Wed Sep 17, 8:02 PM ET

By Maggie Gallagher

What are we, the adult society, telling boys and girls about what it means to be a man or a woman?

Consider three vignettes, pulled almost at random: one a big news story, one a small local bit of news, the third a scholar's anecdote.

Story one: Madonna, at a press conference for her new children's book, wearing a green and pink floral "English lady" dress, preaching the gospel of good motherhood. Superimpose that image against the portrait of Madonna, scarcely more than a week ago, in dominatrix wear, initiating two teen idols into a sloppy Sapphic kiss.

Story two: Two young men (not from the ghetto -- one a deli worker, the other a carpenter) are arrested for statutory rape and sodomy. Police spotted them (by chance) leaving the Courtesy Hotel in suburban Hempstead, Long Island, with two crying, drunken 16-year-old girls. The sex, police said, was "consensual" -- whatever that means.

Story three (from an essay by Enola Aird in the just-released Russell Sage book, "Black Fathers in Contemporary American Society"): A young black man, on a ride home from the youth center, says out of the blue to the stunned adult next to him, "Women are better than men. At least women stay with their children."

What is wrong with these pictures? So many things, it is hard to know where to start. But a stunning, must-read YMCA report ("Hardwired to Connect," available at, authored by prominent neuroscientists, doctors and psychologists such as T. Berry Brazelton, Robert Coles, Alvin F. Poussaint, Stephen J. Suomi and Judith Wallerstein, is a good place to begin.

The larger message of this scientific report is that American society is failing children and teens. Despite increases in economic well-being and important reductions in crime and teen pregnancy, one out of every four teenagers is at "serious risk" of not achieving productive adulthood. Twenty percent of American youth have seriously thought about suicide in the past year. U.S. children, as a group, are reporting more anxiety than did children who were psychiatric patients in the 1950s. One out of three teens is sexually active. Almost half of teens have used an illegal drug. Immigrant teens are actually healthier than U.S.-born adolescents, and as children of immigrants live in the United States for longer periods, they "tend to be less healthy and to report increases in risk behaviors."

Weaker parenting, the absence of strong moral and spiritual connections, and the decline of marriage are prominent causes. But in addition, these hard scientists, psychologists, clinicians and social scientists point out, adults need to get serious about the question of gender:

"The need to attach social significance and meaning to gender appears to be a human universal," they conclude, and one that "deeply influences well-being." Yet adults still stuck in the '70s sex role battles have for the most part declined to take on the responsibility of helping our children develop a powerful pro-social meaning for masculinity and femininity.

The result was supposed to be a feminist paradise of androgyny. But because some sex differences are hard-wired, and because the need to figure out what it means to be a man or a woman (and not just a human being) appears similarly intractable, the result of our society's indifference to the deep meanings of sexuality is social chaos -- the kind of social chaos that can occur only when adults abandon adult responsibilities and leave children to create social meanings on their own, guided by Madonna and Madison Avenue: gang rituals, sodomizing young girls, vulgar sexual displays, deep feelings of abandonment by fathers, random acts of aggression and risk-taking. These are the paths too many of our young people are taking to achieve manhood and womanhood.

And as this "Hardwired to Connect" report reminds us, their failures are also our own.

(Readers may reach Maggie Gallagher at