Why Boys Are Struggling and What You Can Do to Help

In all the measures that matter, boys are struggling — and growing up to be men who also struggle. But that can change. Here’s how to help the boys in your life.

Here’s something surprising: in K-12 education right now, boys are struggling. Boys make up two-thirds of the bottom 10% of grade point averages and just one-third of the top 10%. There’s a 6% gap between girls and boys in on-time high school graduation. In the typical school district, girls are three-quarters of a grade level ahead of boys in English and dead even in math. In lower-income districts, girls are a full grade level ahead in English and one-third of a grade level ahead in math.

This data comes from Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do About It. Reeves did part of his research in Kalamazoo, where young men still struggle to pursue and achieve a college education, despite one of the most generous and flexible college scholarship programs in the state — possibly even the country.

Boys are more sensitive to instability in their environment, especially in the early years, says Reeves. He believes that a lack of academic performance can indicate poor overall well-being — and boys are struggling to find their place.

“Poverty, school quality, family instability…dramatically affects boys more than girls. And so that means there’s an intergenerational element to male disadvantage as well,” he says in an interview with the New York Times.

Why are boys struggling so much?

Calvin Mann sees similar challenges in metro Detroit and among the boys he supports through Encourage Me, I’m Young (EMIY), a metro Detroit nonprofit organization that works on developing boys and encouraging fathers to restore and strengthen the family structure. “More than any boy, Black youths across the board are 3.6 times more likely to be removed from education,” says Mann. “America does not take care of its males.”

The situation is also dire from a mental health perspective. Research shows that Black youths ages 5-12 are about two times more likely to die by suicide than white youths. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, adverse childhood experiences may be related to youth suicide.

When role models are absent, boys can’t easily recognize their place in the world

An advocate for a strong family structure for its centering effect on young boys, Mann says needing a present father is essential to guide boys and serve as a role model.

Young boys learn how to be strong, engaged fathers through generational knowledge passed down from their fathers. When that’s missing, a good mentor can help, but “it takes 12 mentors to equal one father,” Mann says.

“The one thing statistics show is fatherhood and play are healthy components to the cognitive mind of the child. So what’s missing in education is male teachers,” Mann says, adding that in countries outside the U.S., the rate of male teachers exceeds 60-70%. In 2021, 23% of public school teachers in the U.S. were men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Following the research of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, Mann recognizes the value of physical play for boys — even the type of roughhousing between fathers and sons that makes moms fear for the safety of the living room furniture. “He put a mic in a cage with a father rat and his children and you can hear them laughing as they play,” says Mann. “You can hear the rats laugh.”

Giving boys what they need to thrive

At EMIY, Mann supports the emotional development of boys through various programs that include literacy, physical exercise, meditative breathing and open discussions where the boys talk about the positives and negatives in their lives. And they support each other, face-to-face.

The work is designed to help boys learn how to be good people. “We stress to them about being honest. Sometimes being honest can be hard, but you still have to be honest because it’s better for you mentally and spiritually to be an honest person,” Mann says.

The outcomes of EMIY’s programs are overwhelmingly positive, says Mann. “In my 39 years, none of my boys have ever gone to jail. None of my boys have ever died by suicide. All of my boys are husbands and fathers,” he says.

Anger and aggression are not normal ‘boy behaviors’

Society’s perception about “boys just being boys” can change, and it may actually be shifting in younger generations, says licensed psychologist Dr. Tiffany Abrego, Ph.D., executive director of behavioral health with the Mentally Fit program at Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan. Mentally Fit is run by psychology and social work graduate students from Wayne State University with embedded behavioral health pillars into all programs, from sports to social justice at locations in Detroit, Highland Park and Eastpointe.

“Societally, we have this expectation, and actually acceptance, that boys are allowed to be angry. That’s an accepted emotion, but that other, more vulnerable feelings that could be under that anger, are not as accepted,” she says, adding that there’s still a stigma attached to boys and young men seeking mental health care. There’s also evidence that when boys of color express their emotions, they’re deemed “aggressive or dangerous, more so than white boys.”

However, in the boys she works with, Dr. Abrego has seen a positive shift in attitude toward therapy in a very short time. “We have so many boys asking for therapy, saying, ‘I really want a therapist. I really want to see someone,’” she says.

“I am so encouraged by seeing the boys here and how well they respond in therapy and building a relationship with a safe adult, which sometimes they don’t have in communities where there’s not a lot of positive role models in general,” says Dr. Abrego. “And we’ve added two males to our team, which is very exciting because I think that allows for that positive male role model.”

How to support the boys and young men in your family

Parents and caregivers can support their boys from an early age at home. Here’s what Mann recommends:

  • Have everyday conversations with your son. Encourage him to talk and listen to what he has to say. Show him you are listening. “Listen to your sons intently,” Mann says.
  • “Spend time with your sons without any gadgets. No TV, no radio, no phones.”
  • Task your son with cooking the family meal regularly. Mann says that boys as young as 10 should be able to prepare a meal for his parents and siblings. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
  • Recognize the value of building resilience. Don’t sweep in and solve their problems. Instead, allow your son to take the lead when they face difficult situations.
  • Be careful about allowing your son to make adult decisions when he’s still just a boy, says Mann, “because he will always choose ease.” 

For his work with Encourage Me, I’m Young, Calvin Mann received the Public Elevation Award, given to an influencer who uses their public platform to support mentoring opportunities for youths, from MENTOR, in January 2024. Learn more at emiyworld.com.

Learn more about Mentally Fit at Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan at bgcsm.org.

Content sponsored by The Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Visit flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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