Boys in Trouble
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 one-week immersion workshops in writing and presentation skills for children in the U.S., Canada, and China. We work primarily with girls and boys whose ages range from 8-15 years.
We utilize feature films as source texts for sophisticated assignments in critical thinking, expository and creative writing, and public speaking. During each day’s writing and editing sessions we provide our students with group teaching and individualized coaching tailored to each child’s personality, comfort level, and skill base.
Our courses’ content and criteria are demanding, our atmosphere collegiate. Many of our writers achieve significant progress in their work and in their attitudes toward intellectuality, inquiry, and oration.
An Unnamed Epidemic
During recent editions of our U.S. program, a perturbing problem has arisen.
Each evening as we debrief, my colleagues and I note with alarm that the girls who participate in our workshops outperform the boys by a conspicuous margin. Their superiority is global in terms of such signifiers as motivation, positivism, achievement, and conduct.
The girls who study with us almost always are cheerful, enthusiastic, assiduous, and prideful.
Many of the boys are indolent, ill-mannered, and belligerently apathetic. Devoid of affect, save for an overdetermined enthusiasm for our films’ occasional loud noises, harsh rhetoric, and situational violence.
A large number of our male students seem unwilling or unable to imagine, invent, and emote. We observe a holistic repudiation of personality and performance, a catholic embrace of torpor and incivility.
Many of our partners in education and counseling professions tell me they are witnessing a similar phenomenon in their programs and are feeling similarly worried.
My colleagues and I believe we are in the throes of an unnamed epidemic. A disturbing number of young men in America are in trouble.
We believe there are four primary causes for our lost boys’ condition.
Our students speak openly about them in their writings, when they write, and in their conversations, when they converse.
We believe the causal agent is overindulgence.
Financial prosperity built by parents and overabundantly lavished upon their sons seems to attenuate the self-regard, aspiration, and effort that are instrumental to the ways in which most males always before in our civilization have defined their character, projected their selfhood, accomplished successes, and achieved happiness.
Children for whom too much is provided and too much is done for them by others – parents, servants, nannies – often fail to form the sense of socialness and the ethos of responsibility most of us believe are essential in life.
This is no small matter. If you never are given a task, how can you measure yourself? How can you know the satisfaction of difficult endeavor? The elation of succeeding. The triumph of proving your determination, tenacity, and competence to your parents, your peers, yourself.
No wonder lost boys lack ambition and initiative. No one has taught them how to desire, develop, and delight in these crucial drives.
Nor have they been taught the invaluable lessons of failure.
Because they are given no tasks, they cannot be unsuccessful at executing them. Therefore, they do not gain experiential insight into their inadequacies. They do not learn the indispensable skills of confronting their unproficiencies and improving themselves on their own.
Fluently or inarticulately, our students tell us that too much opulence and too few personal care and family chore obligations debar them from constructing a natural and ingrained relationship with the true nature of true manhood.
- Absent Fathers
Many of our lost boys tell us they lack a father who meaningfully participates in parenting. Participates day in and day out, committedly, purposefully. For real. No pretense.
Some, too many, tell us their dad is literally gone. Divorce. Desertion.
The majority reside with partnered caregivers who include at least one male elder. Frequently, however, their father or father-figure is unduly busy. In reality absent, or in essence aloof. Unavailable. Inaccessible. Not there.
In our time many children are being raised by single mothers and extended-family matriarchal caregivers. Many of these unsung heroines valiantly attempt to teach their sons male virtues, and they try to model male behaviors. But they cannot accomplish these vital teachings effectually, because they are not males.
From where do I derive this seemingly exaggerated assessment?
The lost sons we teach tell us these painful truths in their dialogues with us and in their writings. Their hesitant, halting confessionals are heartrending.
Too many affluent parents try to compensate for their lack of time, presence, and loving parental guidance by showering their children with exorbitant presents. Too much cash. Too many sumptuous holidays. Way too many costly gifts of gear, gizmos, gadgets, and games.
Their children are not fooled by the substitution of largesse for love. They recognize their parents’ ploy as a perversity.
Initially they resent it. Gradually they become accustomed to it. By age six, eight, ten at the latest, they learn to expect as their birthright an infinite conferral of unearned money, material goods, outings, vacations. An inexhaustible cascade of undeserved and fundamentally unwanted emoluments and entertainments.
This is bad. Even worse is the privileging of lethargy. The entitling of sloth.
Day after day lost boys learn their parents will permit them to reject even the most rudimentary behavioral requirements. Getting out of bed in a timely manner. Taking care of their room. Preparing their school lunch. Doing their homework.
Conducting themselves respectfully. Comprehending social nuances, niceties and necessities.
Conceiving personal goals. Fulfilling them.
I often ask the children who study with us, Who are your heroines? Who are your heroes?
Every time I do this, almost every girl lights up, sparkles, and speaks vivaciously about her hers. Almost every boy gapes, stares blankly, usually at his feet, and does not, will not, cannot, reply.
Many of the boys we teach do not know who their inspirers are because they do not have any. Many do not even know what I mean by the question.
How can they know?
Is it possible for our errant sons to venerate integrated circuits? Telephonic devices? Video games? Accidie? Rudeness?
Can unmerited torrents of their parents’ shekels and shillings teach their children to treasure wisdom? Courage? Community? Productivity?
Many modern boys lack heroes because they lack canons, creeds, and convictions. They have no idea what principles and prowesses they want a champion to exemplify. What visions and verities they want a saint to sanctify.
Children need heroes. You did. I did.
Children need to heroize and emulate real or mythological figures whom they idolize for their exemplary rectitude, grace, nobility, and deeds.
Every civilization other than our own has understood this percept and has hallowed it.
Who is the worst specimen of the Lost Boy Syndrome our faculty and I have experienced? I will call him Drool Boy.
It is a quiet morning in the epicenter of the Silicon Valley.
One of our male students, baroquely recalcitrant, unfailingly uncivil, emotionally infantile, colossally selfish yet destitute of clarified personality, lolls in his seat as every one of our more engaged leaners, riveted, react ebulliently to a gripping scene in the enthralling film Apollo 13.
This epically lost child sprawls apart from his classmates, isolated by choice, alone, aggressively indifferent, idly drooling streams of saliva onto our classroom’s tiled floor.
He smiles, sleepily savoring the sensations of sourcing and spewing his sickening spittle. He sniggers as his viscous swill swells and spreads.
When ordered to cease, desist, and scrub his mess he looks bewildered. Baffled.
Why ought he be the one to clean it? Why should not his servant? The gentle beleaguered amah who every day delivers and retrieves this smirking lout.
For the longest while the lost boy stares at me. Not in insurrection. Not in impudence. Incomprehension. Sincere stupefaction.
At last he slithers his sleek Calvin Klein footwear backward and forward across his dribble, scrapes and scatters his preposterous puddle.
When told this will not do, instructed to repair himself at once to the men’s room, return with paper towels, water, soap, disinfectant, and properly wash his ludicrous slobber, he again appears befuddled. Confounded. At sea.
It is evident he never before at home or, evidently, in school has been commanded to behave himself.
I believe the phenomena to which this supremely lost lad gives such noxious incarnation are the shocking but predictable consequences of inordinate parental overindulgence. Inordinate parental and societal abstention.
This Is New
Many parents will tell you that girls mature more rapidly than boys. We reflexively characterize this imbalance as “normal.”
There is nothing normal about the behaviors we are examining. We are seeing something new. Many boys are in trouble in America. Trouble that is abnormal, dire, and deeply worrying.
In schools, for sure.
Today girls outpace boys in almost every measure of educational success. It is wonderful that young women are attaining superior status in many contemporary academic programs. It is alarming that many young men are floundering.
Medical trends are equally disquieting.
Everywhere in America we see correlations between modern boys’ habitual sedentariness and the widespread incidence of male ill-health. Such degenerative ailments as morbid obesity, early-onset diabetes, and chronic substance abuse are horrific problems in America for both genders. They are becoming irruptions for boys.
Statistics abound. But statistics are abstruse, they are abstract, and we do not need to peruse them. Our daily encounters expose the extent of the emergency.
How often do you see lost American boys wallowing in tedium? Robotically plying smartphones and consoles. Insensately ignoring people and events, oblivious to every context and contour environing them, fixated on screens, ears plugged, eyes glazed, thumbs tapping, fingers rapping.
How often do you hear our stupefied sons rebuff all calls to energy, engagement, and endeavor? Declaim in tones of persecuted mewl: “That’s no fun.” Or bleat: “Aw, that’s boring.” If they reply at all.
This in a domestic and international socio-economic order in which competition is intense, unrelenting, and unavoidable.
There are ever so many responsible, determined, hard-working, noble boys in America and everywhere else in the world.
But we must acknowledge there are multitudes of boys who do not possess these qualities. They are in trouble. They know it. And they are manifestly unhappy about their dystopic state. Many seem clinically depressed.
Of course they are. It is demoralizing to live one’s youthful life as an anomic, malaised, unmannerly, overly entitled drone.
Our damaged sons are disaffected, maladroit, and gloomy. They also are afraid. They do not know how to get out of their self-destructive spiral, and they are frightened about their future. They regularly speak about their fear in their reluctant but revealing discourse and their terse, grieving writings.
They are right to worry. What can they expect of their adulthood?
Their hope, if they can locate a hope, is that their parents will bequeath them a munificent inheritance. They will need an inexhaustible one if they continue to underperform in their schoolwork, disclaim maturation, and rely on omnipresent nursemaid attendance or manservant care.
Even if their forebears deed them a plentiful patrimony, our lost boys understandably fear they may never become worthy of a position in society, friendships, unions, and, one day, someday, a loving, loyal family of their own.
They are frightened because their situation is not hypothetical. It is real, and it is really tragic.
Their situation is not hopeless, though. No situation is hopeless, if a person wants to generate change.
I never have met a child who wants to remain perpetually demoralized, isolated, stuck in monotonous nugatory alienage, lonely, cringing all his life in withered self-loathing.
Lost boys want to change. Deep down, they long to improve their arid lives.
They rarely make their longing apparent because they have invested the totality of their generative power in appearing to be lost. They will surrender their prophylactic masquerade only if they become convinced they can replace it with a more empowering alternative.
Lost boys fabricate the awful behaviors we are discussing as deliberate responses to their beliefs about themselves. Their behaviors are intentional, ingeniously orchestrated expressions of their incorrect belief that they are unloved, unimportant, inept, and irrecoverable.
Our sons’ estrangement, lethargy, and crudeness are not inborn preferences. They are strategic façades. Carefully crafted anodynes of defiant, protective anomie.
Can’t you see what I am doing? Don’t you understand why I’m doing it?
When I refuse to feel, care, adjust, fit in, strive, I am seizing sovereignty over my otherwise impotent existence.
You think I am a powerless failure.
I am not. I have formidable power, and I am exercising it. I am choosing my isolation. Feigning my inertia. Pretending my apatheia. Playacting my rotten manners.
Never mind. It doesn’t matter what I do, or why I do it. My parents will always take care of me.
The behaviors we are describing are not these agonized children’s innate and immutable instinctions of identity. They are symptoms of a disease. The disease of parental inattention and schoolroom under-stimulation metastasized into a systemic malady of inaccurate storytelling and self-punishing histrionics.
Do You Hear What We Hear?
In our lost sons’ tormented cognitions do you hear what my faculty and I hear? We hear the imperial human will to power. The indefatigable compulsion to survive.
We hear it in its latency. We hear it in confusion. We hear it in anguish. But we hear it. We hear that our seemingly lost boys want to exert power over their sad sack lives, and they have begun to learn how.
Their perceptions are erroneous. Their methods are misguided. Their stratagems are counterproductive. Yet the will to change is there.
It is alive. It is audacious. It should be acknowledged, praised, and supported.
Children always teach the adults in their lives at least as much as we teach them.
The children my colleagues and I teach have taught us that every child is born with a fierce urge to seek, find, and jubilantly proclaim autonomy, authority, dignity, and direction.
Even lost boys.
We have learned there are no incurably lost boys. Only scared, underappreciated, temporarily mixed-up kids.
We no longer feel surprised when our lost boys try to achieve metamorphosis. We program for it.
Metamorphosis can be taught. Particularly if a child can be led into enjoying the experience of learning.
Teachers know any number of ways to excite children’s imagination. Here is what succeeds in our practice.
We give an enormous amount of individual attention to each of our pupils. We talk with them extensively. We listen carefully. We read their writings closely. The children give us considerable access into their thoughts, emotions, difficulties, fulfillments, doubts, certitudes, hopes, and dreams.
Most of our students feel amazed and overjoyed when adults whom they respect take cogent and sustained interest in their character and consciousness.
Many children in the modern world feel parched. They are thirsting for their elders to see them, understand them, regard them seriously, and help them pursue their full potential.
How do we know this? They tell us.
I think it is inevitable that as we study our students, as we come to know them more and more thoroughly, we think well of them. We care about them. We like them. We want them to be happy. We want them to love their lives.
There is magic in affection. And there is might. When children feel known and cared about for who they actually are, they almost always will open their heart and strive to expand their confidence, ambition, talent, and knowledge.
Even lost boys.
At first they doubt. They resist. But after a day or two, they thaw.
Bit by bit, they learn to trust their mentors’ solicitude. They relish the esteem it connotes. In time, they instinctively transfer their teachers’ external support into an internal fundament of ever more assured self-respect and asserted self-rule.
We attach our affection for our students to our high, unwavering standard for their sincerity and effort. We insist our learners envision and require of themselves nothing less than their Personal Best.
We repeatedly explain that we make this demand because we care about their self-image, their contentment, and the course of their lives.
This is our bedrock. We establish the concept of each child’s Personal Best as our classroom’s criterion and our learning community’s culture. We ask our students to join with us in building a sacred space. A shared society of earnest endeavor for excellence.
In support of this demand we invoke the model of athletics – a mode of endeavor most children comprehend and admire.
We ask our students if they could possibly look up to athlete who would choose to do less than her best? If they believe a sportsperson’s acceptance of mediocrity ever could be commended by her coach. Accepted by his teammates. Cheered by adults. Lionized by tykes.
They grin. They giggle. But they get it.
Even our lost boys. They grumble and grouse. They chafe at how much we ask of them. They appear to ignore us. But they listen. They hear us. And they appreciate our motives.
Like all other children, they realize our advocacy for their excellence constitute a form of love. They understand we champion them because we care about them.
Hour by hour, day by day, they become aware that it feels good to be treated as champions. At their own pace they decide to champion themselves. Quite quickly, sweet lagniappe, they also decide to champion one another.
Children expect to be standardized in their schools. Homogenized, patronized, above all, deathly bored.
No one enjoys being bored.
We try our Personal Best to make thinking, imagining, interchange, and virtuosity feel exciting rather than laborious. Fascinating. Fun. Relevant. Revelatory.
One of our most effective techniques is to substitute motion pictures for written textbooks. We capitalize on children’s enchantment with cinema to catalyze ideas our learners need to discover and ideals they need to develop.
We particularly value Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
We begin each of our teaching periods by screening several segments of this brilliant film. Our text’s first “chapters.” In teacher parlance, our first unit.
We pause the DVD player and facilitate group discussion. What do the chapters we have watched together teach us about Gandhi-ji’s life, work, and ministry?
After ten minutes or so we conclude our colloquy, distribute an assignment sheet, and ask the children to write briefly about their responses to our college-level prompts.
Time’s up. We ask volunteers to read their essay aloud – however much of it they have been able to complete – or permit our faculty to read it on their behalf, anonymity assured. We applaud the writers, applaud the readers, and move on to our next unit.
Why does this film work so well? Because Mahatma Gandhi captivates every child we ever have taught.
The Mahatma’s sublimity is impossible for most mortals to attain. But when exposed to the marvel of the Gandhi-ji’s career, his breathtaking genius, the majesty of his comportment, the power of his love, its ethereal actuality, no child, even the most abandoned boy, can fail to feel thrilled. Inspired.
And summoned. Aroused to empathy for others. Called to greatness. Called to her own maximal capability. His utmost potentiality.
We invoke the beatitude of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to elevate our children’s intellects and excite their souls. We urge our learners to emulate his example. To identify and embrace their own genius, and dedicate their lives to decency, ardor, valor, eternal learning, and honorable pursuit.
We work with many other films that alluringly portray heroism. Heroisms of many sorts. The 400 Blows. The Black Stallion. E.T. Fiddler on the Roof. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Temple Grandin. October Sky. The Secret Garden. Anne of Green Gables. The Adventures of the Wilderness Family. Akeelah and the Bee. Hidden Figures.
Invariably we learn that when children feel inspired by a hero they revere, they internalize their hero’s story and determine to make it their own. They resolve they will attempt to pattern their lives upon their exemplar’s epitome of goodness and grace, valor and resilience, leadership and achievement. As did you and as did I, when we were younger than we are today.
No movie can spawn instantaneous, enduring transfiguration. Least of all for lost boys.
Our lost boys continue to struggle. I believe they hear our films’ Call to Action, though. And I believe the films’ Call becomes their own: a clarion sonorous, lucid, prized, yearned for, and worked toward.
This sense of summons may be merely subliminal. But it will become a sentient lifetime quest if the child’s family and school will notice and nurture their seemingly lost son’s nascent desire for growth. His embryonic commitment to his Personal Best.
Everywhere in the world the most common pedagogic methodology is to educate by fear. Induce anxiety in pupils so they will drill like crazy to avoid blame and shame in school, and punishment at home.
Trepidation works. Most of us learn to memorize what we are mandated to memorize.
At great cost, alas, because we also learn to apprehend school and to feel lifelong suspicion toward a society that conceives of children as conformable automatons, and education as rote work rooted in dread.
My colleagues and I believe in teaching by encouragement.
We try to identify each child’s qualities and skills. We speak privately with each girl and each boy about the endowments we see. The specific gifts we know are there, flourishing or inchoate, embraced or not yet noticed.
From this basis, the lodestone of each child’s present prowess and as yet unreached potential, we coach our learners. We try to help them see why they should become comfortable with their competence. Confident, ambitious, adventuresome. Proud. Glad. Enthusiastic. Happy.
We try to help them see how they can strengthen their strengths. How they can discover for themselves the incomparable and sacral enjoyment of desiring, working toward, and achieving mastery.
Our most productive coaching tool is a format we call Authors Hour. Our workshops’ capstone event: an end-of-day public performance.
In midafternoon our students select one essay, story, or poem they have authored during the day that they most want to share. They retreat for thirty minutes to edit their draft, revise it, improve it. At 4PM they stand at a podium and read their work aloud to an audience of their classmates, family members, and family friends.
The children’s writings often are superb. Their recitations always are soulful, ardent, and acutely moving.
Communal oration has proven to be a compelling lure. In short order even our seemingly lost boys want to stand proud in front of their peers and parents and perform to full extent of their ability.
How can it be that such a difficult, exposing, riskful exercise entices even the most refractory students to share their intimate thoughts and vulnerable emotions?
Our lost boys explain why. They tell us they cannot help but see that the dynamics of performance are exciting. Deliciously kinetic. Dignifying, daring, and fun. Gratifying for their classmates, elating for the audience.
They get hooked. They desire to participate. They choose to.
Is this not every human being’s most primal motivation and most durable fulfillment?
To aspire because we want to. To try because we prefer pride, presence, performance, and prospering to solitary, dissociative, paralyzing, ultimately silly apathy.
They Want To Change
I know, and you know that many modern boys are in trouble. Terrible trouble. The good news is, they do not want to be.
Their cramped, imploring body language, the haunted, harrowed look in their eyes, the openhearted literature they write for us, the ravaged talk they sometimes share with us declare unequivocally that they feel demoralized by their ostensibly voluntary postures of ennui, enervation, and insolence.
Our workshops demonstrate that lost boys want to change their lives, and antidotes abound. This is not because our programs are uniquely enabling. It is because every child’s nature is optimistic. Avid. Exploratory. Hungering for experience.
These instincts are elemental in all of us.
We crave mastery. We are built for it. Questing for it is every person’s journey, job, and joy.
They Want Their Homes
It is lovely that lost boys can wake themselves up and begin to evolve in schools.
Far more consequential transformations can be achieved at home, because for every child who ever has lived, no other stimulant is so powerful as familial love. No other ideas, ideals, and moral codes are as authoritative and convincing as the faiths, beliefs, and values we learn from our caregivers.
Nor is any other reward so puissant as delighting our parents and our kin by becoming more fully formed in our character. Giving the most influential persons in our lives the gift of seeing us convert our youthful mishmash of equivocal impulses and ephemeral energies into our deliberate, defined, and definitive identity.
Not a jejune, tender, star-struck emulation of our heroes’ glorious distinctions but our own personhood become independent, self-reliant, and determinative, built at home, carried assuredly into society, spiritedly enacted in the abundant, welcoming universe.
They Want The Real World
Our workshops do help lost boys accomplish striking gains. No doubt many other pedagogic designs succeed as well as or better than ours.
Classroom learning is important. Classrooms are contrivances, though. Courses are constructs. Like all children lost boys need to aspire, act, enjoy, and triumph not in schoolhouses, study groups, or other mythic domains but in the actual unmediated world.
They know this. They may be lost, but they are neither naïve nor stupid.
They Want Their Real Heroes
This is equally true of our programs’ cinematic heroes.
Movie heroes can be magnificent inspirers, but they are merely symbols imprinted on celluloid or, increasingly, digitized in coding. Uplifting artifices. Ennobling emblems.
The children we serve want their parents to be their paragons. They want their home life to be their epic frontier. They want their caregivers to be their inspirers.
They Want A Real Cure
My career as a teacher has taught me that lost boys’ tragic alienation from themselves is a soluble problem.
Every day I teach, I hear lost boys pleading for help. Desperate for cure. In their awkward, often off-putting way begging for loving concern, intercession, and tutelage.
They ask this of all their teachers. But we are just surrogates.
They do not want us. They want their family.
They do not want films, videogames, electronic sops, hillocks of cash. They want life, not life’s diversions, distractions, and denials.
They want individualness, passion, vocation, mission.
Above all else, they want their family. They want the leaders of their family to become their heroes. And they want to learn from they who brought them into life how to become their own hero.
This essay does not propose itself as a solution for lost boys’ struggles. It is, rather, an alarum on their behalf.
On their behalf it makes an entreaty to their caregivers, an appeal to their educators, a beseechment to their society.
Please see your lost sons.
Please save them.