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Why male role models matter

Last 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:

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