Our boys need us. Many are getting lost in the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Many are making the wrong choices, and the long-term consequences are troubling. A recent Esquire article pointed out that boys are “more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go to college, and far more likely to abuse alcohol or go to prison or kill themselves than the girl sitting next to them in class.”
What can we do as the adults in their lives?
Before the day even begins, we can rise early, dress like a professional, and model the pride we have for the work. Cal Ripken did it in baseball. He dressed for 2,632 consecutive games. For 16 straight years he showed up, without fail, and did the work that was required of him without complaint.
We can teach them that courage is not revealed in bravado. Sometimes it is demonstrated in the stillness of a Dutch Jewish girl hiding in an attic from the Germans. Sometimes it is in the will of a Pakistani girl who wanted to attend school so badly that she defied the Taliban. We can teach them that even though she suffered a bullet to the head, she survived to become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel prize.
We can coach their teams, lead their clubs, and chaperone their dances. It may even inspire one to become president. Virgil M. Spurlin, the band director at Hot Springs High School, taught Bill Clinton how to get organized and allocate resources while on yearly band trips. “I really felt that my early years with him convinced me that I could organize and run things. That I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I could actually marshal other people in a common effort, and of course if you’re in politics that’s very important,” said Clinton.
We can teach them that a man should make amends. Alfred Nobel, the man who amassed a fortune by inventing dynamite, specified in his last will that prizes be awarded to those that bestow the “greatest benefit on mankind.” A man who made a weapon of destruction left a legacy in medicine, literature, chemistry, physics, physiology, and, of course, peace.
Mentoring Early and Often
We can also teach boys that if they are suffering, they are not alone. As Mr. Antolini says to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
We need to do all these things because the skills of success have morphed in the Information Age. Literacy, not memorization, now reigns supreme. Unfortunately, our boys begin at a disadvantage. Research shows that they are less socially mature, less verbal, and more active than girls when they begin school. Those frustrations, if they accumulate year after year, can extinguish the will to learn.
We need to mentor our boys from the very beginning. We need to teach them so much more than the curriculum. We need to put books in their hands. We need to make learning active and exciting. And while we are doing all these things, we need to get down on their level, look them in the eye, and tell them that we expect the very best from them.
They need to know that we are there for them. They need to know that we are serious about their success. And they need to know that a man honors his responsibilities to his fellow man.