It’s one of those gorgeous September afternoons when Minnesota seems like a slice of paradise, rather than a stage of Purgatory. I’m sitting on a park bench watching small boys (my own three, plus a few they just met on the playground) pretend to kill one another. It’s truly a beautiful sight.
“I shall slay you, you dog!” shouts one, from his fortress behind the slide.
“Do your worst, bad guy!” his rival retorts, dashing recklessly into the open as he fires at his rival with a stick. “My army will never fail me!”
Their eyes are shining. Their faces are flushed. For a moment, I feel a surge of hope. Maybe Western civilization isn’t on the verge of collapse, after all.
Then again, it might be. Periodically I read about another incident in which a boy runs afoul of school authorities by playing soldier on the playground. Remember this one, in which a second grader was suspended for throwing a pretend grenade as part of a war game he was playing with his schoolmates? Or this more recent one, in which a school considered expelling a first-grader for having a toy gun in his backpack (even though he voluntarily turned it in)?
I’m not sure public school is even a viable option for my little manlings (the eldest of which will reach kindergarten-age this next fall). After several carefree years of slaying dragons and shooting evil aliens with their brothers in the backyard, they’d probably be featured on “America’s Most Wanted Minors” within the week.
Forgive the womanly outburst, but it all really makes me want to cry. What could be more wholesome than boys playing “soldier”? War games are a wonderful way for boys to channel their abundant energy. And, they are healthy, because in soldier games they project themselves into the role of valiant warriors and protectors of the good. I find my sons’ soldier obsession highly useful as a spur to good behavior. Good soldiers, I advise them, keep their feet and do not whine when a grocery-shopping trip takes longer than expected. They never steal, lie, or sass authority figures. They are always courteous towards girls and babies.
If boys aren’t permitted to play such games, their suppressed masculinity is liable to manifest itself over the longer term in less healthy ways. Show me a society that discourages soldier games, and I’ll show you a society that has a major problem with unruly, aimless, undisciplined young males.
And indeed, these are challenging times for the young and male. Young men are struggling to make their way in the world today, particularly if they lack education or marketable skills. The problem starts early; schools have noted that boys are particularly likely to fall behind in their studies. Some writers have suggested that our educational practices may be focused on girls’ strengths and learning styles, disadvantaging boys.
Even progressive liberals are noticing the trends. In a recent article in the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz (despite her obvious feminist assumptions and sympathies) notes that men have been genuinely disadvantaged by a changing economy and labor market. She also finds that men who have difficulty establishing themselves professionally find it difficult to start a family and attain social respectability. As recently mentioned in this article from Slate, women greatly prefer husbands with steady jobs.
Educated women often fret about “having it all”, and one could plausibly argue that educated, successful men have an easier time with this. But for men, success is often an all-or-nothing proposition. Those who don’t get all, get nothing.
Part of the problem is economic. But it would be a mistake to think that this is simply a question of the number of jobs available in the workforce today. In order to make one’s way in the modern labor force, it’s often necessary to have strong interpersonal skills, and the kind of flexibility and cultural savvy that enables one to navigate the tortuous ins and outs of Human Resources Departments, and endless terrifying Performance Reviews. In some societies, an honest, able-bodied man could simply go down to the docks and sign onto a crew. Or he could work on the railroad, or in the mines. If he did his work well and honestly, he would likely be able to secure a longer-term employability. Nowadays, it’s much harder for decent-but-simple people to grasp the labyrinthine nature of the labor market, and honest men don’t always thrive in office jobs or at concierge desks.
Part of the problem, though, lies in social failures. Our society is doing a very poor job of converting boys into responsible men.
Civilizing boys has traditionally been one of the major tasks of human society. As becomes clear in my sons’ soldier games, boys have a deep yearning for purposeful, honorable activity. They want to give themselves over to something good and meaningful. But they need help to fulfill that desire, because it takes considerable discipline to steer clear of the many dead ends and vices that threaten to derail those efforts. Our own society is perhaps as distraction-laden as any in human history, so our boys are especially in need of strong guidance and loving discipline.
Both mothers and fathers play a critical (but distinct) role in this process, and marriage is also critically important for inspiring young men to embrace prudent, productive life habits. Most of today’s struggling men did have mothers in their lives. But relatively few had fathers. And increasingly, they don’t have wives either.
An unhealthy dynamic starts to form. Unmarried and underemployed young men tend to get themselves into trouble. In virtually every society, they are responsible for the substantial majority of violent crime, and that’s not the only kind of havoc they can wreak. Society thus comes to view them as troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells. Feeling rejected and hopeless, these men turn into an embittered, self-pitying, often misogynistic underclass. Should they father children, they will likely perpetuate the cycle, allowing another generation of young men to grow up without discipline, without appropriate guidance, and with very little chance of living a happy or productive life. Regrettably, this kind of cultural decay is already in a fairly advanced state in the United States.
Is there any constructive way to address this problem? Modern Westerners have a hard time making sense of wayward young men, in part because they illustrate with particular force the folly of dividing ”the underprivileged” into victims and perpetrators. If you were to take a random cross-sampling of say, 100 incarcerated men between the ages of 20 and 25, you would find that most of them had been ill-used in various ways. Certainly, most would have been deprived of important sources of moral formation and support, which growing boys desperately need. At the same time, their sins are real, and allowing struggling men to view themselves as a victim class is one of the most reliable ways of ensuring that they never mature. They need love and sympathy, but they also need accountability and discipline. Supplying both simultaneously is difficult, and requires both real love, and clear-sighted understanding of the character of the person being helped.
What we need at this juncture is a new St. John Bosco. We need someone who can love boys in all their boyishness, training them in virtue and urging them to honorable manhood.
Don Bosco was no stranger to neglected young men. His ministry focused on the legions of street urchins that filled the streets of newly industrialized, mid-nineteenth-century Turin. Like neglected boys everywhere, these young men tended to make trouble, and were widely regarded as a scourge on the town. Don Bosco was able to see something else in them. He taught them the faith, urged them to embrace honest work, and helped them to discern how their talents might best be applied to useful trades. He loved them in a way that drew out their latent desire to honor God and serve their fellow men. By the time of his death in 1888, his Salesian Society had 250 houses around the world, housing 130,000 orphans and turning out 18,000 finished apprentices annually.
Reflecting on a saint like Don Bosco, we begin to realize that the question of what our boys need really isn’t so mysterious. Boys need what they’ve always needed: love, discipline, sound instruction, and meaningful employment for their abundant energy. They need mothers and (eventually) wives who will make “house” into “home,” and teach them civility. They need fathers and other men who can urge them to train their passions, control their baser instincts, and apply themselves to honorable work. Nothing about our modern situation has changed the fundamental process by which a boy becomes a man.
The problem is (as Our Lord once said to his Apostles) that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers few. We need more people who see boys as a gift, and who are willing to work zealously to unlock their potential for good. We must pray for a new Don Bosco, and for others willing to help with this important effort.