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January 2014 - Volume 20, Number 1


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Boy Trouble: Family Breakdown Disproportionately

Harms Young Males

by Kay Hymowitz, City Journal


When I started following research on child well-being the focus was almost always girls’ problems. Now, though, boys and men are increasingly the ones under examination. Their high school grades and college attendance rates have remained stalled for decades. Among poor and working-class boys, the chances of climbing out of the low-end labor market are looking worse and worse.


“The greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” MIT’s Michael Greenstone told the New York Times. Instead, the rational sex is shrugging off school and resigning themselves to a life of shelf stocking. Why would that be?


Another MIT economist, David Autor, and coauthor Melanie Wasserman, proposed an answer. The reason for boys’ dismal school performance, they argued, was the growing number of fatherless homes. Boys and young men weren’t behaving rationally, the theory suggested, because their family background left them without the necessary attitudes and skills to adapt to changing social and economic conditions. The claim that family breakdown has had an especially harsh impact on boys, and therefore men, has considerable psychological and biological research behind it. Anyone interested in the plight of poor and working-class men — and, more broadly, mobility and the American dream — should keep it front and center in public debate.


Signs that the nuclear-family meltdown has been particularly toxic to boys are not new. By the 1970s researchers following the children of divorce noticed that boys showed distress by externalizing or acting out: they became more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.” Boys’ behavior had the disadvantage of annoying and even frightening classmates, teachers, and neighbors. Boys were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested.


Since then, externalizing by boys has been a persistent finding about the children of single-parent families. In one longitudinal study of children of teen mothers (almost all of them unmarried), sociologist Frank Furstenberg found more substance abuse, criminal activity, and prison time. By the 1990s, as divorce rates eased and the ages of never-married mothers raised, researchers were able to exclude the trauma of a parental crack-up and teen motherhood as primary causes of the disadvantage. Boys in fatherless homes were still getting into more trouble compared with their sisters and male peers with married parents. Autor and Wasserman cite a large University of Chicago study showing that, by fifth grade, fatherless boys were more disruptive than peers from two-parent families, and by eighth grade, had a substantially greater likelihood of getting suspended. “The gender gap [between boys and girls] in externalizing behavior in fifth grade and suspension in grade eight . . . is smallest in intact families,” the authors summarized their findings. “All other family structures appear detrimental to boys [my italics].”


Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. Provide more maternity leave, quality day care, and health care, goes the thinking, and a lot of the disadvantages of single-parent homes would vanish. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social-welfare systems. A 2006 Finnish study of 2,700 boys, for instance, concluded that living in a non-intact family at age eight predicted a variety of criminal offenses.


Several studies have concluded that boys raised in single-parent homes are less likely to go to college than boys with similar achievement levels in married-couple families. An American Sociological Review paper found boys with absent fathers were less likely to complete a college degree than girls from the same background, even when high school performance was equal. Another study, by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, titled “Where the Boys Aren’t,” discovered a similar difference in college among single parents’ daughters and sons.


The United States’ high rates of “lone motherhood,” help explain the widely lamented malaise of the American dream. When economists assess the probability that a child born to parents in the lowest income quintile will move up to a higher quintile as an adult, America gets very poor marks compared with other Western countries.


Yet, if you look at boys separately from girls, as Finnish economists at the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor did, the story changes. In every country studied, girls are more likely than boys to climb up the income ladder, but in the United States, the disadvantage for sons is substantially greater. Almost 75 percent of American daughters escape the lowest quintile — not unlike girls in the comparison countries. Fewer than 60 percent of American sons experience similar success.


So why do boys in single-mother families have a harder time of it? If you were to ask the person on the street, he would probably give some variation of the role-model theory: boys need fathers because that’s who teaches them how to be men. The theory makes intuitive sense. Children take early cues about everything from their same-sex parent. As the sole explanation for the boy disadvantage, though, the role-model theory needs modification. If boys simply needed men to teach them the ways of the world, then uncles, family friends, mentors, teachers, stepfathers, and nonresidential but involved fathers could do the trick. It’s not clear that this is the case. Male teachers don’t seem to make a difference for boys’ academic success. And stepfathers have an especially mixed record in helping boys. Fathers living apart from their sons, even when they see them regularly, have a similarly ambiguous impact. A relationship with a non-residential father can improve a boy’s chances in life but only under certain circumstances. The father not only needs to be warm and supportive of his son; he also has to have a good relationship with the boy’s mother.


These findings can help us refine the role-model theory. Girls and boys have a better chance at thriving when their own father lives with them and their mother throughout their childhood — and for boys, this is especially the case. The implications for family life are profound. Yes, plenty of single mothers provide — or try to provide — the stability that boys need. A highly publicized recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project comparing social mobility by region found that areas with high proportions of single-parent families have less mobility — including for kids whose parents are married. The reverse also held: areas with a high proportion of married-couple families improve the lot of all children. In fact, a community’s dominant family structure was the strongest predictor of mobility — bigger than race or education levels. This research suggests that having plenty of married fathers around creates cultural capital that helps every member of the Little League team.


If the trends of the past 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep on growing. By understanding the way family instability affects boys, we might improve at least some lives. A number of countries have launched school reforms “to foster a more structured environment” for underperforming boys. Give boys plenty of recess and gym time. Over the past decades schools have reduced — and, in some cases, completely expunged — recess or banned dodgeball, tug-of-war, tag, and other rough-and-tumble games. Yet it’s precisely through such activities that boys can learn to manage their energies and aggression. They may need schools to give them opportunities for such rowdy but controlled play.


Equally important is to find ways to improve boys’ literacy. Boys have always had greater difficulty learning to read than girls. In an age when decent-paying unskilled jobs were plentiful, lack of literacy wasn’t such a problem. Nowadays, a boy’s literacy problems can ruin his life chances. Teachers should assign boy-friendly action narratives and science fiction with heroes, bad guys, rescues, and shoot-ups. A few studies have suggested that boys are responsive to phonics training.


The truth is, we don’t know for sure what will help. It just may be that boys growing up where fathers — and men more generally — appear superfluous confront an existential problem: Where do I fit in? Who needs me, anyway?


Boys see that men have become extras in the lives of many families and communities, and it can’t help but depress their aspirations. Solving that problem will take something much bigger than a good literacy program.


Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. This article was adapted from City Journal, Autumn 2013, and reprinted with permission.



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