Things We Do To Our Boys

There’s a video going around that is a trailer for a documentary about the horrific culture of “hyper-masculinity” and the terrible things this culture does to boys, men, and the larger culture. I have written before about the need for a workable definition of adulthood and this video is an excuse to revisit the topic.

Okay, reader, go watch the video and come back.

Now that you’ve seen the video, let’s talk about all the questions it begs. The thousand-pound gorilla of begged questions is very simple: “What does it mean to be an adult?” Its pound-lighter orangutan cousin is “How do we raise children into adults?” While the video is a trailer, it’s long enough to at least suggest whether or not the full film will consider these questions. They are critical, because its impossible to judge the way we raise male children into young men unless we know the desired end state. This is a non-trivial pair of questions that were doubtless old when Plato took them up in The Republic.

There are some hints that there is an implicit proposal for what male children should go through as they mature and develop (with intentional adult intervention or not). They should have emotionally intimate relationships with other male children. They shouldn’t be taught that violence is a good answer to life’s problems. They should be secure in their masculinity. They should be able to cry freely and without shame. Perhaps the only conflict they should have to endure is in the context of sport or play. Given they should be secure in their masculinity (whatever that means), I doubt those shooting the video would disagree too much with children being fully self-actualized at every age and free of the need for any serious soul searching.

I would suggest that while some of this may be laudable, it’s worth taking a look at some of the challenges faced by adults in this world. Adults are expected to face and overcome adversity of every kind. They are expected to face and work through inter-personal conflicts, be they defined in terms of competing interests or preferences. They are expected to take on challenges they haven’t faced before. They are expected to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and incomplete information. They will live in a world in which most are trustworthy but some are not and must adapt accordingly. If they are lucky, they never have to face down another human intent of depriving them of life, limb, or possession through the application of force. They will need to make career decisions that could change the course of their lives. Adults are faced with the reality that while crying may feel good, it usually doesn’t solve the problem. Let’s not forget the ability to delay gratification or make painful compromises for the common good or plan for the future. As a more politically-correct Vito Corleone might have put it, “Children can be careless, but not adults.”

To the extent that the statement “Be a man” reflects an instruction to act like an adult, then it is clear that it is an admonishment of growing applicability throughout the school-age years. An eighteenth or twenty-first birthday does not come with a gift of a magic elixir to transform boys into men, children into adults. Instead, our children must grow into their newfound place in society over time and this requires facing the kinds of challenges they will face as an adult as they become ready for those challenges. Pretending children should not have to face what adults do every day is to deny them the chance to mature into the adults we want and need them to become.

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