrome we’ve likely all seen in many American young men these days.

But Farrell more than sounds the alarm in The Boy Crisis; he offers ten solutions. The most important of them is a weekly family dinner night at which Dad and Mom gather with the son to constructively discuss issues he may be having, and help him discover success in love and life.

Farrell tells the story of such a family dinner at which the parents asked the son which girl in school he’d like to be dating. He named one of the prettiest. But when asked who would make him the best wife and mother of his kids, he named someone else.

What a fascinating exchange to have with one’s son, about who visually attracts him versus who would make the best wife. How wise the boy was to see that the prettiest girl and the best wife might be different women.

Farrell sees a binary intellect in boys and men: Heroic Intelligence and Health Intelligence. Heroic Intelligence is “to kill, not to listen; to repress feelings, to take risks more than assess risks, to fake confidence rather than acknowledge fear …” and more, all in the cause of proving he is a man. His Health Intelligence is about how the boy takes care of himself.  

The two, Heroic Intelligence and Health Intelligence, are at odds in the boy. One bribes him to take manly risks: play football (and risk brain injury); join the armed services and fight (and maybe die); be the sole breadwinner (risking psychological and physical harm); and take life-endangering work, all in the name of proving he is a man. The other asks him to take care of his health.

Farrell says these two conflicting intelligences must be integrated. The boy must “differentiate between knowing himself and being seduced by the sirens of social bribes. … If, after this process, your son chooses to be a Navy SEAL, firefighter, or a CEO who works seventy hours a week, he is more likely to have made that decision by conscious choice – as a choice aligned with who he is rather than the need to prove himself.”

John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, wrote his section of The Boy Crisis about ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This, Gray says, is a misleading term because this syndrome is not about a deficit of attention. It is an “inability to allocate attention appropriately. Children with ADHD who are inattentive, distracted, or ‘spaced out’ find it hard to allocate their attention to what their teachers are saying. … [They] have plenty of attention,” he continues. “That’s why they can play video games for hours, get lost in their Legos, or devote endless attention to biologically stimulating activities like eating junk food, taking drugs, risk-taking, watching TV, using digital tablets, and consuming internet pornography. They … are unable to easily shift their focus to less stimulating activities,” such as meeting the demands of family, education and society.

Gray says the one root cause of this inappropriate attention allocation is “inhibited dopamine function in the brain.” Dopamine is the brain chemical that rewards us with the sensation of pleasure while increasing our motivation, focus and interest. Without sufficient dopamine in the brain, the boy lacks a focused response to normal life experiences. The dull stimulations of reading, classroom, and homework pale next to the bright lights of video-gaming and porn, failing to hold the boy’s interest.

These are bold claims, but like Farrell, Gray footnotes his assertions, citing the research that underlies them. He dismisses the usually prescribed brain-enhancing meds such as Ritalin, which he says, worsen the conditions that foster ADHD symptoms.

He instead suggests natural paths to restoring better performance to a diminished brain, including high doses of vitamin D3 and K2, a gluten-free diet, increasing one’s glutathione levels, bone-soup fasting, and drinking undenatured whey protein. He is quick to say that some solutions may work for some kids, but not others. Parents will have to experiment to find what regimen works for their children. Increased exercise, art classes, homeopathy, hot water therapy, elimination diets, and probiotics also may help some people with diminished brain function.

I thought Gray’s assertions were unusual – he didn’t prescribe the bromidic “eat more fruits and veggies” panacea – but plausible. He had a severe concussion as a child and developed ADHD symptoms. At fifty he was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s. He researched and undertook natural solutions and completely eliminated his Parkinson’s and ADHD symptoms. His personal story was a compelling argument for the natural regimens he suggests.

Less anecdotally, Gray points to the Anthony Elementary School in Leavenworth Kansas that implemented a program called “Eat, Exercise and Excel” that included the students exercising more and taking “Potential,” a multivitamin high in antioxidants and L-taurine, which stabilizes levels of dopamine. “Anthony Elementary had been the lowest-performing public school in the Midwest, and within a year it had become one of the best.” It was number one in the district in math and English, saw a thirteenfold improvement in physical fitness, and a ninety-seven percent reduction in suspensions for violence, among other positive metrics.

I have vowed to start taking some of Gray’s suggested supplements (and exercising more) to restore my aging brain’s functions, if I can remember.

“But what did you think about the book?” my wife asked.

The Boy Crisis is thick with information and endnotes, more than 750 citations in all. But Warren’s writing is engaging. Moving from explanations, persuasions, stories, and bold-faced assertions, to asides, topics for family dinner discussions, and solutions to boys’ problems, he kept me glued to this 490-page, eye-opening book, a surprise of data, assertion and conclusion on each page. He writes with understanding, evenhandedness, and compassion. I was alarmed by the problems The Boy Crisis points out, heartened by the many solutions Farrell and Gray offer, and impressed by the cultural shifts that must transpire to bring boys back from this crisis.

It appears that The Boy Crisis is a culmination of much of Farrell’s previous work, bringing together issues that have consumed him all his activist life. He continues working for the creation of the White House Council on Boys and Men to bring attention to this national boy crisis. His proposal for the council never reached President Obama’s desk because it was turned down by Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s advisors (and manager of the White House Council on Women and Girls), who told Warren that the timing to present it to the President was not right.

Moreover, there are seven departments/offices/institutes/centers in the federal government dedicated to women and girls’ health. Although men’s health issues are more numerous than women’s, and contribute to men dying younger than women, there is not one federal department dedicated to male health, making the alarm this book raises even more critical. If you have a son who shows the symptoms Farrell and Gray speak of, please read The Boy Crisis.

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