Past generations would have found it hard to believe the challenges boys face today — socially, academically and vocationally. The moderate think-tank "Third Way" recently revealed a new and difficult gender gap — one where girls and young women outperform boys and young men in four critical areas: education and skills acquisition, employment rates, job levels and real wage earnings. This study followed others showing boys faltering academically — in math and reading, grade point average, repeating grades, being expelled and dropping out. Of course, a large minority of males continue to reach the highest levels of achievement in education and paid employment. But a male gender lag shows up in every socioeconomic level, spiraling downward for those without a college degree.

The big question is, of course, "What is going on?"

Some evidence suggests that the gap between boys and girls is a reflection of differences in attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, and the ability to sit still and work independently — skills that girls develop earlier. Others argue that education has become "feminized," with an expressive, feelings-centered, collaboration-oriented approach that has "moved further and further from boys' characteristic sensibilities."

Clearly, changes in the economy have had a role. Decreased demand for blue-collar production skills with increased demand for technological, managerial, and problem-solving skills, decreased labor union involvement, and globalized labor markets have each been identified as factors. But none can explain the dramatic downturn in the trajectory for men, most evident among non-college males.

As the Third Wave report identified, the strongest predictor may be the most intuitive of all — the prevalence of female-headed households and the diminished role of fathers. Boys need to see role models of how to develop and what to become, especially in their fathers. But fewer and fewer boys grow up seeing that. While many girls grow up with a model and expectation of becoming both the primary earner and caregiver, boys grow up without any coherent cultural understanding of what it means to be a man.

We are now two generations into an experiment with shattered fatherhood, where manhood, procreation and parenthood have been broken apart. In David Blankenhorn's poignant words, off to one side we have "an emaciated fellow" we call the biological father, "filling out forms and agreeing to mail in child-support payments." Off to the other side we find the guy identified as the social father, "wondering what to do next and whether he wants to do it."

At the same time, men who have attempted to live out the traditional requirements of manhood have done so in the midst of "a rising crescendo of criticism." Kay Hymowitz argues that where past generations had to "demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of skills," to prove "competence as protectors and providers," today's husbands and fathers "are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles — fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity — are obsolete, even a little embarrassing."

In the midst of this confusion, religious belief and participation has emerged as a critical guide for fathers. For decades, conservative religious fathers have been characterized as strict, emotionally distant, close-minded, uncompassionate and unbending. But as W. Brad Wilcox reveals in his research comparing conservative Protestant, mainline, and religiously unaffiliated fathers, active religiously conservative fathers actually look more like the ideal dad. These are fathers who set the most rules but give the most hugs and praise to their children; fathers who discipline the most but also spend more one-on-one time with their children; fathers who do the least housework but spend more time socializing with their wives and whose wives report higher levels of satisfaction with the appreciation, affection and understanding they receive from their husbands; and these fathers have created the safest homes for women and children in terms of domestic violence.

At a time when a coherent understanding of manhood and fatherhood has disappeared, active religiously conservative fathers have emerged as the neo-traditional ideal. And although often overlooked, it is religion that has had a significant role in enabling the vital contributions that men make to family life to be understood and experienced.

Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.