December 16 2013

Divorce: More Traumatic for Boys than Girls

Charlotte Hays

The Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz has a must-read piece headlined “Boy Trouble” up at City Journal.

Inkwell readers probably know that, when it comes to measures of the wellbeing of children, girls are doing much better than boys now. We also know that growing up in fatherless households is particularly bad for boys (though of course it's no picnic for girls either). Hymowitz takes note of a recent study by MIT economist, David Autor, and coauthor Melanie Wasserman, on boys without fathers:

The reason for boys’ dismal school performance, [Autor and Wasserman] 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 paper generated a brief buzz but then vanished. That’s too bad, for 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.

But Hymowitz goes on to consider an idea that I must confess is new to me: that the meltdown of the nuclear family, which has occurred over the last half century, is more toxic to boys than girls. Divorce is bad for all children, but girls apparently recover better than boys. While girls internalize their suffering, boys are inclined to “externalize” their pain by doing socially unacceptable things:

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. In one well-known longitudinal study of children of teen mothers (almost all of them unmarried), University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg, a dean of family research, found “alarmingly high levels of pathology among the males.”

They had more substance abuse, criminal activity, and prison time than the few boys in the study who had grown up in married-couple families. As adults, “the females in the sample were doing much better than the males on every indicator except early parenthood,” Furstenberg noted. “These gender differences overwhelmed all other factors in accounting for the level of overall success in the next generation.”

Upward mobility for boys brought up without fathers is so rare that Hymowitz says that “lone motherhood” helps “explain the widely lamented malaise of the American dream.” Even if lone mothers struggle and provide predictability and stability, which children need, single-parent households tend to be in impoverished neighborhoods where the threat of violence and possibility of exposure to gangs are higher.

Acknowledging that there is no reason to believe that the meltdown of the nuclear family will be halted, Hymowitz explores ways to teach boys better in school and to improve their literacy.

But I also think we need to be more judgmental about people who have children and don’t bother to set up a family for them. While many lone mothers are struggling heroically, their children—especially, it now appears, their sons—suffer from the family arrangement.

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