An Interview With Dr. Warren Farrell
As a father with a 6-year-old boy, I was conflicted while reading the newly-released book The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, co-written (with Men Are from Mars… author John Gray) by Dr. Warren Farrell, Ph.D, who’s written several books about men and cultural expectations of masculinity.
On the one hand, I’m very concerned about boys and how they’re getting the wrong messages, and why so many of them grow up to be shitheads who think shooting up schools will solve their problems. Like a lot of modern dads, I take the weight of my son’s mental and emotional health on my shoulders. Any time he’s even vaguely unhappy, my first thought is, “Oh fuck, I’m like Don Draper. My inability to fix his emotional needs is going to turn him into a psychotic, misogynistic, self-loathing mess!” (There’s plenty in The Boy Crisis to fuel those fears, including lines like: “The more your son sees the hopelessness of his dad’s life, and fears that could be him someday, the deeper his emotional abyss—the deeper his purpose void.” Jesus fucking Christ. I can’t finish that sentence without wanting to pour myself a bourbon, listen to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” and have a good, long cry.)
But as much as I can relate to The Boy Crisis—and there’s much here that rings true, from how old-school masculine archetypes are damaging to how fatherhood can be as simple as remembering to roughhouse with your kid—there’s also just enough to make me a little uncomfortable. Probably because it’s the kind of book that’s already been embraced by the far right to justify the argument that the problem with all the school shootings isn’t guns but the lack of fathers.
“Liberals are now fanatically pushing for fatherless families,” one conservative site recently warned. As someone living in a very, very liberal community, nothing about that is even remotely true. I happen to know several lesbian parents who don’t think my son would be better off if I was out of the picture. But where’s the right balance between “Let’s discuss how fathers, although no more or less essential than mothers, can have a positive influence on a child’s life” and “Maybe the problem is that your kid is a spoiled shithead who’s just upset that the world doesn’t revolve around him”? Both ideas can exist simultaneously. We can (and do) live in a world where dads are important, but also fuck your (and my) sense of self-importance.
I called Dr. Farrell and asked him about the things that don’t have black-and-white answers, which is what makes parenting so frustrating and terrifying and fascinating.
PLAYBOY: Dad deprivation doesn’t feel like a new phenomenon. Haven’t dads been ignoring their kids for most of human history?
DR. WARREN FARRELL: Well, it depends on which time frame you’re looking at. In the 1800s, after a divorce, the children were primarily given to their dads. Nannies were oftentimes the everyday interaction, but the father was in charge. During the 20th century, we increasingly moved away from that idea, and children were given to their moms.
So it’s the moms who kept dads away?
There are a number of things that happened. The feminist movement did a huge amount of good in terms of expanding options for women. But it came with some damage to fathers. When I was on the board of NOW (the National Organization for Women) in New York City in the ’70s, they were getting a lot of pressure from women going through a divorce who wanted to be in total control of deciding what was best for their children. And that meant taking away equal rights from their fathers. They put a lot of pressure on legislators to make divorce settlements more one-sided, which was kind of ironic because it was an “I want to have my cake and eat it too” mentality. They wanted to have traditional sex roles questioned, while also reinforcing the traditional roles, where moms raised children and men made money.
We’re equal, except when kids are concerned, and then mom knows best?
Exactly. But another dimension of it was defining the economics of fatherhood. It became about their dime being more important than their time. The evidence now is, a father’s time is much more important than his dime. If a child has to choose between not having money from dad and not having time with dad, he suffers far more from a lack of time with dad. The ideal is to have a father who is not caught up in the father catch-22, where he works so hard for the love of his family that he has to always be away from the love of his family.
A “Cat’s in the Cradle” paradox.
When the dad really wants to get together soon with his son, but he prioritizes his work and the son grows up, and then the lyrics get really sad and everybody cries.
It’s not a happy situation.
Just thinking about that song makes me want to quit my job.
I don’t think you need to go that far. What we were able to determine is that when fathers work full time, that’s fine. But they need to make their children a priority the rest of the time. With activities like roughhousing, and teasing, and hanging out. Even if it only happens on the weekends, it needs to be consistent.
Teasing? Boys need more teasing?
Like a dad who shouts at them, “I’m not a poopy head, you’re a poopy head?”
All of that. That’s one of the key contributions that dad can make.
I must be an amazing father.
Fathers can cash in on that bond. It says to their sons, “Dad is always on my side.” It’s like when you play soccer with him, and it’s obvious you could dominate the game, just kick the ball into his goal every time, but you don’t. There’s an unspoken agreement where he knows, “If I do it the right way, he’ll let me beat him.” A dad should be like a rollercoaster. It’s exciting, but it’s a safe ride.
I have a son, and I’m terrified for him, and of him.
How do you mean?
I don’t want him to be murdered by some crazy person with a gun, but I also don’t want him to grow up to become a crazy person with a gun. All the crazy people with guns, or at least the majority of them, are men. If you’re the father of a boy, how do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
Do you know what the single most common denominators among all the school shooters is?
They’re all white men.
They’re arrogant and self-absorbed?
They’re almost completely fatherless. Pretty much every lone school shooter after Columbine has been a fatherless boy. We saw this with Nikolas Cruz, we saw it with Dylann Roof, we saw it with Elliot Rodger, we saw it with Dylan Klebold and Evan Ramsey. These are all boys who had minimal or no father involvement. And it’s not just about school shooters. Three female sociologists studied ISIS recruits who were in prison, and without even asking about fatherlessness, it came up again and again. This is true of Nazi recruits too, and gang recruits. When you think of gangs, many of our inner-city boys come from mother-only families, and by the time they reach 10 or 12, they haven’t had a single constructive male role model. I think the biggest message of The Boy Crisis is: Your time as a dad is worth something. It’s what your kids need. Nobody is going to grow up and say, “I’m sure glad my dad made a lot of money instead of actually spending any time with me.”
I agree with everything you’re saying. But then I think about somebody like Barack Obama. He had an absent father, and he did alright. Better than alright. And on top of all his achievements, he seems to be a pretty amazing father. How did he not get screwed up by dad deprivation when so many other boys do?
Well, in Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, he wrote that his mother would constantly tell him stories about his father, how wonderful he was, what great work he was doing and what a wonderful orator he was. It’s important to have a father, but if you don’t have a father, the image you have of who your father is just as important.
So you want to avoid a “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” situation?
“Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him/ Momma I’m depending on you to tell me the truth…”
Yes, right. When you interview children of divorce, five years after their parents split, children are five and a half times as likely to say that the mother bad-mouths the father rather than the father bad-mouths the mother. That’s the one thing as a parent, no matter how acrimonious a split is, that you don’t want to do. Children should not detect any body language or overt language that makes them think that their father or mother is a negative force.
Of all the school shooters, the one that stays with me the most, as a father, is Elliot Rodger.
It was the way he talked about getting revenge on the women who rejected him as if his personal desire was the only thing that mattered. That bloated sense of entitlement makes me crazy, especially with a son who has a sense of entitlement, even if it’s just about candy and TV at this point. It makes me want to remind him every day, “You don’t get everything you want in the world just because you want it.”
That’s not a bad message. It’s what a father should be teaching his son. A father loves a child unconditionally but he doesn’t give his approval unconditionally. But that lesson is missing when a father is minimally involved. That was the case with Elliot. His parents were divorced and he didn’t see very much of his father. It ends up being very anger-creating. It’s not so much a feeling of entitlement as much as it is a deep-seated anger at constantly being rejected and not knowing why.
Other than just being present for them, how do we make sure our sons get that message? That balance of “You’re important, your life matters” and “Stop fucking whining. It’s okay if you’re not the center of everything. You were born with privilege.”
I would challenge that thinking. The single biggest mistake of the feminist movement was the assumption of male privilege, saying that we live in a patriarchal world in which men make the rules to benefit men at the expense of women.
That’s not true?
It’s not true at all. It’s not a world dominated by a patriarchy. It’s a world dominated by the need to survive. And with that need to survive, both our fathers and our mothers had obligations and responsibilities, not privileges and rights. Our mothers had to risk their lives bearing children, raising children. Our fathers had to risk their lives in war, and they gave up the glint in their eye to do something that was not fulfilling as an occupation because the fulfilling jobs pay less. The more fulfilling the job, the less it pays.
I can attest to that.
[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Laughs.] We’re both writers, we know how that is. The belief that men had privilege is absurd. It missed the facts that our dads and grandfathers gave up the idea of privilege. The privilege would have been to become an artist, a writer, a full-time thinker, to be whatever you wanted to be. Privilege is doing whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. But every man learned the exact opposite of male privilege, they learned male obligation. “I am male, I serve.” To give yourself over to privilege, it was the opposite of masculinity.
That sacrifice doesn’t sound especially healthy either.
It isn’t really. Because the way we have served, historically speaking, is by being disposable. By being disposable in war, you were called a hero. A lot of what I discuss in the book is how boys learn the social bribe of being disposable. Cheerleaders cheer for the football player to be disposable, to risk it all for the team and get a concussion to the greater good.
You also mention volunteer firefighters.
They’re a perfect example. They get no money for risking their lives, they just get social bribes. They’re seen as masculine because they put themselves at harm’s way for strangers. And almost 100 percent of volunteer firefighters are male. We need to change that analysis of what constitutes male privilege. We didn’t and we don’t have male privilege—we have male pressure. Men give up the glint in his eye to do the things he thinks he’s expected to do.
How do we protect our sons from that? Do we tell them, “Do whatever you want with your life? You want to be an astronaut? Be a fucking astronaut! Be a novelist-astronaut-rock-drummer who lives in a van.” Is protecting their mental health just about keeping that glint alive in their eyes?
It’s a combination of two things. Good parenting is helping your son and your daughter have the skills to become a human doing as opposed to a human being. And what I mean by that is, somebody less ruled by their desire to work and to appear useful to others than somebody ruled by their feelings. We need to help them discover who they are uniquely and what motivates them and what their desires are.
Which may or may not be something we’re comfortable with as parents.
Sure. But we need to create a family dynamic where there’s constant dialogue with them, where you can say, “Here’s what we see in you and here’s what might be an opportunity for you. But what do you see in yourself? And what would it take to get there?”
My son wants to be a scientist.
Specifically a mad scientist.
He wants to create toxic goop that destroys civilization. Now obviously, my wife and I are trying to encourage him to fake-invent something more constructive. We say things to him like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you found a cure for cancer?” Are we overstepping?
No, no. That’s exactly the balancing act you need to be doing.
But he doesn’t listen to us. He’s like, “You’re all doomed! I will be the architect of your destruction.”
I think you’re doing the right thing, encouraging different directions, but also recognizing that he’s learning to build and that alone is a good thing. I think the key is that you keep talking to him and asking questions. “What is it about humanity that you want to destroy? What is it about humanity that’s so bad?”
Oh, he’s been pretty clear about that.
What does he say?
It’s bedtime mostly. His bedtime is egregious. And he doesn’t get to watch nearly as much TV as he’d like.
Well, that’s a good thing.
But he’s the one with the laboratory in our garage. As I mentioned, he’s going to destroy humanity. Our future is about as dystopian as it gets.
It’s great just that you let him articulate that. Engage him about what he’s feeling, and don’t stop asking questions. Maybe there’s a way that you’ll help him change his mind.
It’s looking bleak, man. In our house, the Doomsday Clock is like one second away from midnight.
But this is a great opportunity to connect with him. Keep him talking and explaining himself. What are some different ways of changing the world so that maybe everything doesn’t need to be destroyed? That’s what needs to happen with our boys. We need to channel that anger, not deny it. Where is it coming from? What’s a better way of expressing it? We need to do more listening and less talking.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Playboy.com.][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]