I’m Mark Sherman, a retired professor of psychology, and I’ve been interested in gender issues for at least the last 35 years. At first, my interest was trying to understand women and their world, and my earliest writings on the subject clearly showed this. A colleague of mine (James Halpern) and I stumbled upon something very important to women (and to men, too, it turns out) when we studied “afterplay,” how people feel and what they do after sex. The result was a book, Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy. Then, with Adelaide Haas, a colleague in the communications department, I began to study what men talk about with men and what women talk about with women. It was the latter that truly intrigued me, since I knew what men talked about.
What we discovered was the fact that the male style and female style often led to problems when men and women talked to each other. We wrote about this is in several articles, including a piece in Psychology Today titled “Man to Man, Woman to Woman.” This piece, published in mid-1984, and discussed in Time magazine a couple months later, anticipated by some six years Deborah Tannen’s huge bestseller, You Just Don’t Understand.
It was while studying women’s conversations that I realized one of the main motivators for me was that I had never had the experience of watching a girl grow up — seeing her with her friends, and listening to what they talk about. And it is in the childhood years that many of us have the vast majority of our conversations with our same-sex peers. I had one sibling, a younger brother (who had no children), and I had three sons. As much as women are a mystery to most men, they were an even greater mystery to me. I felt like a cultural anthropologist studying a new culture, and I was fascinated.
But I also felt left out. By the early 1970s, young women were clearly on the ascent, and there was an excitement around their achievements. I wanted to be part of that. I would have loved to have had a daughter, to see her do the things few women had done in the past. But I knew in 1981, when our third son was born, that that was it for us. I adored my baby boy, and loved him as much as I did his brothers, but at the same time I was stuck in the situation so beautifully described by Zora Neale Hurston (who was talking about being a black person in the 1920s), “The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.” I was excited by the women’s movement, but, as a man, realized I could never truly be part of it; the closest I could come would be to have a daughter and encourage and coach her in “the game of getting.” This was not to be.
But then one evening in the winter of 1992-93 came a turnaround moment for me. I was watching a Charlie Rose panel discussion about the Clarence Thomas hearing, and one of the panelists was Robin Morgan, editor of Ms. Magazine. She offhandedly made a derogatory comment about men, and suddenly it hit me: She was talking about my children. Sure, she was talking about me, too, but I was 50. I could handle it. My sons ranged in age from 28 to 12. They were men, or men-to-be. Something was wrong here. This was no way to talk about anyone’s children.
And it was then that I began to see what was happening with boys and young men, and found when I looked at data – as Tom Mortenson had begun to do even before 1993 – that in spite of books like Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls and programs like “Take Our Daughters to Work” day, all the data showed clearly that it was boys and young men that were either stagnating in their achievements or actually declining. Girls and young women were on their way up.
Still, there were two competing preoccupations for me. On the one hand, I wanted everyone to know that the time had come to pay attention to what was happening to our boys and young men. But at the same time, I still wanted a girl in my family, someone who would finally make me part of the game of getting. My hopes turned toward my sons and their wives. I wanted a granddaughter.
Wouldn’t you know, I have been given three utterly beautiful and delightful grandsons. This makes at least 100 years of an all-male bloodline on my father’s side. It’s nothing I would have chosen, but it has made an interest, possibly an obsession, into a calling. Once you become aware of the fact that boys and young men are, in their generational cohort, not the powerful figures their fathers and grandfathers may be in theirs, you start to see girls and young women in the lead everywhere. You see photos of your local high school’s honor society and see that it’s mostly girls; you go onto virtually any college campus and see a clear majority is women; you read a news story which says that women are now earning more PhDs than men. A wonderful friend of mine, who died in 2011, was an ardent feminist, who used to count the number of women in groups, to justify her very legitimate concerns that women were underrepresented. I now find myself doing exactly the same thing, but I am counting males.
Slowly, but surely, this is becoming the game of getting, one shared by the parents and grandparents of boys and young men – as well as those with nephews and younger brothers. Interestingly, I have noticed that those who have written some of the best books and articles in support of boys have daughters, but no sons – people like William Pollack, Leonard Sax, Michael Gurian, Warren Farrell, and Richard Whitmire. Maybe they are concerned about the men their daughters will meet and possibly marry. I applaud their efforts. But the drive to get boys and young men back on track will, I believe, ultimately have to come primarily from those with sons and grandsons.
As Dottie Lamm, former first lady of Colorado, and a leading feminist in her state, put it in a piece she wrote for the Denver Post in April 2010, “What’s the next battle for an aging feminist: Boys. Granted the battle for women’s rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered…as an aging feminist, I’ll still fight to take chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I’m going to do my darndest to keep my grandsons from sinking into that academic mud floor.”
Thank you, Dottie Lamm. We need more like you!
As editor of this blog, I am going to be inviting guest bloggers to contribute their observations, views, and thoughts on this important issue. And there will be links to articles on how boys are doing and ways that they can be supported and encouraged. I chose the title “Attention must be paid” because the biggest problem concerning how boys and young men are doing in America today is that, for whatever reasons, their troubles — especially in school — have never gotten the attention they deserve. All over the country, there are parents and grandparents of boys who know something is wrong, but because it is not a widely publicized problem, they think it’s just their son or their grandson who is struggling. I hope this blog serves to let such loving family members know that they are not alone, and provides some ways that boys and young men can be helped and encouraged to reach their full potential as caring and achieving members of society.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, or even stories you would like to share please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.