Boys in Trouble: An American Epidemic

This is an expanded version of an essay that appeared in The Good Men Project Magazine in October, 2010.

I WANT a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
– Lord Byron, “Don Juan”

For many years I have directed intensive one-week workshops in writing and presentation skills for children in the Silicon Valley region. We work with girls and boys whose ages range from 8-14 years.

Our courses utilize major works of film and popular music as source texts for provocative prompts in critical thinking, classroom discourse, and expository and creative writing. During each day’s four 45-minute writing and editing sessions, we provide our authors with carefully structured individual coaching. Our writers close their day by standing at a raised podium and reading aloud to their peers and parents the work they regard as their most interesting and successful piece.

Our program’s content is demanding, its expectations high, its criteria rigorous. Many of our students achieve startling progress in their work, and a significant transformation in their attitudes toward intellectual life, spiritual awareness, and personal ambition.

An unnamed epidemic
During recent years, my staff and I have noted with growing alarm that the girls who participate in our workshops outperform the boys by an ever more conspicuous margin.

Their superiority is global, in terms of such signifiers as motivation, effort, achievement, and conduct. The girls we teach are almost always cheerful, enthusiastic, assiduous, and prideful. The boys almost invariably are indolent, insolent, palpably unhappy, apathetic, and, in many instances, almost devoid of affect – save for an impassioned if mute ecstasy for electronic games and, in cinematic surrounds, a vocalized delight in loud noises, violence, and virulent profanity.

We continually find a relationship between these disturbing phenomena and excessive financial and cultural privilege. Economic abundance and social prestige obtained by parents and conferred upon their sons seems to promote attenuation or even collapse of the aspiration, effort, and self-esteem that are instrumental in the way most males always before in our civilization have comprehended, defined, and projected their character, secured their sense of confident strength, exercised leadership, and accomplished contentment.

Easeful American life seems to be promoting among many young males a bizarre conviction that they’re entitled to effortlessness. Not only with respect to the work of learning and producing. In all of our thinking and writing courses, we witness a broad inability or refusal among boys to feel, invent, imagine, and express. We observe a general repudiation of personality projection, a catholic embrace of inert passivity.

Many of my colleagues in education and counselling tell me they perceive similar trends, and feel similarly concerned. Our country seems to be in the throes of an unnamed epidemic. Boys in our nation, especially economically privileged boys, are clearly in trouble.

Disease sources
There are no mysteries about the sources of this contagion.

1. Excessive privilege
Boys for whom everything is provided, lads for whom everything is done by others – parents, servants, nannies – rarely evolve a meaningful awareness of life’s irreducible requirements and compensating joys. They’re prevented from developing a functioning instinct for the necessity of initiative and the powerful fulfillments of work. They’re precluded from confronting problems, and solving them on their own. They don’t discover how to create, internalize, and sustain a dynamic idea of the intricate and wonderful relationship among the propensities of aptitude, the sense of duty, the pleasure of labor, and the joy of achievement. They’re debarred from developing evolutionary experience with the elemental nature of manhood.

2. Absent fathers
Boys in trouble often lack a visible father who participates vigorously in parenting. A multitude of boys are now being raised by single moms – many of whom try heroically to teach male virtues and somehow model effectual male behaviors.

The majority of boys (I think the majority: we have no reliable statistics about how many American sons now live with their two original birth parents) reside with a mom and dad who are married to one another. Too frequently, though, the dad is emotionally distant, occupationally busy, travelling often, in fact or in essence remote.

Where do I derive this seemingly exaggerated information? The boys we’re teaching tell me these painful truths again and again. It’s heartbreaking.

3. Materialism
Frequently moms and dads try to replace personalized parenting with exorbitant gifts of material things. They rationalize their deficiencies of time and directive guidance by showering their sons with excesses of provender. Money. Opulent holidays. Sumptuous gadgets. Lavish barbarous video games.

Their sons aren’t fooled by the substitution of objects for love. They miss their parents’ parenting, and resent its absence. And they learn to expect unearned largesse. They learn they can command unending entertainment and yet reject all expectations of responsibility, chore, and sheer courtesy. Many learn they can repudiate even the most rudimentary human performance requirements. Getting out of bed in a timely manner. Taking care of their room. Making their school lunch. Doing their homework. Behaving respectfully. Creating personal goals. Fulfilling them.

4. Nihilism
I often ask the young men who study with us who their heroes are. Every time I do this, every boy stares blankly at me and can’t reply. Our sons don’t know who their heroes are. They don’t have any.

They don’t even know what I mean by the question. Heroism? What is it? Heroes? Why should I want one? Why do I need one?

Our boys lack heroes because they lack faiths, creeds, and ideals. They don’t know what truths and virtues they want a champion or a saint to exemplify and exalt.

Boys need heroes. Boys need to encounter, revere, and emulate real or mythological figures whom they idolize for their transcendent virtues and achievements. Every civilization other than ours has understood this.

Our boys don’t have heroes. How can they? How do you venerate money, gadgets, and games? How do you model your mentality and soul on electronic devices and cartoon satires? How can you learn how to treasure wisdom, bravery, community, and creation if you spend most of your reflective time with loud noxious gizmos?

Only western boys, right?
Throughout the postwar era, American educators observed that the disparity between boys and girls’ attitudes, behaviors, and achievements did not extend to the children of Asian parents.

This no longer is commonly the case. More and more Asian-American boys exhibit pervasive lassitude, refusal to focus, willful laziness, and acute disrespect for their elders, their peers, and themselves. The contemporary male ecstasy with electronics, cinematic bloodshed, and blasphemy crosses all cultural frontiers.

The worst case I’ve encountered? This summer one Asian-American student, baroquely recalcitrant, habitually rude, emotionally infantile, utterly selfish but destitute of clarified personality, lolled in his chair as our seminar group was reacting exuberantly to a particularly enthralling scene in the film “Apollo 13.” He sat utterly detached from others, idly drooling streams of saliva onto our classroom floor, savoring the sensations of sourcing and secreting spittle, studying dully its spill, swell, and spread. When ordered to stop it and scrub up his mess, he looked bewildered. Why should he be the one to clean it? Why shouldn’t his servant – the beleaguered amah who delivered and picked up this charmer and his younger sister every day?

The boy stared at his teacher, not so much in insurrection or impudence as in incomprehension. At last he shoved his shoe across his dribble, scraped and scattered the puddle. When told that wouldn’t do and directed sternly to repair himself to the men’s room, return with paper towels, water, soap, disinfectant, and properly wash his slobber, he appeared absolutely befuddled. It was evident that he never before at home or in school had been directed to behave himself.

All parents, educators, and counsellors know that, in general, boys develop psychologically and intellectually much less rapidly than girls. There’s widespread agreement among informed experts that this disparity is common, and is perfectly “normal.”

I’m not speaking here about normative developmental paradigms. I think we’re seeing something new. Boys are in trouble in America. Serious trouble.

Consider the academic statistics. Increasingly, girls far exceed boys in most measures of academic performance – as manifested by virtually all test scores and grade results, and by the rapidly changing matriculation and graduation rates in numerous undergraduate, graduate, and professional courses of study. It’s wonderful that women are attaining to majority status in many key vocations. It’s worrisome that young males are seceding in ever greater numbers from their own development.

Consider the medical statistics. We readily can observe disquieting correlatives between boys’ ever-growing indolence and physical incapacities. Early onset obesity has become a major problem in the United States for both genders. It’s a radical problem for boys. The incidence of young male substance abuse in our nation is even more alarming.

Consider the evidence of our ears. How often do we hear American boys rebuff all calls to energy, engagement, or effort, declaiming in tones of persecuted mewl: “That’s no fun”? Or: “That’s boring.” This in a world economy in which domestic and global competition now are and forevermore will be draconically competitive.

We’re not discussing an arcane moral issue. Nor are we describing an abstruse philosophical vexation.

The boys whom my colleagues and I are encountering are in terrible trouble, and they know it. They’re manifestly unhappy: deeply and gravely sad, in many instances clinically depressed. No wonder. It’s demoralizing to live one’s youthful life as an unenthusiastic, unmannerly drone.

These boys aren’t just gloomy. They’re also scared. They don’t know how to get out of their impossible self-destructive spiral, and they’re severely frightened about their future. They regularly tell me so in their reluctant but revealing essays and stories.

They’re right to worry. What on earth can they expect of their adulthood? Even if their parents award them a massive trust fund – they’ll need one if they continue to accomplish mediocrity in their schoolwork, disclaim maturation, and rely on unending nursemaid or manservant care – they realize they’re not likely ever to deserve and establish friendships, love, marriage, and a family of their own.

Their situation isn’t hypothetical. It isn’t merely notional. It’s real, and it’s really tragic.

In my experience, the remedies for this epidemic of male estrangement are obvious, freely available, easy to implement, and consistently effective.

The antidotes are:

  • Adult affection
  • Adult expectation
  • Appropriate stimulation
  • Kind humor
  • Healthy peer pressure

Adult affection
Early in my career I felt astonished by how rapidly caring and enlightened teachers can confront and change young people’s unproductive stories about themselves. Now I know almost all children respond quickly and intensely to mentors whom they trust and like – mentors whom they know care about and respect them, and accordingly demand much of them.

In my experience, children respond to the levels of emotion, action, and attainment valued elders expect of them. Authentic adult caring seems to produce in every child, even in seemingly lost boys, rapid and persisting system change.

What continues to startle me is how many children feel visibly amazed that any grown woman or man would take interest in their mind, their thought, their beliefs, their principles, their creativity, and their goals. American children seem to be starving for attentive adult concern. They yearn for their elders to take them more seriously. Girls and boys experience equally this void and this craving. Girls are just handling the problem better than boys.

Gain a child’s trust, win a young person’s confidence, and the power of simple caring, the influence of sheer concern, becomes immediate and consequential. It can drive change. More important, it quickly becomes, as it must become, internalized. The child absorbs the mentor’s respect and affection, and instinctively transfers it into an interior reservoir of worth, motivation, and potential life direction.

My staff and I no longer feel surprised by this marvel. We no longer feel mystified by the miracle of a child’s self-directed life change. We now rely upon it and program for it.

How? By communicating that we care about our learners. By connecting our caring with our far-reaching demands for excellence. And by building academic and spiritual excitements that make the experiences of thinking and creating joyful rather than inanely laborious.

Stimulation, expectation, direction
We draw on our movie and music texts to surface issues of idea and ideal that our learners want and need to confront. Boys resist intervention much more than girls. So we push them. We push them hard.

For example, we may screen “Gandhi.” This brilliant film never fails to convey to children Mahatma Gandhi’s goodness, grace, and luminous greatness. We lead ambitious discussions about Gandhi-ji’s life, work, and teaching. We make the Mahatma’s example of genius our seminar’s standard. This measure of course is impossible of attainment. But in the context of the Mahatma’s absolute sanctity and striving, even the most abandoned boy cannot fail to be summoned – and cannot fail to discover the wondrous pleasure of aspiring beyond one’s present capability.

We invoke Gandhi-ji to excite and summon children’s souls. We urge – we demand – that every child in our program awaken her/his highest spirit, embrace her/his truest mind, and rededicate his/her life to learning and worthy pursuit.

In this context, the context of Gandhi-ji’s loving genius, we also demand that our learners behave themselves in their learning community. We conduct this mandate as frontally as necessary, until we obtain – no, until the child requires of himself – a response authentic and enduring.

No one who is salvageable can indefinitely sustain torpor, self-neglect, and social indifference in the presence of Gandhi-ji. Every human being, surely every child, is salvageable.

Sometimes we fail. That’s our team’s fault, not the child’s. Not every adult can work successfully with every child. Yet every child, I feel certain, even the most lost boy, can arouse and rescue himself with the aid of a mentor who is right for him.

Once a boy opens himself to Gandhi-ji’s beautiful but uncompromising cosmos of expectation, it’s easy for him to expand his awakened standard for thinking, writing, and public presentation to the entire panoply of his selfhood. His instructors only need to stand back, cease their coaching, and watch with admiration as the child teaches himself.

Lost boys may need a mentor to assist with the first steps. The longer journey, the lifelong course of passage, swiftly can become the child’s own. It will, if his family and learning circle seek and support his nascent commitment to change.

Inspiration is the most effective instrument for catalyzing meaningful change in children. Humor helps. Get a lost boy to laugh, get a languorous ill-mannered kid to laugh with you and at himself, and he’ll work with you. He’ll work with you assiduously, and with quietly fervent gratitude. Gratitude for taking notice of him, caring about him, and calling him to his higher self.

Humor is most productive in a classroom if the mentor directs it initially at himself. Making gentle mockery of a trusted elder’s own foibles, foolishness, and failures establishes that we’re all flawed. Making our shared imperfections material for fondness and fun rather than fodder for shame frees a child from the paralyses of guilt, encourages a sense of commonalty and safety, and fosters hope. If a boy can laugh at a defect, he can’t be afraid of it and he can’t be destroyed by it.

It’s easy for teachers to shift self-directed humor outward. First we universalize the comedy: not I but all of us are subjects for laughter rather than anguish. Then we can focus on an individual child’s circumstances and situations. We can render a specific boy’s traps, travails, and peccadilloes absurd rather than awful. We can shift the atmosphere from crisis to fun. Simultaneously, we can command correction without overt imprecation: “Hey. Rodney. What’s the story with your mound of spittle? Is this a launch? A salivation start-up? You planning to sell it? How much per litre?

Pull out a dollar bill. Offer it to him. Watch what happens. See how rapidly a twinkle enters his sad phlegmatic eyes. See how a smile freed, a giggle erupted, can become a vast unconquerable energy for change.

Inspire a boy with a thrilling hero. Then get him to laugh. He’ll quickly surrender his unnatural benumbed stupefaction. He’ll swiftly renounce his artificial incapacity, throw off his hateful shackles, and do what boys inherently long to do: imagine, aspire, seek heights, aim for the stars, dare.

With joy in his heart he will dream, he will dare, and he will do.

Peer pressure
In our thinking, writing, and speaking seminars, the sole value we instil is excellence. The sole measure we recognize is each child’s personal best. The sole product we extol is actual achievement. We don’t reward instability, bathos, passivity, immobility, self-neglect. We don’t welcome excuses, apologies, and condoning. We don’t find these tropes interesting or meritorious.

Because we don’t, our students don’t. When working with children, it’s essential to establish not merely an adult but a communal demand for effort and excellence. Healthy peer pressure is a lifeblood of self-directed motivation and learning.

As I noted earlier, the daily capstone event in our writing workshops is a public reading: what we call Authors Hour. Our writers choose the work they’ve authored during the day that they most want to share, and present it before an assembled audience of attentive peers. The presentations always are earnest, and the works often are remarkably distinguished.

We find that daily presentation to one’s classmates and companions makes a formidable incentive. It’s no fun to rise at a public podium and have nothing to say. Especially when many of the other authors are sharing intimate thought and moving creations.

Even the most troubled boy wants to stand proud in front of his peers. This is a most efficacious and enduring motivation: to care, resolve, try, and succeed because one wants to. Because one prefers shared distinction to solitary disgrace.

Parents’ stances, schools’ inaction
Many boys are in trouble. But, we’ve contended, they don’t want to be. The essays, stories, and poems they write for me declare loudly and clearly that they feel demeaned and traumatized by their seemingly voluntary postures and predicaments.

Our experiments demonstrate that antidotes abound. Our programs show that remedies are freely supplied by every boy’s fundamental nature, and by any good school’s most basic social constructs.

Parents have to care, though, and they must act. So must our schools. This is not the case at present. Everywhere we look, we see that families and learning communities seldom intervene with boys in trouble.

In many cliques it’s become chic for nominally worried parents to make social capital out of their sons’ failures of attitude and action. Moms and dads throw up their arms in pretended dismay, promenade perplexity, outsource their culpability, and offload their responsibility to provide hope and require cure. It’s become modish, even glamorous to attribute their children’s depression and disarray to the pernicious influence of the present-day culture. “O, that boy of mine! Television. Video games. Hip hop. School cutbacks. Drugs. Everything is so crazy now. What can I do?” Not only does this stance exempt the parents from accountability. It certifies their refinement: “I’m a holdout. I’m among the last who treasure the loftier principles and vanished cultivation of earlier eras. I’m a delicate flower in a mercantile wasteland.”

Many moms and dads trumpet their sons’ troubles as a sign of their parental success, a token or talisman of their upward mobility. It’s become a hallmark of a superior social status to broadcast the burden of bearing with a “gifted” but unaccountably troubled, inexplicably bad boy. “Ah, me. My son is ever so bright. But he’s completely unmotivated. And he’s surly. Who can understand why?” This stance belongs exclusively to the economically advantaged. It’s a signifier of their trajectory. We don’t hear it from moms and dads who are struggling to succeed. They expect and require their children to care about their future, work hard, and be respectful. They don’t believe their boys can afford to tolerate apathy and incivility.

Ever more frequently, parents seek refuge in medical diagnoses. “My son is A.D.D.” “Oh, mine has information processing deficits.” “Mine falls within the Asperger’s audit.” “Mine has” – or “is” – this acronym or that. Maybe so. However, acronymic labelling is neither a consolation nor a curative. An alphabetic brand or tag won’t exempt a child from his performance requirements. No matter how successful a boy’s parents are, the real world won’t provide life opportunities to any child unless the child wants, seeks, and earns them.

Some therapists assert that preadolescent boys who are feeling troubled and “acting out” are merely exploring their identity. Young men who experience malaise and behave poorly aren’t really in peril or truly naughty. They’re just artistically investigating and expressing their personhood in an age-appropriate manner.

Such boys’ ennui may be artistic and their badness inventive, but these aren’t practicable creations and they can’t be consented to by their caregivers. Families, schools, and communities must combat our male children’s ever more prevalent, ever more chronic dissociation. Our boys’ adult influencers must require and foster far more constructive male creations – identity that is profoundly committed to building, preserving, and protecting; thirst for knowledge, and hunger for leadership; dedication to strength, not frailty; devotion to improbable triumphs of civilization, not impossible secession from it.

Otherwise, parents had best be preparing to transfer copious lifetime support funds to the many young males in our villages, towns, and cities who are wallowing in their unacceptably tolerated trouble. All of our society’s estranged uncivil boys will turn 18 one day soon. Unless change is lovingly forced upon them, they won’t be graduating from high schools, entering universities, succeeding in important careers, inspiring the love of worthwhile partners, and engendering and preserving healthy solid families.

“I WANT a hero”
The message here is simple but potent.

Our thinking, writing, and speaking seminars are exceptionally successful at helping young learners discover heroines and heroes, and resolve to emulate their distinction. We’re finding it relatively easy to help our students accomplish immense gains. No doubt many other pedagogic designs and methods would work as well as or better than ours.

I believe, though, that pedagogy is a poor substitute for parenting. Cinematic heroisms are symbolic contrivances. Writing and speaking before peers are but two aspects and emblems of living. The children we serve need their mom and their dad to be their prototype and mentor. They need to triumph in the world, not just in our classroom.

For a host of reasons that we’ll analyze in a later essay, girls are faring better than boys in contemporary American society. Boys’ alienation in our country is broad, general, and terribly destructive. Our sons require attention, and they want it. They require and are pleading for loving concern. They need their mother and father to become their exigent, alluring model. And they WANT to learn how to become their own hero.

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