The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto’s response to my recent article, “Boy Trouble,” stirred up a kerfuffle, to use an apt term. It also exposed the excesses of an argument to which I am somewhat sympathetic: that men are, as the psychologist Helen Smith has nicely put it, “on strike.”
“Boy Trouble” looked at decades of research on the different outcomes of the sons and daughters of single mothers. In general, I found, sons were having more problems in school and engaging in more “externalizing”—psychology-speak for aggressive and/or criminal behavior—than their sisters and, more notably, than their male peers who were growing up with married parents. I speculated about what was holding boys of single mothers back and ventured a few ideas about addressing the problem.
Taranto and his vocal followers were not interested in any of this. They got to the third paragraph of my 3,000-word piece, and—from what I can gather—stopped reading. The deal-breaking phrase: “Among poor and working-class boys, the chances of climbing out of the low-end labor market—and of becoming reliable husbands and fathers—are looking worse and worse.” Taranto’s objection was that boys and men who were not “becoming reliable husbands and fathers” were not behaving irrationally, as I had implied, but were following their self interest in biological if not in economic terms. As he put it:
Well, why should men [want to become reliable husbands and fathers]? Except perhaps in very conservative communities, men with sufficient social skills can find sex and companionship without need of a matrimonial commitment (and for those who lack social skills, a willingness to marry is unlikely to provide much compensation). The culture’s unrelenting message—repeated in Hymowitz’s article—is that women are doing fine on their own. If a woman doesn’t need a man, there’s little reason for him to devote his life to her service. Further, in the age of no-fault divorce, “reliable husbands and fathers” not infrequently find themselves impoverished by child support and restricted by court order from spending time with their children.
In light of the research I examined, this makes no sense. Boys growing up with single mothers started looking different from the boys of married parents very early on. By age five and six, they were already more aggressive and emotionally troubled than their peers. The problems they had as they entered school persisted over time. You could argue that the there’s nothing to see here, since this is just an example of how schools come down too hard on the normal energies of boys. But even if, as I would agree, the schools are thus guilty, why would they be more likely to hassle boys who don’t have a father at home than ones who do? The answer is because, in the aggregate, the boys of single mothers really are different. Contra Taranto, this suggests just one way that women are not “doing fine on their own.”
The early appearance of the parenting gap raises questions about Taranto’s argument. If children of single mothers are having more trouble when they are far too young to have made rational calculations about child support and custody decisions, then something other than postfeminist self-interest explains boy trouble in the schools, and by extension the labor market. The men dropping out of school and consigning themselves to shelf stocking were doing poorly in the classroom long before they actually stopped showing up at the schoolhouse metal detector. Kids who aren’t reading by third grade are at four times the risk of not making it to graduation ceremonies. But it would be absurd to argue that a second-grader has “chosen” not to read because he’s figured out that marriage is for chumps.
Missing from Taranto’s theory are other facts that don’t fit the narrative of clear-eyed male refuseniks: according to surveys, the large majority of boys and men—including those who grew up with single mothers—continue to want to marry. Thus far, they are actually doing so, though they are marrying considerably later than in the past, just as women are. Taranto also neglects the millions of mostly low-income young single men who are cohabiting with long-term partners. A substantial portion of those men have children with their girlfriends; this is not the behavior of people who don’t aspire to family life. Don’t assume that they’re trying to avoid “a matrimonial commitment” because they don’t want to pay child support in the likely event of a split: these days, judges don’t let fathers off the hook because of a missing marriage certificate, and men know it.
“Men traditionally sought to ‘better themselves’ not because working in an office or on an assembly line was itself a source of delight, but because being a workingman enabled them to earn respect and made possible the joys of domestic life,” Taranto writes. I’ve made a similar point repeatedly (though perhaps in less enthusiastic terms about domestic life.) Feminism, particularly as it has led to widespread acceptance of single motherhood, poses a profound existential problem for men, who feel consigned to the status of “optional” in family life.
Yet tragic as the implicit displacement may be, nothing in the data suggests that it can explain the large numbers of low-income men who are failing in school and either remaining low-threshold earners or leaving the workforce entirely. For that, we need to think about their early development—the subject of “Boy Trouble.”