American Parents Need to Protect the Freedom of American Boyhood

Parents who reflexively do more for their boys risk leaving them with far less.

by Andrew Burmon
John Finley for Fatherly

Boyhood is dwarfed by manhood. There is less of it, after all. And one could argue that there is even less now than there was in the post-war era before higher education’s heady ascent. Viewed from any distance — even from just across the hormonal rubicon of teendom — boyhood is small enough to be mistaken for a prelude. Squint, though, and you’ll see that it’s not that. Never was. Shouldn’t be.

The notion that boyhood is fundamentally a preparatory period during which boys organically grow into men — ideally with a bit of moral education from caretakers — assumes not only an unlikely continuity but an implausible level of caretaker competence. To think of today’s boys as tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, and athletes is to ignore the distance between potential and success as well as American adults’ seeming incapability of providing boys with clear directions through that unknown country. We don’t know the way. If we did, boys wouldn’t show up to kindergarten less prepared than girls. If we did, there wouldn’t be a massive grade-school achievement gap. If we did, boys wouldn’t be more likely to be suspended, held back, and placed in special education. If we did, the suicide rate for teenage boys wouldn’t be at an all-time high and nearly triple the rate of suicide among teenage girls.

Today’s self-consciously engaged parents may choose to believe that they know more about raising sons than the last generation, but data doesn’t firmly support that conclusion. Numbers show that adults are doing more for boys, but not that it’s helping them cope. And more is, in and of itself, problematic. Why? Because more jeopardizes one of the best parts of boyhood: the silly, useless, messing around in the woods part.

Why did all my aborted childhood schemes and poorly considered projects make sense? Because I was American and I had role models.

There’s an argument to be made that girls, too, can splash about in vernal pools and fall out of trees. This is both inarguably true and exactly the sort of point a boy wouldn’t come up with while trying to balance on a log or hit a rock with another rock. I certainly never entertained such a thought when happily wandering through the woods at the end of the road or throwing pinecones or having pinecones bounced off my nearly empty skull by friends. I was a sensitive kid, the sort who cried and told no one, but my emotional intelligence was — and this is an overtly pithy way to summarize decades of research — limited. I was limited by my brain development and by the all-male culture my friends and I created, having more or less replaced girls with balls as soon as we grasped gender dynamics. I had less empathy than my sister and less social subtlety (data would support this conclusion) than my dog, who could not be relied on not to swallow wood pulp.

Like many other boys, I was not particularly socialized. I was — and I mean this as a compliment to the child I once was — just this side of feral. Was this wildness a product of neglect? Definitely not. It was the product of being given time and space to fuck around; of hours spent trying to build forts, trying to knock forts down, trying to light disassembled forts on fire, and trying to put out fires. It was a massive privilege.

Not all boys have that privilege and its unrealistic to think they ever will. Some boys take on more family responsibilities. Some boys live in more dangerous neighborhoods. Some boys have more nervous dispositions. Still, there is always space for boyish idiocy, even in the wilds of Minecraft or the confines of studio apartments — even in stolen minutes or hours that, yes, could be used for homework, sports, or personal development, but don’t need to be.

Could my father have spent more time on my moral education? Surely. But that would have been like teaching someone how to play Baseball using only a Powerpoint. It might have worked, but it would have been a joyless waste of time. Better to have those hours, maybe idealized now from the confines of an ergonomic desk chair, in which too accomplish nothing particular and to accomplish it in bulk. Better to have had the sense — as I think I did — that the stupidest parts of my boyhood existence were also the parts that made the most sense.

Why did all my aborted childhood schemes and poorly considered projects make sense? Because I was American and I had role models.

Unlike adult role models, who’s motivations and limitations were always obscure, my boy role models made sense and were in keeping with my experience. There was a whole dreamy roster of them: Huck Finn, Milo, Billy Colman, Sam Gribley, Matt James Hallowell, Brian Robeson, Maniac Magee, Gene Forrester, Calvin, and Hobbes. These were independent, vigorous, intelligent characters I could relate to. At the time, I didn’t notice that they shared another trait. They existed largely apart from society. I didn’t notice because I did as well and perhaps because this seemed like an enviable situation.

I have very distinct memories of dragging a Radio Flyer up a hill with a friend and try to ride it down with all the speed and grace implied by Bill Watterson’s drawings. We learned that even steel bolts have their limits and picked the pebbles and pine needles from each others’ elbows before returning home bloodied, but happy.

The over-the-top argument goes that girls grow up to be women and boys are die-cast into manhood.

In trying to help boys, parents are often tempted to pull them towards society or to enroll them in something or get them involved. This can certainly be helpful — it is profoundly important for children who lack consistent caretakers or live in dangerous neighborhood — but it’s a terrible default solution because it jeopardizes something delicate and important: autonomy. American boys are taught that autonomy, in the form of independence or excellence or hard work or whatever, is a mark of character. But autonomy cannot be thrust on a child. Autonomy is, for many boys, largely demonstrated through a series of useless and futile gestures.

That’s fine so long as no one is expecting boys to meet with actual success, specifically the sort of well-socialized success that breeds cloying parental Facebook updates.

Expectations for American teenagers and arguably American girls have — thanks to a flood of affirmations, STEM toys, and empowering messages — changed faster than expectations for American boys. Many see this as the result of negligence, but maybe it isn’t. If the statement “boys will be boys” seems anachronistic and callous, consider the statement “girls will be girls,” which just seems meaningless. Girls are girls so they can do boy things without getting, in a gendered sense, maleness under their nails. Boys can do girl stuff too, but there are inevitably questions about sexuality or mother-love that follow. The over-the-top argument goes that girls grow up to be women and boys are die-cast into manhood.

Even without granting that premise in extremis, adults should acknowledge that boys are still boxed in and that further boxing them in — even by offering productive means of engagement — might not be an effective way to relieve harmful social pressures. The easiest way to do that is to just let them be.

Is the solution to young men being left behind leaving boys alone? No, but it might be part of a reasonable plan. Over the few decades, we’ve seen statistical proof that girls can do everything boys can do. That’s great, but it’s a logical fallacy to assume vice versa. Providing boys with a bit more time and a bit more space away from systems of achievement might do more to prepare them to handle competition and stress than continued exposure to competition and stress. Letting them enjoy their childhoods by taking control of them might better prepare them for adulthood than more pointed preparations.

Leaving space for exploration, joy, and the boundless pre-pubescent stupidity of males makes sense. It’s important to acknowledge that doing more for boys might actually leave them with less.

A certain type of parent tends to express, on message boards, at dull dinner parties, and in Fatherly’s Facebook comments, a desire to raise good men. This is surely an admirable desire and evidence of what is perhaps an admirable anxiety. But it’s not clear that this is a sentiment that makes sense in the context of 8-year-olds. It’s not clear that young pups can learn those sorts of tricks.

And the fundamental thing is that they don’t need to. It would be fantastic if young boys learned empathy and self-awareness, but it’s not critical to the function of society. Young boys don’t vote or abuse their power or have any power at all in the first place. Consequences are good. Examples are good. A sympathetic ear is good. But so is a hammer. So is a stream. So is an empty lot or a basement or public park. So is the opportunity to exist at a bit of a social remove — not entirely away pressure but alone with it.

Telling boys to go amuse themselves may not be a holistic answer to a complex social problem but it’s important to acknowledge that leaving space for exploration, joy, and the boundless pre-pubescent stupidity of males makes sense. It’s important to acknowledge that doing more for boys might actually leave them with less.

And here’s good news. Literary counterexamples notwithstanding, boys tend to come home at the end of the day. They ask for help and sometimes bandaids. At times, that may be all they need — that and, if you’ll let them have one, a box of matches.