What's Happening to Boys?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD
Family Physician, Psychologist
Friday, March 31, 2006 12:00 PM

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, was online Friday, March 31 at noon ET, to discuss his op-ed in Friday's Washington Post about young men still living at home with their parents, the subject of the movie "Failure to Launch," which opened as the No. 1 movie in the nation this month and substantially exceeded its pre-launch predictions.

Read Sax's Op-Ed: What's Happening to Boys? (Post, March 31)

Sax is a family physician and psychologist who has practiced in Montgomery County, Md., for 16 years. His second book, "Boys Adrift: what's really behind the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys," will be published next year by Basic Books. Sax's Web Site: http://www.whygendermatters.com/

The transcript follows.


Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Hi everybody.

Thanks for logging on.

If I don't get to your answer, or if you'd like to keep the conversation going, you may e-mail me at leonardsax@prodigy.net. You can get more information about my background, previous publications (scholarly and popular), as well as information about my first book "Why Gender Matters," at www.whygendermatters.com.


Fairfax, Va.: OH MY GOODNESS!!! It is good to know that we are not alone. We have two sons 27 and almost 30 who my husband still refers to as our "boys" - which I find a bit annoying when friends inquire about them. It seems that I am the only one who is somewhat embarrassed to tell friends that they are back at home. One came home from college and never left again and the other was renting a house with friends but came home when his job ended. They can't afford to rent of buy alone but seem perfectly satisfied to live with Mom and Dad, go to work, come home play the X-Box, and go out with friends. Is there no end in sight? And oh yes, we too have heard "but we have never been in trouble or caused you problems" and we thank God for that but when is our time?? Do other Moms feel as I do or am I selfish?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: To a Mom in Fairfax:

What a story. I certainly understand the economic realities of life in this area which make it difficult for young people to live on their own. My concern is that these 'boys' "seem perfectly satisfied to live with Mom and Dad . . . and go out with friends." The drive, the determination to set out on one's own path, is missing.

Please keep in touch with me (leonardsax@prodigy.net). I wonder if I could perhaps interview your sons at some point, in preparation for the book I'm writing on this topic? I'd be interested to get their point of view. And your husband's.



Silver Spring, Md.: From a 26-year-old at home:

Well, what IS the problem? If my parents are happy to have me, why shouldn't I stay with them? Why should I be in any hurry to have a career, wife, and children? Am I really obligated to have "direction" - and direction towards where? You say there's something wrong with young people like me, but I would say it's worse to imagine that following the prescribed path to career and family will magically transform your life into a constant state of bliss.

Today's hero is not the blazing, iconoclastic industrialist of Ayn Rand, but the slacking, chilled-out Dude of The Big Lebowski. Why is he wrong, while Taggart and Rearden are right? Until you can answer that, the idea that I merit some kind of concerned examination is ridiculous.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: What's the problem, you ask? The problem is that we may have two world-views in conflict living under the same roof. You believe that your parents are happy to have you -- but I wonder whether both of them truly are content with a son whose hero is "the slacking, chilled out Dude of The Big Lebowski" (your words). It's possible that your parents, like the parents in the movie "Failure to Launch", just can't find a way to say how disappointed they are that you are in no "hurry to have a career, wife, and children" (again, your words).


Fairfax Station, Va.: He's 23, turned down the college opportunity, finished vocational school in auto mechanics, works part-time as a sports coach, and lives at home and in the parent-paid apartment (back and forth). What should Mom and Dad do to facilitate the launch to adulthood?


Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I suggest a rigid timetable which you will stick to. Your son has a HIGHLY marketable skill -- he's trained as an auto mechanic. Tell him he has 30 days to find a job. At the end of the 30 days, you will no longer pay for that apartment. Period. No argument. No negotiations.

The more difficult question is: how to MOTIVATE your son. You can give him an ultimatum, and he may comply -- but that won't magically result in him really WANTING a better future for himself.

But the first step has to be to REQUIRE that he use the skills and talents which he has, rather than living in a state of arrested adolescence on the charity of Mom and Dad.


Bethesda, Md.:

Maybe video games made them stupid? Just joking - but as the mother of a 22 year old living in my basement after dropping out of college, this article hit home. My son does have a 40 hour a week (dead end) job, but I often wonder if his lack of direction is partly due to a societal influence of some kind. It is fascinating how my generation of women worked so hard for equity in education, sports, career, and now as a mother of boys I am worried as the boys get left farther and farther behind. But piles of boys did spend countless hours in my house trying to finish Madden Football video games, etc. Girls don't play video games. Connection?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: To rephrase the question: Could video games be at least partly responsible for the phenomenon of 'boys adrift'? I think the answer is YES. Video games create a compelling alternative world. Success, victory, conquest in that world may compensate -- in the psyche of the boy/man -- for a lack of achievement in the real world.

What's really bizarre, weird, and alarming, is that the mainstream consensus on this point is shifting in the WRONG direction. Steven Johnson wrote a book last year entitled "Everything Bad is Good for You" in which he insisted that video games make you smarter, and that parents should NOT restrict their sons' access to video games, even if the boy is playing 20 hours a week or more.

This perspective is demonstrably WRONG -- and yet major news outlets are giving this point of view full play with no responsible voice in opposition. See for example last week's TIME magazine, which provided Mr. Johnson with a full-page column to vent his point of view, with no opposing point of view documenting the PROVEN risks of video games.


Dallas, Tex.: Haven't I read that Japan is experiencing this same unmotivated young adult male situation?? Any parallels?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: There are SOME parallels with the situation in Japan.

Japanese writers have documented the phenomenon of 'hikkikomori' -- there are some variant spellings -- but these boys have 'given up' on the high-stress intense program that most Japanese boys are expected to pursue. Instead, they drop out of school, stay home in their room, where their mothers bring them breakfast in bed and try to fulfill the boy's every whim.

However, this phenomenon is much LESS in evidence in Japan than the "Failure to Launch" phenomenon is evident in our country. The hikkikomori boy is still a relatively unusual phenomenon in Japan, whereas in our country, roughly one in three young men are living at home, most of them having no definite plans to leave.


Reston, Va.: Hi- I'm a 26 year old female- and I've noticed a DRAMATIC difference between the way girls and boys are treated went they come back home after college- my girlfriends were expected to help around the house, in some cases paid rent, and were controlled by their parents (some with curfews). The boys get none of that. Their parents let them do what they want much more than girls.... Example: I currently have a roommate, 25, who is moving back in with his parents next week- after living on his own, for seven months. His standard of living is much higher with his parents than it would ever be on his own... and with no obvious downside- he's choosing to move back....

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Very good point. Even in the year 2006, when we are all supposedly enlightened people, parents still have very different rules for their daughters than with their sons. Many parents are stricter with their daughters -- which is ironic, since boys are more likely to get into trouble -- and many parents tend to have higher academic expectations for their daughters.

I agree with the main point you make: namely, that parents should hold their sons to the same standards that they expect from their daughters.


West Bloomfield, Mich.: To me, the solution seems obvious. When I graduated from college and moved back home, my parents said, "since you're not a full time student then you'll need to pay rent and chip in on groceries." After a few months I realized that if I'm going to pay my own way, I might as well get my own place. I did. So to me, the parents who aren't charging their kids rent and for groceries are encouraging the freeloading.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I'm glad you posted your comment, because I'm seeing comments from lots of young men who don't see any problem with freeloading off their parents. It's good to hear from a young man who kicked the habit and got out of the home.


La Grange Park, Ill.: Twenty Four year old college graduate has moved home after completing a degree with honors in physics -- no direction as to what to do with his degree. Where do I gently steer him for counseling as to what to do with this degree - obviously at his university of choice he did not enlist their assistance. LIke "Failure to Launch," he seems content to go to the gym, substitute teach and play video games! It is coming up on a year now -- help!

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I think you have the right -- and perhaps the obligation -- to require that your son pay rent, pay for a share of the groceries, do SERIOUS chores around the house (and not just when he feels like it). As a previous young man posted to this forum, when your son realizes that if he's going to have to pay rent, and pay for groceries, and do chores, then he might as well get his own place -- well then maybe he WILL get his own place.


Washington, D.C.: Why is the definition of adulthood wasting most of one's income on a rent or mortgage? Why is the definition adulthood isolating oneself away from the family? Other than American social norms, why choose lonely and poor over wealth with one's family?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: The definition of adulthood is not how you spend your money, rent vs. ownership, etc. The definition of adulthood, I believe, is being INDEPENDENT of your parents. You can live in a tent in a forest and not pay any rent at all. But if your room and board are subsidized by your parents, you are still a child, no matter what your age.

Sorry. But that's reality.

You may not place a high priority on independence. You may prefer being comfortable, well-fed and warm over being independent, uncomfortable, and hungry. That's your choice.

My concern is that we are seeing many more young men who seem to value being comfortable and well-fed over being independent and grown-up. Like you, these men don't see the problem. They attach very little value to economic or spiritual independence.

And that is a problem. We have a burgeoning population of young men who attach little value to finding their own way or fully severing the umbilical cord.


Northern Va.: Dear Dr. Sax:

I have a soon to be 21 year old son who completely falls into this category. To other people, it appears that we, as parents, have failed somehow. Nothing could be further from the truth.

School did not interest him. He was easily distracted but he can sit for hours a play video games. He has no direction and cannot figure out what he wants to do--at the expense of parents.

Another fallout of this situation is the strain that it places on a marriage. Parents argue that each other "enables" the son and is not firm enough on him.

We have been dealing with this overall situation for 15 years and it does not get an easier.

Thank you for listening.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I hope I did not give the impression that I am blaming the parents. I'm not (although the movie "Failure to Launch" does give the impression that Mom's coddling is at least partly responsible for the son staying at home). What fascinates me about this problem, as an observer, is that some of the parents who are themselves high achievers, who place a great value on personal effort and accomplishment, are the very parents who find themselves with a 27-year-old son living in the basement and playing video games four hours a day.

I would suggest that you and your spouse agree on certain principles:

1) your son must start paying rent, at market rates

2) your son must start paying for his groceries

3) your son must start paying for his own health insurance, car insurance, car payments etc.

Once you and your spouse agree on these points, they are NON-negotiable. In real life, we don't get to negotiate the price of groceries at the grocery store. Your son shouldn't have that option either.

When your child is little, it's appropriate for you to shield him from the real world. But now he's 21. It's time for him to learn what real life is really like.


Re: the slacking, chilled out Dude of The Big Lebowsk: The Big Lebowski DIDN'T LIVE WITH HIS PARENTS. So he can be a slacker on his own time and money.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Thank you.

Good point.


Mom & Dad's demographics?: Dr Sax, do you see any correllations between the parents' ages, economic status, etc? Does this affect the last son out of the house more than it does the older children? Is it more of a baby-boomlet effect, or is age of mom & dad irrelevant?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: What's really striking to me, as a practicing family physician, is that I do NOT see any clear correlation between parental demographics and the likelihood of the son 'failing to launch.' I've seen this phenomenon with affluent families and poor families, with White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic families, with families living in a mansion in Potomac and families living in a shack in Ijamsville. I've seen it with older parents and with younger parents. No group is exempt.

That's one reason I have begun to pay serious attention to the hypotheses regarding environmental toxins, in particular those toxins derived from plastics. We're all exposed to foods in plastic containers, regardless of our economic status. The possibility that these toxins may play a role in this phenomenon should at least be explored.


Fairfax, Va.: Could you attribute it to parents not wanting to experience "empty nest" syndrome?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: In the movie "Failure to Launch", it seems clear that the Mom (played by Kathy Bates) is afraid to see her son leave home, precisely because she fears being all alone in the home -- especially since her husband, played by ex-quarterback Terry Bradshaw, is getting weirder and weirder. It's a great scene and Kathy Bates plays it very well.

In real life, however, I haven't seen a single family that fits that picture. Most of these parents are genuinely ready to move on with the next phase of their life, with NO kids at home. They want their son to move on with his life as well -- but he doesn't see the problem.


Missoula, Mont.: Hey, Mr. Sax, being out of the nest isn't so great for everybody. My advice to young men: take as much time as you need. The real world is very rough. The people advising you to move out are the ones' who've made it. Others may not see it the same way.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I agree that the real world is very rough. My question for you is: what's the best way to help young people to face that reality? If your child is ten or 15 years old, then by all means, shelter him or her from that harsh reality. But what if your child is 21, or 26, or 29? How long is a parent expected to shelter a child who is not mentally or physically handicapped?

My own belief, based in part on my 20 years of medical practice, is that if parents continue to shelter their adult child after the age of 21 years, the parents may make it LESS likely that the adult child will EVER be willing and able to meet the challenges of the real world.


Arlington, Va.: PLASTICS!

They're just lazy. C'mon. I'm married with kids, and yeah, once in a while I'd like someone else to cook for me and keep a roof over my head, but I grew up. Life isn't about the easiest road to immediate gratification, sometimes it involves really hard things like getting up at 5 a.m. for work, or not going out to eat so you can pay the bills, or cleaning up after a sick kid. These guys simply have parents who coddle them, else they'd have to grow up and be financially responsible. Let's not call this a disease or a condition, they're lazy and immature.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I certainly understand your reluctance to blame this phenomenon, even in part, on some environmental factor such as toxicities from phthalate and bisphenol A (derived from plastics). And I agree that we have a great tendency right now, as a culture, to absolve people of individual responsibility and instead blame some third party.

But here's the problem. We're seeing many more young men today who are unmotivated. In just the past 20 or 30 years, the proportion of young men living at home without the desire to make their own way in life has increased very substantially. Why is that? I don't think human nature can have changed in a fundamental way in just 20 years. Maybe it's partly the influence of video games, or changes in education or the workforce. But I think the possibility of environmental toxins must at least be investigated.


Columbia, Md.: I want to follow up on something touched on earlier: the role of women in this. Increasingly young women are focused on their careers. So they're less likely to be looking for a relationship. Hence the propensity of "hookups" and decrease in "boyfriends". And when they do look to marry they're not interested in a provider. Not that this is a bad thing.

However a young male has to ask himself why drive for a career when it won't benefit (in fact due to travel and long hours may harm) their relationships with women? Or to put it a better way is it better burn out or drop out?

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: I think you've got the arrow of causality pointing in the wrong direction. You're right that young people today are more likely to be involved in transient hook-ups rather than ongoing relationships. But I don't think that's the cause of the "Failure to Launch" phenomenon. Instead, I know of many, many young women who are reluctant to enter into a serious relationship with a young man precisely BECAUSE the young man has no career, no real prospects, no real ambition.

Young women have sexual needs too. So, a young woman may engage in a hook-up because she is hungry for some sexual gratification. But she does not pursue a relationship with that man -- or she breaks it off shortly after it starts -- because that man is not the man she wants as the father of her children.


WhatisanAdult: Doc,

I fall into that mold. I tend bar for a living. I live at home. I have fun. I pick up more pretty girls than I can count, so what is my motivation to have a family, career, etc? What if my happiness is defined differently from yours?

I've dated more than one attractive, highly paid professional woman and stolen her away from her boring corporate boyfriend that makes multiples of my income. They tell me they are sick of nonexciting life. The burbs, Playing the role of the little home maker.

We have FUN together. We talk about music, art, cool stuff. They don't seem to miss their "successful" exs much at all.

I am not hurting anyone, so why do I need the suit, the tie, kids, stroller, the BMW, just because I am 30. Seems sort of shallow to live that way.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Response to Casanova:

I'm glad that you are enjoying life.

You wrote that you are picking up "more pretty girls than I can count, so what is my motivation to have a family, career, etc.?"

What is, or should be, the motivation for having a family or a career? The motivation to have a family and a meaningful career is not (and should not be) grounded in the desire to pick up pretty girls. It should be grounded, rather, in the desire to be of use, to serve others, to give your life some meaning beyond the pleasure of the moment. If those objectives have no real meaning to you, then nothing I or anyone else says will have much impact. If FUN (capitalized, as you capitalized it) is the be-all and end-all, then by that standard you're doing extremely well.

I think at some point that you may find that having FUN is not satisfying, and that a meaningful life requires more than picking up pretty girls. At that point, you may see the point of having a career and a family.

Or you may not.

But I wonder what your parents would have to say about this?


New England: Dr. Sax,

Here's my problem with your ideas. At 21 years old, a man growing up today is often still a child. I know that I was. In some sense I still don't feel like an adult, and I'm in my 30s, married, with a family.

I was lucky enough to have an interest in a career, and then its easy enough to find a job and the money starts flowing in.

But I think that most kids in their mid to early 20s who still live with their parents and seem to slack off haven't found any calling in life, and the parents need to help them (provided the parents aren't going to kick them out of the house).

If kids are malcontent with their societal choices, it's probably eating them up inside and they need help.

I grew up with the notion that girls mature earlier than boys do. And from looking around me, it seems that boys and girls seem to feel some sense of being adults in their mid and later 20s, with girls leading. Whatever is going on in society is pushing the age of adulthood higher and higher.

As a child, I thought by 20-23 I'd be AN ADULT, but now it's 10 years later than that and I'm barely there.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Good point. In social matters, girls do mature earlier than boys. Many men in their early 20's actually sound a lot like girls who are about 15 years old. They just want to have fun, party, maybe get drunk, and go to wherever the fun party is.

And some of those young men who seem so adolescent at age 22 will indeed grow out of it.

But some of them won't. What's really troubling is that so many young men who fit this picture -- including some who have posted to this forum (not all of whom could be acknowledged, as we have had more than 300 posts) -- are actually 27, 29, 31 years of age. And they still sound like they're 15 years old.


Finksburg, Md.: Back in the dark ages when I was in grade school in the '50's we had patrol boys. They wore cool belts and got to walk with the school kids and make sure they stayed on sidewalks, obeyed the crossing guard etc. ( one boy even saved a kid's life by grabbing him out of the way of a car. He made the news) . Then someone suggested that they let girls join too. Someone, I don't know who, I wish I did remember- said it might not be a good idea because whenever girls join a previously all boys group, the boys no longer want to join. But they admitted girls anyway and sure enough, the boys participation dropped off. I think we see a similar thing today. There are more women than men in college today. I am wondering if, since women sort of left the home and hearth, and went out into the work force in the last 30 or so years, -Since they became patrol kids- maybe, some of the men have stopped participating.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Interesting, provocative, controversial point. I'm not comfortable with your idea that the broader horizons opened to girls over the past 30 years have narrowed the horizons available to boys and young men. But I thought I should post your question, so others can think about it.


Beallsville, Md.: No questions. Just a big public thank you for taking such good care of my son (and daughter) all these years. -Lynn Miller

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Thanks Lynn. You are doing a wonderful job with Charlie and Sally. I always look forward to seeing them.


Leonard Sax, MD, PhD: Thanks to all for posting your comments and questions.

I'm sorry I could get to only a fraction of the 340+ postings. If I didn't get to yours, or if you'd like to continue the conversation, please send me a message at leonardsax@prodigy.net.

Leonard Sax MD PhD

19710 Fisher Avenue, Suite J

Poolesville, Maryland 20837


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