They say that “boys will be boys,” but they say it with an eye roll. We don’t want boys to “be boys” when boyhood is associated with bad behavior, immaturity, messiness, and raucousness. Similarly, society’s message for what we really want for and from grown men is often unclear, and the connotation of that message often negative.

We’ve got to change this if we want to address the male crisis. Men are falling behind women — and men of previous generations — in education, work, and life. More men today are depressed, disabled, isolated, violent, and addicted than ever before. In culture and politics, America has been obsessing about the question “What is a woman?” But just as important, we need to be able to articulate the answer to the question “What is a man?” and, more specifically, to the questions “What is a good man?” and “How is it possible to become one?”

I’m interested in solutions to the male crisis because I’m a wife to a man and a mother to a boy. And I understand that men’s and women’s interests are tied. But otherwise I’m no expert on manliness or how to renew it.

So I sought the advice of two men while writing this article, and not just any men, but scholars on the issues facing men: Richard Reeves, author of the recent book Of Boys and Men, and Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Both Reeves and Wilcox emphasize that there’s not one solution to the male crisis. Reeves argues that the problems facing men (and the solutions) — in education, earnings, relationships, and mental health — are “interlocking.” Wilcox also prescribes various reforms.

The two scholars also agree with the thesis that we need, in addition to concrete policy reforms, a shift in the narrative. And it’s not enough to simply categorize masculinity as “toxic” or “healthy.” That’s not a helpful binary. Reeves puts it this way: “It feels to men like the Left is telling them to be more like their sister, and the Right is telling them to be more like their dad.”

For people with wonderful dads (like mine), the latter prescription doesn’t sound so bad. But if it is shorthand for an outdated stereotype of masculinity as emotionally detached or domineering, then yes, we should get away from that. The question is: How can we offer men a third way, a renewed vision of their unique role?

This begins with accepting that sex differences are inherent, not a pure social construct. We can’t simply change how we socialize boys and expect it to be a silver bullet. Instead, we need to channel boys’ natural inclinations and desires toward good, their individual good as well as the common good.

Men need a mission. “For the average guy, there’s no more important mission than being a husband and a father,” Wilcox observes. “So if we could increase the share of young men who are getting married and having kids, that would give plenty of ordinary guys that sense of mission and purpose that they are often lacking.”

One way we can do this, Wilcox says, is by telling a more truthful, positive story about the effect of marriage and family life on men. Conservatives have criticized Reeves for de-emphasizing marriage. He believes that the focus should be more on parenting and fatherhood (and that this would also yield good results for marriage and men). “My fear is that, on the right, the message sometimes feels like ‘Yes, dads matter, as long as they are married,’” Reeves says. And the message to unmarried men is “‘You’ve already failed.’. . . But equally, on the left, there’s this sense of ‘Do dads matter?’”

It seems the solution here will require people on the right to think creatively and inclusively about the millions of people who are not in married, two-parent households. Undoubtedly, it would be best if more men married (and stayed married to) the mother of their children. This is a long-term cultural change worth fighting for. But we can still work to encourage (or require) the many men who didn’t do that to take responsibility as dads, and praise those who do.

The solution will require people on the left to face the reality that mothers and fathers do matter. Mothers and fathers aren’t interchangeable; neither are women and men.

Recently there’s been a lot of focus on women’s spaces: women’s sports, sororities, prisons, shelters, bathrooms, locker rooms. We understand that women’s privacy and safety matter, and that when men invade women’s spaces, it’s a violation. But single-sex spaces are about more than privacy and safety. They are about bringing out certain behaviors — and a certain authenticity — in men and women, or boys and girls, that don’t manifest in coed groups or spaces. Single-sex schools, clubs, and organizations can cater to the strengths, needs, and characteristics of each sex.

Men-only spaces — including scouting and civic organizations, sports teams, church groups, fraternities, and clubs — are just as important for men as women-only spaces are for women. Historically, the exclusion of women from certain spaces went hand in hand with our exclusion from certain opportunities, in education or the workplace. Can we have men-only spaces without being unfair to women? We have to find a way, or we are failing men.

Reeves describes what he perceives as support for “almost sacred” women-only spaces and suspicion of men-only spaces and says that this asymmetry is no longer defensible. He calls the integration of the Boy Scouts “an interesting and unfortunate cultural moment” and emphasizes that single-sex sports and other after-school activities can be a good outlet for boys.

Men will continue to seek male-only or male-dominated spaces even as traditional options dwindle. This means that, today, many men or boys are drawn to online communities that are mostly male, such as video-gaming, the conspiracy-minded and sometimes bigoted forum 4chan, or Andrew Tate’s misogynistic TikTok channel. While many people think of Big Tech and social media as particular plagues for adolescent women (and they are), Wilcox highlights how the rise in the amount of time that young men spend video-gaming is contributing to their decline. The more time male teenagers or young adults spend video-gaming, the less time they spend on activities that help them develop into physically and mentally healthy men. As parents, we can work against this by limiting our kids’ time — and our own! — spent looking at screens and redirecting them and ourselves to healthier activities.

Ultimately, men aren’t finding real male bonds online. As women also know, social media are a poor replacement for real-life friendship. Everyone is lonelier today than in previous generations, but male friendship is especially in crisis. According to the Survey Center on American Life, the percentage of men with at least six close friends fell by half from 1990 to 2021, from 55 to 27 percent. The percentage of men with zero close friends increased from 3 to 15 percent, a fivefold increase. And among single men, as many as one in five report having zero friends. This lack of social connection represents an alarming change. Social isolation is associated with myriad ill effects on health and mental health and may also help to explain why men are more likely to commit violent crime and engage in other antisocial behaviors.

The solution to the loneliness epidemic is not easy. In the long run, we need better community institutions to foster social connectedness. But in the short run, we can all look after the men and boys in our lives and encourage them to do things such as . . . go bowling, but not alone.

Most “solutions” to the male crisis are cultural and parenting-oriented, not policy-oriented. There are, however, concrete policy changes that governmental institutions, especially schools, can make to improve the lot of men and boys.

Reeves recommends that boys start school one year later. This would give their brains more time to develop and could, as a result, improve academic outcomes for boys. In fact, many families with the means to do so are already having their boys delay kindergarten, hoping to give them an advantage in school. He also recommends we do more to recruit and retain male teachers, because of their positive effect on male students. Wilcox mentions encouraging teachers and administrators to plug in more time for recess and physical movement, to adopt more class content that appeals to boys, to do less group work, and to offer more projects that appeal to boys’ competitive instincts.

Reeves and Wilcox agree that schools can also do more when it comes to vocational training. Many students — including many boys — aren’t college-bound but could learn hard, marketable skills such as welding, carpentry, or electrical work while still in high school.

But the fruit of education reforms of any kind will be decades in the making. What can be done right now to help more men get back into the game when it comes to stable, productive work (which is associated with better mental health, financial stability, marriageability, and myriad other benefits)? Wilcox argues that our safety-net programs should be reformed. Recent years have seen an alarming rise in the number of men on disability benefits. While we should always work to ensure that those who cannot care for themselves aren’t abandoned to dire poverty, we should also guard the social safety net from abuse. This is for the sake not just of taxpayers but also of men (and women) who would benefit from working for a living. By implementing better tests for disability eligibility and better off-ramps from social programs back into gainful employment, we can help reverse the trend of lower labor-force participation among men.

The solution — or the overarching theme of the various solutions — to the male crisis lies in appreciating what makes men men and charting a clear pathway to modern manhood.

For the wonks and policy-makers, while there may be some deep Left–Right disagreements about sex and gender, it seems there are areas of common ground, such as the value of vocational education. For wives and parents like me, there are reasons for hope, not least of which is the attention that this issue is getting. People genuinely seem to care. While women and girls have historically been marginalized, there’s more recognition than ever that men and boys too can be victims of cultural, economic, and political changes.

The first step toward improving the lives of boys is accepting, even celebrating, what makes them boys. After all, this is just part of the diversity of humankind. Some children are louder, messier, and more risk-loving than others. Many of those happen to be boys.

So let boys be boys. And love them for it.


This article appears as “A Clear Pathway to Manhood” in the June 26, 2023, print edition of National Review.