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Boys and Girls Are Just Different
Richard Reeves' "Of Boys and Men," Part I
Note to readers: This is the first in a series of posts discussing Richard Reeves’ book Of Boys and Men. Throughout this series I’ll be unpacking Reeves' arguments, offering some commentary on them, and looking at his ideas from a theological perspective.
When my wife and I welcomed our first child, a son, we didn't really know what to expect. We were eager to know which of us he would resemble, whether he would enjoy sports or books or music, and what kind of personality he would show. For the first two years of Charlie’s life, we cherished getting to know him. But looking back, I think our knowledge of the kind of person Charlie is deepened significantly when his sister was born. Ruthie and Charlie have illuminated parts of each other, not just in terms of contrasting personalities and tendencies, but also because of distinctly gendered things they say and do. Boys and girls, it turns out, really are different.
Our insight into Charlie and the way he and his sister think and feel differently has been highlighted by working with children at our church. After several years of serving consistently with the young kids, I can confidently report that boys and girls are different. They respond differently to the structure of the Gospel Project lesson. They have different behavioral tendencies. They communicate differently. So much so, in fact, that I’ve observed what we generally consider to be “good behavior” during kid’s ministry comes much more naturally to the girls than the boys. There are exceptions, of course. But the contrast is consistent.
The subtext of the first few chapters of Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It is the impossibility of admitting to this contrast in public, elite spaces. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, not a conservative gender traditionalist. But he’s also a father of boys, and this perspective has made the decreasing prospects of Western boys and men all the more urgent to him. Why are boys’ prospects decreasing? Though he doesn’t say it directly, Reeves strongly implies that one reason is that it is culturally verboten to admit any intrinsic differences between men and women. At the same time, Western education, economics, and family relationships have transformed over the last 60 years to reward and prioritize the kind of things that come much more naturally to females than males.
The beginning chapters of Of Boys and Men are quite data heavy, and I don’t want to merely reproduce all of Reeves’ findings. But the key takeaways are unmissable. The “educational gap” between boys and girls has completely closed from its male-favorable years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and has widened once again, except in reverse: women are more likely to go to college, finish college, and build on a college degree than men. This gap doesn’t just appear at university. It starts as early as age 5 where girls in America are “14 percentage points more likely to be ‘school ready’” than boys, and continues all throughout school, where there is an 11% gap in reading proficiency between eighth-grade girls and boys.
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The way Reeves frames this inequality is helpful. It’s not so much that boys are discriminated against in education, but that the prevailing models of education assume female cognitive development instead of male. At one point in the chapter, Reeves drops the stunning statistic that 23% of boys are “categorized as having a ‘developmental disability.’” It stands to reason that if a quarter of American males are believed to have some kind of defect, there may be a systemic bias in the way we define normal.
Reeves goes on to discuss what makes the male and female brains different, and it’s a familiar discussion. As Reeves writes,
But by far the biggest difference is not in how female and male brains develop, but when. The key point is that the relationship between chronological age and developmental age is very different for girls and boys. From a neuroscientific perspective, the education system is tilted in favor of girls.
You and I have heard this before. You may have even grown up, as I did, hearing that “Girls mature more quickly than boys.” This is offered to explain classroom dynamics that any first grade or Sunday School teacher can observe. It’s also a reason why many young women tend to want to date (and are encouraged to date) older men. You don’t have to be an astute observer of the human race to notice that the gap in social and emotional maturity between an 18 and a 25-year-old man is often more significant than the gap between an 18- and 25-year-old woman. This isn’t to simplistically suggest that women finish maturing as teens or adolescent boys are incapable of mature thinking. But this observation is just so readily apparent throughout society that we must conclude there is a reason for it, and ask: Do our institutions, our relationships, and our expectations take these reasons into account? Can we admit what we see? If not, why not?
Reeves pivots from education to the workforce. Here is where Reeves’ interests and mine diverge a little bit. He is very interested in discussing income inequality and the decline of male earning in the broader context of the economy. This discussion is necessary and Reeves presents some startling data. But I’m more interested in the psychological and spiritual effects of the decline of the male worker. It’s one thing to note the economic effects of male unemployment or stagnant/declining wages. It’s another thing to consider that the whole-person effect of vocational and economic marginalization may be more consequential for men than for women.
Interestingly, though the data he presents certainly raises this possibility, Reeves steadfastly avoids saying it. He acknowledges that men in the West have, in the span of only a few decades, gone from being the foremost providers of society to second-tier. He insightfully discusses this as downstream from the decline of marriage and the unbundling of husband and father roles. But Reeves accepts as a matter of course that women are now the primary breadwinners, that this is an intrinsic good (or at least not bad), and that the task for men now is to reconceive their identities to accommodate the new economic reality. Given that women are now no longer primarily concerned with raising children in a household that reaps provision from a man’s labor, the question of family roles—and by extension, roles in the larger culture—is up for grabs.
The traditional family was an effective social institution because it made both men and women necessary. But it also rested on a sharp division of labor. While mothers had a direct, primary caring relationship with their children, fathers had an indirect, secondary, providing one… The point on which both sides agree is that marriage bound women to men, but also men to women, and thereby to children. Where they differ is on whether this was a good thing… The question is what we do now and, especially, what we do with the men. Certainly, the answer is not to try to roll back the gains of the women’s movement…
But what if it some of those gains were precisely the instrument through which men have been left behind? Some feminists would probably argue that such an effect is just, and that men being socially marginalized is simply an overdue pendulum swing from centuries of women on the margins. There are clues, however, even in Of Boys and Men, that the newer systems are leaving not just men unhappy, but women too.
There is compelling evidence that women want more kids than they are having. Of all the factors driving American fertility down, the decline of marriage is almost certainly the most important. The decline of marriage is, in turn, partially a symptom of the new economic and social compact around men and women. Women do not need marriage for stability as they once did, and on the other end, men are less “marriageable” in their prime reproductive years than they were fifty years ago. When women do find a mate and start a family, they may prefer part time work. The emerging Western reality, which women serve as load bearing economic walls, often at the expense of child bearing and time at home, is not a simplistic story of women getting what they want and men not.
Moreover, Reeves’ perspective on “traditional marriage” and family life is pretty much only economic. The phrase “Sexual Revolution” does not appear in his analysis, but it should. The birth control pill, the rise of cohabitation, no-fault divorce, and hookup culture are all participants in the new economic regime. And here is where the asymmetry between men and women matters quite a bit. As I wrote several years ago:
The sexual revolution has a well-known masculine bias. Though feminists have won real battles, the outcome of the war has never been in doubt. Unmooring sexuality from the home, from marriage, and from religion has benefitted nobody more than lecherous, grasping men.
The two most consequential gains of the sexual revolution in my lifetime have been birth control and pornography, both of which have radically shaped the public square in the image of male desire. Both oral contraceptives and abortion have been cast as victories for female liberation, and to the degree that “liberation” means the weaponizing of our bodies against nature, this is true. But it is the men who have reaped the richest rewards (sex without children), without any of the tradeoff. Men, after all, need not concern themselves with the physiological effects of the pill, or with the surgeon’s knife, or with the risks of darkness and depression. It is the liberated women, not the men, who are asked to sacrifice their bodies for equality.
It’s the Sexual Revolution that has taught us to value women not for who they are innately, but for who they can become with the right technological interventions. Reeves is concerned about “dislocated Dads,” rightly so, but in the economy of the sexual revolution, women are dislocated too. Despite economic superiority and the destruction of virtually all stigmas, women are still subjected to a brutal sexual marketplace where in some spaces it is more feasible and defensible to sell your body to OnlyFans than to give your body to a husband and children. Women and men are both lonely, more likely to intimately encounter the other in pornography than in covenant, but it’s the women who are the main and worst losers in a world where sex is a game. “Women’s liberation” is turning out to be not that liberating.
What if there is something in a man that truly needs to exert himself for the sake of his wife and children? What if the new economic order of breadwinning women is not juxtaposed against dislocated men, but is actually creating them? This isn’t a silly nostalgia for a Mad Men age. No generation has a trademark on virtue. Biblically, men can be providers and caretakers, responsible not just for food but for a home’s nurture and admonition in the Lord. But this has to start somewhere, and it’s hard to imagine it starting at all unless the physical natures (and desires!) of men and women are taken seriously, even when they seem to push back against our ideological darlings.
If boys and girls are different, it could well be that boys and girls need different things. It is impossible to even imagine saying such a thing out loud in an elite space. But men and women aren’t suffering in elite spaces. They are suffering in anonymity and on the margins, and it’s precisely there where the necessity of men being men and women being women is most felt.