Raising Boys: A Man Needs a Mission

Today I’d like to chat with those out there who find themselves raising males under the age of six. It may seem a stretch, but this is about both technology and human consciousness, and I must warn you, there are a lot of sexual stereotypes to follow and it may seem fairly un-PC. I’m sorry about that, but I really can’t share these thoughts while also being politically correct by today’s standards, and it’s important we have this discussion, because what’s at stake is the health of our men.

I love men, very, very much. I always have, from my father and uncles, to my friends and colleagues, to my husband and own two sons, men have always been my complement, and life without them would be empty. Male and female. Yin and Yang, which can be thought of as complementary, not as opposites. As a woman, I’ve advocated for the Yin, for she deserves a fair, egalitarian world in which to live, but today I want to defend the Yang, for together, we become one. Apart, we are only struggling, and this struggle is creating a meaningless world for all of our sons and daughters.

When my eldest son was two, I decided to take him and his newborn brother to a playgroup event. At the time, all my other friends had girls, so I found myself in a nicely decorated living room that looked like a Pottery Barn catalog (me wondering how they managed to keep their children from cutting the leather couch or the adorable throw rugs with scissors, much less put all their toys away in the matching baskets on the shelves), surrounded by women wearing crisp, white shirts and Gap bootleg jeans (me pondering how brave they were to wear white, I still don’t own a single item in that color). As the other women shared stories about daily life with their female toddlers, it was obvious, even then, that my son WAS NOT like the girls in anyway. From the fact that these women could take a shower without fearing for the pets’ or furniture’s safety, to the way their little girls approached potty training, life in their homes was much different than mine.

I was an exhausted young mother whose days were spent trying to keep my son from either destroying the house, or maiming himself, as he climbed on every surface, filled the VCRs and CD players (this was the early 2000s) with coins, used said CDs as ice skates across the kitchen floor, took apart his toys and sometimes our small appliances, threw tantrums that almost blew the house down, and consumed bugs at the same rate as their little girls ate M&Ms. When I shared my stories with that first Mommy Group, the women looked at me with pity, each one advising that I needed to reign him in and all it would take was strong discipline. Show him what’s expected and he’ll behave. I sighed and looked down at the male newborn at my breast, terrified of what would happen when he learned to walk.

At that moment, a girl child came screaming out of the playroom, cursing my son’s name and accusing him of ruining the game. He’d done something horrible, I admit it, and the woman hosting politely asked me to leave, and then never invited me to her house again.

My little boy would be kicked out of three more playgroups before I finally found Amber, another mother of boys. She would be the angel who provided a space for my son to learn to play with others and soon after that, he was thriving. It was possible for him to spend hours in the company of another child without hitting or stealing toys, but it involved lots of movement, wrestling, chasing, and jumping from the top of the stairwell onto a fortress made from couch pillows.

Two years later, his younger brother running at his side, I was at the local park watching them roughhouse on the playground equipment. While the girl children ran on the bridges, my sons scaled them and walked across the tops. While the girl children slid down the slides, my sons shimmied up the legs of the slide, dangling sometimes five feet in the air, laughing and screaming as my heart raced inside of my chest. I would call them down, tell them to use the equipment the way it was meant to be used, blah, blah, blah. Essentially, I was trying to get them to behave.

As I yelled at my tiny, testosterone tornadoes to “get down from there” for the thousandth time, a second angel entered my life. This time, an older woman, out on a date with her grandchildren. She laughed at my sons and told me I was lucky.

“Lucky? I’m at my wits end,” I said in my typically exhausted voice. I’d recently begged my husband to get a vasectomy to prevent any more of these hellions from entering our household ever again.

“Boys are wonderful. Look at their eyes, so filled with mischief and delight,” she answered. Then she looked at me with a serious face. “May I give you some advice?”

I steeled myself, for I’d heard a lot of advice about the breaking in of boys and at that point all I’d managed to achieve was to yell a lot. The old woman smiled at me and said, “If you want an easy adolescence let these boys get their yayas out now. Let them climb and seek danger. Of course try to protect them from fatal situations, but what’s a broken arm, or two? Scratches, bruises, let them come. The only thing they must learn at this age is to respect other’s bodies. No hurting others. But let them challenge their own bodies. It’s necessary for a male. Trust me, I raised a few myself. If they don’t accept the challenge of their testosterone now, they will when they’re sixteen, and then the danger is much greater and much more permanent.”

I’ve heard the arguments from third wave feminists that biology has nothing to do with our behavior as men and women. As a twenty-something, I believed this — that men and women were essentially the same. Now, as a forty-five year old woman who is raising sons, and has taught PE to children grades 1–12 for a decade, I will tell you that’s bull. Yes, we must overcome our biology on many levels, from delay of gratification (whether hunger or sexual drive) to getting our ass out of bed to care for our children when we’re sick. It’s called mind over matter, and this is the power of being human.

However, as my sons are now teens, I have watched them, and many of their male friends grow from toddlers to men, and I will tell you this — testosterone is a biological process that drives a man to physically change from being so small you can hold him in your arms to a young man towering over you. This process is amazing and, yes, scary. Testosterone is a powerful force that has been abused for centuries. Yet it is real, and in our desire to make boys behave just like girls, we’ve denied the power of their masculinity. When we do this, that force doesn’t go away, it just evolves into something else — because evolve it will. A boy can’t remain a boy, he must become a man. And one of the key ways males do this is to face danger and overcome it.

A man needs a mission, and the mission begins with challenging the body to see just how far it can go. And if he isn’t allowed to do this, either by neglecting to provide or even preventing opportunities for challenge in their modern lives, or by shaming them to sit still, get down from there, and act like a civilized person, then there are two paths this energy can take — Aggression or Anxiety.

Aggression is what created the imbalance in the male/female relationship in the first place. Aggression is what leads to rape, bombs falling from the sky, crime, murder, and anger. Aggression is what fuels the Alt-Right and all similar movements. In a world where being a man is seen as dangerous to others, in a world where men’s roles are no longer well defined, aggression is an easy path for a young man to take. This is why radical groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, ISIS, or even drug cartels and gangs of any sort, are so appealing — they provide the danger the young man needs to come up against.

At this time when men are called upon to be our allies against the horrific acts caused by such groups, more aggression is the last thing we need. However, when a boy is told at a young age to “get down from there” or sheltered from danger by being kept close rather than allowed to roam, or protected from or shamed about his own “dangerous” impulses, he has not learned how to process this drive within him. Instead he’s been told all his life that his nature is bad, and when he finally reaches manhood, there are plenty of opportunities for him to connect to his latent desire for danger, and most of them feed aggression.

Fortunately, many young men today are aware that aggression isn’t right. They know that hurting others so that you can feel better isn’t taking life into your own hands, and that it certainly doesn’t make you a man. However, instead of releasing this impulse outward, many are turning it against themselves, and finding life, and their role as men in society, totally meaningless. In this situation, it’s anxiety, rather than aggression, that rules the boys’ hearts. And make no mistake, this is another way to face danger, but self-inflicted instead.

Anxiety can lead to self-sabotage. It manifests in drug use, depression, isolationism, a lack of goals, and can often include suicidal thoughts. According to the latest statistics, suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12–18. (2015 CDC WISQARS) More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. Suicide is up in both sexes, but males are 3x more likely that females to commit suicide and in 2015, 7 out of every 10 suicides were white males. Even more interesting, this pain doesn’t end with the teen years, as middle aged white men have the highest rate of suicide over all.

At the heart of this is the resignation that being human, or more specifically being a man, makes you evil, so why live at all? The world, and our families, would be better off without us.

It may be time that parents and society as a whole, take a step back and look at little boys not as people that we must civilize, but as beings that must learn to live meaningful lives in the bodies they’ve been given. For it will be our boys who will join with women to create a new world, one in which women don’t have to fear sexual assault and nations no longer are at war. One that respects the Earth and all its creatures. Men can do this, they can fall in love with the world and their lives — but to do so, they need a mission, and this does mean a certain amount of risk, but risk that can be managed if we are willing to look at their biology when they’re young, and the role it plays in the making of a man.

How does one do this? How about taking the wise old woman’s advice and let them challenge those bodies at each age and stage? That means letting him climb that tree, swing across that creek, eat those bugs, dig holes to China, shave his hair in a mohawk or dye it a strange color, ride a mountain bike or skateboard down a steep hill, ride a dirt bike, yes even a motorcycle or four-wheeler, run a chainsaw, shoot arrows, learn to use a gun safely, throw javelins, split wood with an axe, scuba dive, go river rafting in serious rapids, and even learn to drive a car and accept the responsibility that goes with it. I swear both of my boys grew inches, and became much more engaged in life, the moment they got their license. Is it scary that they drive around on the streets where death is literally a possibility every day? Absolutely, but every time they come home safely they are changed in a profound way because they’ve faced danger and survived it.

A note to the parents of those boys who don’t seem to need danger…don’t assume your boy is different, he just might have a different definition of danger. Danger is relative to the mind that perceives it and sometimes the challenges they need to face can seem less extreme but just as important, like sleeping alone in a tent in the backyard, eating bugs in front of you just to see you squirm, refusing to do that stupid kindergarten math worksheet, taking ballet class when everyone says a boy can’t, taking acting lessons or going to school wearing a snarky t-shirt. Trust me, as a PE teacher, rarely a recess went by where I didn’t find the quietest, gentlest, well-mannered boy high up in the tree where he wasn’t supposed to be. I will confess that once I judged he was safe, I often walked on by, pretending I didn’t seem him up there breaking the school rules with his “dangerous” behavior.

And this leads to the bigger issue — it isn’t just parents who are responsible for this. I know many parents who strive to create this for their sons, only to have the school system knock it all down. Our educators play a HUGE role in creating learning environments where danger is avoided at all costs, and not just physical danger. Grade inflation, participation awards, lack of recess and options for kids to take risks socially, have become the norm for us. We’re all afraid of letting our kids go beyond our control, but it’s toxic for both males and females.

It’s not easy to create spaces in the modern world where young boys are allowed to face danger and overcome it, I know, but in the end it’s worth it. And after many years, they do grow into young, observant men who can sit still, take notes, and stand beside women in the quest for equality.

But before that, they need to get their yayas out, because one way or another, they have to face the challenge of becoming a man.