December 16, 2013

KAY HYMOWITZ: Boy Trouble: Family breakdown disproportionately harms young males—and they’re falling further behind.

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.

In fact, signs that the nuclear-family meltdown of the past half-century has been particularly toxic to boys’ well-being are not new. By the 1970s and eighties, family researchers following the children of the divorce revolution noticed that, while both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. Girls tended to “internalize” their unhappiness: they became depressed and anxious, and many cut themselves, or got into drugs or alcohol. Boys, on the other hand, “externalized” or “acted out”: they became more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.” Both reactions were worrisome, but boys’ behavior had the disadvantage of annoying and even frightening classmates, teachers, and neighbors. Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. Girls’ unhappiness also seemed to ease within a year or two after their parents’ divorce; boys’ didn’t.

Since then, externalizing by boys has been a persistent finding in the literature about the children of single-parent families. . . .

By the 1990s, as divorce rates eased and the ranks of never-married mothers expanded to include more women in their twenties, researchers were able to exclude the trauma of a parental crack-up and teen motherhood as primary causes of the son/single-mom disadvantage. Even controlling for mothers’ age and parents’ marital history, 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 study by University of Chicago sociologists Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan, 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].”

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