This fifth installment of “In Praise of Men” is about encouraging boys to become the good, strong men we’ve talked about needing.
I’ve hesitated to write this for two reasons.
First, there’s simply so much happening so fast in the world — so much degradation of freedom, common sense, and economic sanity — that I feel pulled to write about that even though focusing on current events can be such a diversion of energies.
Second, who am I to write about raising boys? I’ve never done it. I’m at risk of sounding like the “expert” in Mark Twain’s hilarious short story “How I Once Edited an Agricultural Paper.” Sample:
Concerning the Pumpkin. — This berry is a favorite with the natives of the interior of New England, who prefer it to the gooseberry for the making of fruit cake, and who likewise give it the preference over the raspberry for feeding cows, as being more filling and fully as satisfying. The pumpkin is the only esculent of the orange family that will thrive in the North …
Then I realized I do know a bit: First, we all deserve to be raised to be the best version of the person we were born to be; second, ahead of us lies a time for freedomista resistance and Outlawry (something I’m experienced in). I also know, as a woman who’s lived a long time, what I most respect and value in men and their roles in civilization.
My personal belief is that boys are best raised in fairly traditional ways — self-reliant, with lots of hands-on-learning, boys-only time, independence, and an emphasis on channeling male energies into the classic manly virtues. Oh, and at least being given a good shot at becoming outdoorsy. Nature, even when it’s too damn hot, cold, dirty, dry, wet, and filled with things that will kill you or at least make you really itch, is good for the soul. And for perspective. And skill building.
But I’d also like to see boys learn more modern things — like that women are fellow human beings, not stereotypes; to respect differences; to recognize and resist propaganda; not to fear or reject feelings, even as it still remains a man’s job to rise above feelings when clear heads and bold acts are called for.
I say all this, however, in the context of honoring who each boy is an an individual. I don’t envy the parents, grandparents, or guardians who have to help any boy find his unique best self — or even find a clear path in that direction. Above all, boys can’t be made “more manly” on demand or by edict (even though the Chinese government seems to think they can).
Too many fathers have used violence, ridicule, shaming, or other types of pressure to compel sons to develop in their own image (an image that the father himself very likely can’t live up to). Too many mothers have coddled sons into weakness, dependency, and guilty resentment. Too many “educators” have sent the message to boys that there’s something inherently wrong with them. Too many parents have been so baffled or upset by having an “atypical” boy — an arty type, an extreme introvert, a bookish or science-minded kid — that they’ve ended up twisting and alienating their own child by trying to make him “normal.”
Good parents: You have my admiration and my sympathies. Even in peaceable times your job is tough.
And now we approach times that are going to require special strengths from all of us — most especially boys and men.
In his newest book, Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher (a voice for Christian separatism and resistance) writes about heroes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union who stood against Communist tyranny. The lessons of those times and that book are instructive, even for we who don’t share Dreher’s religion.
He writes (among others) about the Benda family of what was then Czechoslovakia. The Bendas, even with the paterfamilias in prison for years, raised a multi-generation family of resisters. Even as small children the Benda sons and daughters served as couriers and learned opsec. They grew into a cohesive bunch, and passed their activism and their mutual respect on to a new generation.
Many things held them together including their faith. But one of those cohering elements was reading, and not just individual reading. Their mother read to them as a group, sometimes several hours a day. And this reading included tales of adventure, derring-do, and overcoming terrible odds. The most influential book, the adult children later agreed (and a story that was read to them repeatedly over the years), was The Lord of the Rings.
Why did it fascinate them so, aside from the fact that it’s a grand tale? “We knew Sauron was real,” one of the grown boys told Dreher. Sauron ruled over their country.
And they knew that even the smallest and most obscure of hobbits could prevail against him, in part by their very smallness and invisibility. (And of course by the nobility and resourcefulness of friends like Aragorn — a good, strong man if ever there was one.) The story didn’t merely fascinate them; it taught them how to conduct themselves in the ominous times they lived in.
If I could name 10 hopes I’d like to convey to 21st-century boys I believe they would be:
1. “Resist evil.” No matter how dark times become, never surrender to tyranny. Even if you’re forced to comply, don’t allow evil to own space in your head. Keep your own thoughts. This requires strength and courage. Start young.
2. “Persist.” Failure isn’t a judgment on your character. Nor is it a sign that “you can’t win.” It’s just a chance to re-evaluate, learn, do better, and become better.
3. “Learn history.” Times change. Specifics change. Human nature and the patterns of civilization, not so much. Know how events unfolded in the past and you’ll be better able to understand and cope with what’s happening around you. That knowledge might enable you to be a leader. Or make money. Or simply keep your wits when others around you are losing theirs. But it will benefit you.
4. “Understand that the world will fall on your shoulders.” No matter how much people natter on about equality (or, these days, “equity”), when push comes to shove, most hard, dirty, dangerous jobs fall to men. That may not be fair. But it’s the way nature equipped us and the way thousands of years of conditioning have reinforced natural selection. You can reject or embrace that responsibility, but don’t waste your time and energies kicking against it and resenting it. (The Babylon Bee knows. H/T C^2)
5. “Question authority.” This classic recommendation from the 1960s doesn’t just mean to challenge people or institutions that are trying to control you. It means thinking for yourself. That’s particularly necessary in an era of groupthink, when everyone around you may be following some leader or uncritically citing some “experts.” Governments, institutions, and authoritarian individuals want you to conform and obey without question. To do this, they’ll use lies, distortions, emotional appeals, name-calling, slogans, and memes to replace real thinking. Learn the classic techniques of propaganda. Learn about mob or crowd psychology. Recognize mass hysteria when it’s swirling all around you.
6. “Read.” Reading will help you understand history, recognize propaganda, and draw inspiration from strong men, both historic and fictional. But it’s also a joy in its own right. Reading sparks your imagination, helps you build skills, strengthens your brain, occupies your alone-time, and it can be just plain fun.
7. “Learn to survive — and enjoy doing it.” Get outdoors and challenge yourself to overcome basic problems of life and death. You’ll learn to be flexible, creative, and self-reliant. You’ll learn do-it-yourself skills. You’ll learn you’re more capable than you might have thought. You’ll learn to think outside the box. You’ll learn that while you may need guides and examples, you don’t need distant “experts” to make your decisions for you.
8. “Don’t panic.” In your life there will be times when your first response to a bad situation might be to think, “I can’t do it” or “Nothing can help now” or “We’re doomed” or something similar. Take a deep breath and get past that thought — and on to problem solving. Maybe the situation really is hopeless, but likely it’s not. The real point is that, by thinking productively, you at least have a chance to solve a problem. By allowing helplessness to overtake you, you have no chance.
9. “Don’t hold grudges.” Life is filled with reasons to get angry, to be hurt, to feel you’ve been treated unjustly. Fine. Get angry. Sulk for a while. Feel outrage. But then get on with life. You can use anger or outrage as a motivator to accomplish things. For instance, you can use unfair treatment to motivate you to fight for greater fairness. But if you sink into grudge-holding, resentment, self-pity, or fantasies of revenge you will simply make your own life more miserable. You won’t enjoy yourself and people won’t like you.
10. “Understand and appreciate the distinctions between men and women.” At the moment, we are encouraged, and sometimes forced to accept the belief that there are no important, inborn differences between men and women, boys and girls. This is demonstrably, biologically, and genetically untrue. Certainly, there’s a lot of variety among individuals, and plenty of room for individual choice. But look around with clear eyes and you will see that there are huge general differences between the sexes. You are, in large part, what your biology has made you. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel ashamed or guilty or confused simply because you look, feel, think or act like a male.
Finally, here’s something I wouldn’t say to boys — not because I don’t believe it, but because to say it directly is not only pointless, but can be ludicrously misleading:
You can’t say that because words alone can’t grant true confidence, and unfortunately much confidence is false. Only years of conscientious love, guidance, and experience can instill genuine, realistic confidence in ourselves and our abilities.
Confidence is more a matter of how a person acts than how much inner certainty he feels. You may be quaking in your boots or feeling like a fraud, but you proceed because you know by experience or hope that you’re up to the job ahead. On the other hand, the world is full of people who feel confident — and are absolutely idiotic. (See the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
Testosterone automatically grants boys and men more confidence than most girls and women will ever have. Sometimes too much, perhaps. But real confidence, gained through real testing of body, mind, or soul makes a huge difference, not only to individuals, but to the world.
In his marvelous classic BBC mini-series, Civilization, historian Kenneth Clark returns again and again to what made humanity rise out of dark periods and build remarkable, lasting achievements. Again and again, one key part of the answer is confidence. Individuals and societies achieve their best when they believe something is both worthwhile and achievable.
Faith might be another word here — faith in an ideal and faith in ones own ability to achieve or contribute to the ideal. Faith — confidence — is what built timeless cathedrals when just a few decades earlier there was nothing in the world like them. It’s what enabled the Founders of 1776 not only to break away from England, but to do so with ringing declarations of individual rights, the like of which had never before been used to form a country.
Sure, new technology, new ideas, and other elements like prosperity and inspirational leadership all contribute to these marvelous achievements. But when you look at the broader picture, every one of those things also relies on confidence — confidence in ones abilities, confidence in the goal, confidence that prosperity won’t be stolen away, confidence that society will be or become stable and supportive, confidence that people of the future will benefit from the labor and sacrifices of the present.
Confidence is big. But when it comes to boys, only you brave, bold, capable, loving, disciplined, smart, extraordinary parents and other guiding adults can foster it.
Which of course brings up while final, crucial point:
“Lead by Example.”
All the lectures, all the formal lessons, all the punishments, all the blog posts, all the admonitions, all the books, all the earnest hopes in the world can’t accomplish a thing if our sons or our nephews or our pupils see that we don’t live and exemplify what we preach. Let a kid discover that we don’t really mean what we claim to endorse … and well, good luck.
And boys need good men as role models. Single mothers have always been a fact of life, but once upon a time they existed in the context of extended families and communities. Today, boys too often grow up in almost exclusively female environments. Even the best female parenting or teaching in the world is simply not enough. Boys need good men to show them what they can become.
On the other hand, and fortunately, sometimes exemplary leadership can consist of something as simple as a yearly just-guys camping trip or a weekly reading night or a week of testing survival preps as a family. Perhaps Saturday afternoons spent together in a in a workshop or garage will impart guidance more powerful than we imagine. Or simply being there to understand and be a living example to an adolescent who’s woefully confused by the mixed-up world he sees before him.
The world has always required strong, competent men — and now more than ever when society is in such complete denial of their worth.
That last paragraph hints at the topic for the sixth and probably final episode of “In Praise of Men,” which will come along in its own good time, hopefully not too long from now.
Thank you to -s for the reality check and suggested improvements.