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Boyhood at Risk (Part One)

I lay on my back, starring at the sky with my feet above me on the hill. My bike flew overhead – that much I knew – but where it landed was a mystery. The ditch crept up on me, as tends to happen on unfamiliar roads, while I was trying my best to keep up with my friend Michael. He knew the curve like the back of his hand, but I approached it way too fast and hit the embankment, flipped over my handlebars, and landed with a considerable thud.

Image courtesy the Art of Manliness

All of this happened in a flash, but I remember it in slow-motion. Michael, at first unaware of my “encounter” with the ditch, finally made his way to me on the hill, where I still lay somewhat motionless. “Brian, are you alright?” A smile crept over my face and I laughed. With my bike retrieved, off we went to the pool, as planned, with nothing more than temporary battle scars to show and war stories to tell.

My neighborhood friends and I never had to be dragged out of the house or sent outside to play. Sometimes, we amused ourselves with bicycle jousting – a simple tournament involving football helmets or catcher’s masks, wiffle ball bats or wooden boards, and our bikes. The rest, I assume, you can figure.

Or, we would go to the creek that ran through our neighborhood and “fish” for crawdads with our fingers. Not too bright, but still loads of fun. BB gun wars broke out sporadically as well, with a firm one-pump rule in place, mind you. We wore goggles or glasses every time we didn’t forget. When our parents found out, peace came to the land with a permanent treaty in place. The great BB gun wars ceased, but we were all permitted to keep our arms, our dignity, and the camaraderie of our band of 10-year-old brothers.

We were boys. We were allowed and encouraged to be boys. And, we survived it. Where I veered into dangerous territory (see BB gun wars above), I was corrected, but never emasculated.

My collection of pocketknives grew by the year and, rather than being told to “put them away somewhere,” I was taught how to care for them, sharpen them, and use them in a way that preserved all my digits. I was taught how to build a fire, how to shoot, how to use a bow and arrow, and how to be safe and responsible. I was guided on hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and whitewater rafting trips; instructed every step of the way. But, I was also taught to be a gentleman and to love learning, reading, and study.

In other words, my boyhood was mentored and nurtured into manhood. My exuberance, energy, and daring were not squashed; they were blended with responsibility, self-control, and chivalry. I dare not claim mastery of those lessons; I remain an imperfect student. But, I recognize now that I was granted what so few are now allowed to have: boyhood.

Plato said, “Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.” But rather than training our boys to be men – a discipleship task requiring both time and great effort – our culture refuses to let them be boys. And in doing so we do not make “safer” or “kinder” boys; we only ensure that we will eventually have no men. We chop down the saplings and mourn the loss of trees.

While I plan to continue this topic in next week’s post, allow me to leave you with a few questions to ponder…

  • What is the difference between masculinity and machismo?
  • What role do fathers play in raising boys to be men? Mothers? Teachers?
  • How can parents (and teachers) learn to balance legitimate safety concerns while encouraging boys to be boys?

To be continued…

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