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Father's Day 2011: Are men on verge of a manhood crisis?

On a variety of fronts, fatherhood, manhood, and even boyhood seem to be under strain or attack. On Father's Day 2011, maybe the guys could use an extra hug of appreciation.

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Although the TV shows mine men's insecurities for comic effect, cultural experts say the programs hint at a genuine need for a new understanding of manhood.

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"There is a great deal of confusion among many younger men about what it means to be a man," says Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist.

He says US society is falling short in inculcating a sense that men "have a distinctive role to play in their communities and their families." And "because we haven't held a high bar for our yong men, [often] they are not stepping up in ways that are helpful and productive."

The reality, Mr. Wilcox says, is that men as fathers can make a big positive difference in their families, helping children gain a sense of self-discipline and emotional health.

By some measures, fathers have become more engaged in family life over the past quarter-century. But, in a troubling contrast, more fathers than ever are absent from the home – and thus playing a smaller role in the lives of children.

Although the absent-father trend became visible sooner and more sharply among African-Americans, it is a wider issue, especially touching poor or moderate-income Americans.

President Obama has created a Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative to highlight the importance of fathers in the lives of children.

Wilcox and other experts say such efforts can be an important part of the solution. In fact, a failure to strengthen fathers' role in the culture could make men's challenges worse, since being raised largely by a single mom can be tougher on boys than on girls, Wilcox says.

But they call for other efforts as well. One is to shore up the institution of marriage.

Another is a focus on making sure men (whether young or middle-aged) have the skills needed in the job market.

Many factories are hiring, but "brain, not brawn, is required" to run the precision equipment, economist John Silvia writes in a recent analysis of the unemployment problem.

And most jobs today are in the service sector, where education is also vital to a good paycheck. Skill, and not mere wilingness to work, is a key driver of employment, says Mr. Silvia, who is chief economist at Wells Fargo.

He notes that as of April, Americans without a high school diploma had a jobless rate of 14.6 percent, versus 9.7 percent for high school graduates and 4.5 percent for college grads.

With an eye on those labor-market needs, some education experts call for school reforms that target the specific needs of boys, to better promote their early development and to keep more of them learning beyond high school.

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