Why male role models matter

rolemodelsLast June, Boston Public Schools announced its list of high school valedictorians for 2016. Of the 37 top achievers, only 11 were male. Those numbers don’t surprise Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., who has been studying gender for more than 15 years.

“If you look at the proportion of graduates from American four-year universities, 58 percent are women and 42 percent are men. In Canada, it’s 61 to 39. College-educated women under 35 outnumber men 3 to 2,” he says.

Sax is quick to applaud the achievements of young women, but he is deeply worried about the state of young men. As he writes in Boys Adrift (Basic Books, 2016), five factors are fueling an epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men in America:

  • Videogames
  • Teaching methods
  • Prescription drugs for ADHD
  • Environmental toxins
  • The devaluation of masculinity

That last factor relates not as much to evolving gender roles as to the lack of positive male role models on the local and societal levels. In popular culture, for example, Sax notes father figures have devolved from Ward Cleaver to Homer Simpson.

Sax argues positive male role models are essential because emotional maturation, unlike puberty, doesn’t happen automatically.

“Every enduring culture has rules, has a notion of what it means to be a good man,” he says. “Boys are not born knowing those rules. They have to be taught.”

While Sax is quick to acknowledge women can teach boys plenty (and men can teach girls a lot), he says gender roles are best modeled and taught by someone of the same gender. Citing the work of anthropologist David Gilmore, he says, “Cultures that endure have strong bonds across generations for boys to learn from a community of men and for girls to learn from a community of women.”

In Boys Adrift, for example, he describes a carefully planned program called Boys to Men that provides mentoring and camping opportunities for teens. But he also cites the example of J.R. Moehringer, who found his community of men at a local bar long before he was old enough to drink. (In his memoir of that time, The Tender Bar, Moehringer writes, “To be a man, a boy must see a man.”)

While mentors don’t have to be far removed from their own teenage years, Sax says sometimes older is better. He describes a conversation with a teacher who had invited a retired electrician to help with his robotics club. The boys arranged themselves in a circle around the man and listened intently as he explained how to deal with high-voltage lines and described the time a friend had been electrocuted.

“The boys were just entranced,” Sax says. “The teacher said to me, ‘I saw a tribe being formed.’”

Sax has seen similar results when his patients complete Philmont treks with their troops. “That’s the kind of thing we need more of,” he says. “I’ve seen a few boys go through that, and it changes them.”

For more information on Sax’s work, visit leonardsax.com


  1. Thank you Dr Sax. I have had this opinion for many years and could not agree more. This also supports the idea of keeping the program as it is Boy Scouts. I’ve heard rumors about making the program co-ed which will ruin it. The day we open the entire program up to girls, is the day I hang up my uniform.

    • @Cate You should hang up your uniform now. Making all of Boy Scouts co-ed like most of the rest of the world, including the UK Scout Association would be a great idea.

    • I respectfully disagree. There are many different organizations in this nation, such as the girl scouts, that run a similar program for girls. Just because one group of people do not include another doesn’t mean that there is not a similar program. If a girl wanted to get involved in scouting they can join the aforementioned girl scouts, or even a local venture crew. It is also different hearing how you should act and actually acting that way. This is why males need some kind of male role model. It it like the ideals of scouting. Scouting is a good program, and it’s oath and law are main points of this. All scouts want to follow this law, but without the support of an older scout or adult who also demonstrates the oath and law in his daily life(or at least in front of the scout), it is harder for the scout to know exactly what to do. I firmly believe that what scouting is teaching is something you never forget.

  2. Right on! Too bad BSA is blown about of every wind of doctrine. Just today (1/30/17) our wonderful organization decided to let transgender individuals become members. Males need male role models. Moms are wonderful and we could never have a truly successful troop without our moms. That said, males must lead, demonstrate, and act like males. A female can not and should not take the place of male leadership.

  3. A scout once asked me if I thought they should let women be scoutmasters. I told him that if there were no trained men to be scoutmaster that a trained female leader could do the job.

    Do I think there is a place for all male youth groups, absolutely. I agree that the dynamic of a campout changes when a female is along. Good or bad, that’s debateable.

  4. Highly recommend that Scouting Magazine rerun this article in light of the current discussion at National about letting girls be boy scouts.

    Before scouters take away this program from the boys and young men, remember that this is the last and only boy’s only program. They have nothing else to call their own.

    Boys and young men need male role models and to be with other boys.
    Just my opinion.

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