June 14, 2007

Family and Relationships

It’s About Being a Boy!

Thomas E. Fitzpatrick

On a recent trip to the town recycling center, I spotted a red Radio Flyer wagon in a dumpster filled with discarded metal. I was enjoying a fleeting moment of boyhood nostalgia when my four-year-old daughter awakened me from my daydream with a brief comment about the rusting piece of refuse: “That thing is dirty.” She obviously didn’t share my enthusiasm for the timeless treasure we had stumbled across. How she could anticipate exactly what her mother would say when I brought it home, I’ll never know. But the elderly man who serves as the attendant at the recycling station certainly understood my feelings. With a gleam in his eye and an approving glance, he said, “The wheels are still good.” That clinched the deal! 

More often than not when visiting the town dump, I’ve found that it’s better to give than to receive. But this time I had a plan for the dated debris. A few days earlier, I’d been perusing The Dangerous Book for Boys, a gift to my eight-year-old son from his grandfather. Becoming fixated on page 79, “Making a Go-Cart,” I recalled the excitement among my boyhood pals when an old broken baby carriage would appear in a neighbor’s trash. First question: Are the wheels still good? 

Determined that my son needed the experience of careening down the street in a home-made go-cart, my search for wheels had begun.

The Dangerous Book for Boys, written by British brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, has been very well received. “The perfect book for every boy from eight to eighty” was a major best seller in the United Kingdom in 2006 and is currently number two in the Hardcover Advice category of the New York Times Best Seller List in the United States. 

Why is there such an appetite for this book? Whose need is it nourishing?

Conn Iggulden believes the book satisfies boys’ need for adventure. He comments on Amazon.com: “Boys need to learn about risk. They need to fall off things occasionally, or—and this is the important bit—they’ll take worse risks on their own. If we do away with challenging playgrounds and cancel school trips for fear of being sued, we don’t end up with safer boys—we end up with them walking on train tracks. In the long run, it’s not safe at all to keep our boys in the house with a Playstation. It’s not good for their health or their safety.”

Christina Hoff Sommers, who warned against attempts to socially reconstruct boyhood and championed the cause of underachieving boys in The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (2000), recently reviewed the Iggulden brothers’ book. She suggests: “Its appeal is obvious—it goes directly for the pleasure centers of the male brain” and “may hold the secret to male learning.”

Sommers sums it up nicely: “The Dangerous Book for Boys is all about Swiss Army knives, compasses, tying knots and starting fires with a magnifying glass. It includes adventure stories with male heroes, vivid descriptions of battles and a history of artillery. Readers learn how to make their own magnets, periscopes and bows and arrows.”

Could the poor academic performance and social underdevelopment of so many boys be solved simply by allowing them to be what they are by God’s design: boys? Does the striking success of the book demonstrate what previous generations took for granted—that boys will be (and need to be) boys?

Sommers suggests that “today’s teachers have been trained to regard boys and girls as cognitively and emotionally interchangeable. Common sense persuades most of us they are not, and now a rapidly growing body of neuroscientific evidence supports this conventional view.”

Sociological evidence adds the understanding that fathers and mothers aren’t interchangeable either. Kerry Kazura, a professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, points out that “fathers are more willing to allow their children to take risks during play, and this has been shown to have a positive influence on their children’s intellectual growth. Conversely, mothers engaged their children in more social exchanges. . . . Hence, play seems to be an important domain for father-child relationships.”

The Igguldens’ book encourages this kind of adventurous father-son interaction but, as Sommers notes, “doesn’t encourage boys to be Neanderthals.” Rather, it teaches them manners, grammar, and even a bit about how to interact with girls.

In a world where games such as tag and dodge ball are banned from playgrounds and portrayed as too aggressive and dangerous, along comes a much-needed, refreshing book that reassures curious, adventurous male risk-takers that it’s not necessary to apologize for being a boy, that being male is not a malady.

Perhaps it’s time to reclaim some age-old wisdom from another book that some have relegated to the dumpster of discarded ideas from a bygone era. The New Testament shows that boys need their fathers to model the right use of masculinity and train them in the role of protector and provider (1 Timothy 5:8). Boys need kind, loving and forgiving fathers who are engaged in and enthusiastic about helping their sons grow physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. There’s also the warning that children will become dispirited and frustrated and will stop trying if a dad’s guidance is harassing or exasperating or rouses resentment (Colossians 3:21). Apparently sons need more than just the physical presence of their fathers.

Equipped with a good set of wheels, my son and I plan to build a go-cart this summer. It’s an effort to create a fond boyhood memory for him and to recall one for me. Is it a little dangerous? I have a decades-old scar on my chin that proves it can be. Oh well—let the adventure begin!