A Boy's Life

5 Recommendations for Shielding Our Sons from the Anti-Culture—And Setting Them Towards Manhood

I've sometimes issued a challenge to ordinary men who have sons, and to young men who are honest and not wholly corrupted, and who I can imagine as having a son someday:

"Suppose I could show you something to do, something natural and straightforward, which would, barring something bizarre like a rape, ensure that your son would grow up healthy and normal, comfortable with his masculine nature and with the company of other men, attracted to women and attractive to them in turn, so that he would eventually take a woman in marriage and have a family of his own. Look me in the eye and tell me that you would not do this thing! Of course you'd do it, regardless of your politics. You'd do it in a heartbeat, nor would you second-guess yourself, because in your heart you know that that's what any ordinary father wants for his son."

Now and then a young single man, typically dismissive of the moral law as regards sex and not eager to marry, will call me hateful just for suggesting that there is such a shield. Even he will not address the challenge. Too bad. My responsibility in this battle is to stand up for those who have no advocate, to help them when nobody else will. Those are boys, especially boys whose parents have fraught their passage to manhood with the ballast of their own sins of commission and neglect.

But it occurs to me now that I should describe this shield, not only for fathers who care for their sons, but for others—mothers, siblings, friends, teachers, ministers, grandparents, and coaches—who may be in a position to supply some of what an absent or cold or abusive father has failed to give them. I am prompted by a horrible story of a boy whose father abandoned him when he was small, and who now, growing up with a doting mother, has decided that he "really" is a girl, and is going to get a surgeon to mutilate him irreversibly.

Who is so dense as not to see that this confused lad has been made so, by the wickedness and the folly of his parents, and by a sick anti-culture that will admire him if he does what is sick, but will continue to ignore him if he manages to steer himself, with shrouds and tackle torn, into some middling harbor of a half-emasculated manhood? Our sickness may be virulent, but the phenomenon is not new. There have always been women who see to it that their sons will never leave them for another girl.

Five Recommendations

That's a subject for another time. Here, dear readers, are my recommendations; and how sick are we, that I should have to spell them out? Not one of them is unusual. I am like someone advising people to drink clean water and eat good food.

1. Fathers: Treat your son like a man, the man you want him to be.

I don't mean that you should forget that he's a boy, and I certainly don't recommend that you become a taskmaster.

But bring him to work with you, and introduce him to your fellows. If possible, give him odd jobs to do for you, and praise him when he does them well. Let him overhear serious conversations. Have the termites turned that joist into sawdust, or can it be saved? If we pour the cement here, is the ground firm enough to hold it? Should we take out a loan and move the business to a property of our own, or should we continue to lease these crammed

Never underestimate the power of a father's praise, especially when the boy hears it spoken to another man, not as an idle boast, which boys can see through, but as plain fact. Never underestimate the power of a father's welcoming his boy into the circle of men, which is most powerful when it happens as a matter of course. It means, "You are one of us now."

I'm reminded of a story by Nova Scotia's favorite son, Alistair MacLeod. It involves a put-upon husband, his ambitious city wife, and their only child, a ten-year-old boy. The family goes to Cape Breton to visit the father's kin, who are coal miners, and for several blessed weeks the boy is out from under the supervision of teachers, counselors, and his mother. He wanders the bluffs. He goes fishing. He leaves in the morning every day and doesn't come back till nightfall, exhausted, growing in his bones and in his spirit. The grandfather takes to the child, and when it comes time for the family to return to Toronto, father and son go to say goodbye to him down in the mine. Grandfather and a couple of the boy's uncles come out to meet them. They haven't yet showered, and they are covered, head to toe, with honest sweat and the sharp-smelling grime of coal.

All at once the grandfather, in a gesture both loving and fierce, presses the boy to his chest, making him also filthy—too filthy to travel. So the boy has to go with him and the uncles to the showers to get clean. The gesture means: You are like us. We are together. We are one.

2. Do not despise the body.

That brings me to the second point. Express your love for your son in more than words. Express it in physical action, especially the rough play that his developing body craves by nature, for the building of muscles and the stretching and hardening of bones. Again, don't be a clod about it. If your son is constitutionally delicate, temper your enthusiasm. Never take his lack of interest in sports to be a deficiency. Plenty of boys have no desire to knock a ball around a field, but will roam the woods instead, or work on their backs under the chassis of a car, or draw maps of imaginary countries, and provide them with an invented language, such as Tolkien did for Middle-Earth.

That said, help your son grow accustomed to his body and to its being like every other boy's body. His comfort with it should be a matter of course. I've seen an ad in a family magazine from around 1950 that illustrates the plain normality that you want for him. The ad is for a shower stem with three heads sprouting from the top, so that three boys can take a shower together at once. That's what three boys are doing, seen from the chest up, in the drawing that accompanies the ad—laughing, not self-conscious, and not aware of anything out of the ordinary.

Three's a team, a platoon. The freedom you want him to feel is not bound up with anything deeply personal, anything peculiar to him as an individual. It's the freedom and the relaxation of a group of boys and men being themselves and taking one another for granted. You don't want him to have to think twice about it.

But by all means give him memories of masculine affection, memories that dwell in the mind and body both. Let me cite a poetic reflection on the verse, "Well done, good and faithful servant":

To be a son plastered with mud and sweat
From battling at the plow in a bad field,
Prying up rocks and hacking roots to get
The bent blade free, and leaning, lunging, steeled
More than the tool itself, flicking a goad
To urge some great ox trembling with each move,
Furrowing a not-quite-straight but visible road,
Yearning, and trusting in your father's love,
Who with a rough approval wipes your face—
What joy to hear his praise, and know his grace!

3. Orient him both apart from and toward the girls.

Everyone until our own addled time has known that boys naturally need some time away from mama, sisters, and girls, to establish their independent identities as masculine. Then they can meet the opposite sex in a complementary way, as the girls meet them, each sex offering to the other what they cannot well bring to existence on their own. Boys who are friends with one another lean against the side of a truck, facing the same direction, taking on the world. The boy who likes a girl looks toward her, precisely because he and she are not the same.

Mama's boys make terrible husbands. There's an episode of The Twilight Zone that dramatizes the trouble. Alex Walker has finally married the woman who has waited for him for ten years. What was there to wait for? The death of Alex's mother, a doting and domineering woman, who raised him by herself after her husband abandoned them. As the episode opens, Walker and his bride, Virginia, return after their wedding to the homestead, so he can pack up a few belongings and settle things with a realtor before leaving for good. Virginia had gotten him to agree to sell the house, but once he's there he lapses back into reminiscences—he looks at toys and memorabilia in the attic; the radio mysteriously comes on, playing "The Lady in Red," Mother's favorite song; a plate of brownies appears on the living room table. The deceased mother's formidable pull is growing.

When Alex reverses himself and sends the realtor away, Virginia bursts out in an indignant plea for sanity. "You promised me!" she cries, and then says what she thinks and what she has obviously never uttered before: that his mother did not really love him, because otherwise she would not have wanted to keep him to herself as a little boy, but would have allowed him to grow up and be a real man.

"Go away," says the twelve-year-old Alex to Virginia in the final scene, as he enters his bedroom with his mother. "We don't need you anymore."

Rarities aside, a woman cannot make a boy into a man. The boy's body will surpass hers in strength sometime between the ages of eleven and fourteen. He will experience physical sensations that she has no notion of; he has a longing for male camaraderie that she can in the best of circumstances only learn about by generous observation (and these are not the best of circumstances); his feelings are chaotic and run from little-boy dependency to a lust for fighting. For his direction, he needs somebody who has gone through all that, and who can make him neither a milksop nor a bully, but a man whom other men respect and whom women admire and trust and like.

Find ways, then, to make him distinct from the girls, not because girls are to be despised, but because they are to be loved as men love women. Dress him as you dress, and let that be sometimes in ways that mark him as male, for the female. In healthy times, that would include dressing in formal attire for dances, where boys and girls learn what they are by observing and imitating what their mothers and fathers are doing. Revel in the sheer fun of the sexes.

4. Keep the poison away.

You wouldn't let your son play in a cesspool. Then why let the Internet stream into his bedroom?

There is nothing on the Internet that your son absolutely needs; nothing. If he has private access to the Internet, he will use it to gaze at porn. No arguments here. Not all his hours of religious instruction, not all the exhortations of his mother and father, will suffice. He will use it to gaze at porn, and you will be fortunate if by the age of twelve he is not addicted to it, and has not had things burned indelibly into his imagination whose obscenity makes Playboy look like a Victorian tea-party.

This has nothing to do with trust. Your son is a child. He will no more have the strength to resist the allure than he would have the strength to push an automobile uphill. Keep the poison away. No private computer, and no hand-held devices that serve the same purposes. He will learn more from one hour outdoors, or one hour with power tools in your workshop, than from twenty on the Internet.

Then there are people who think that poison is food and drink. Avoid them, too. Again I must be blunt. There is almost nothing good to be said for our public schools, and for the private schools that follow their lead. If your son goes to school, he will be battered, day after day, with messages from people whose imaginations are corrupted, who think that what you are trying to do with your boy is at best stupidly old-fashioned, and at worst wicked.

Give Satan a child's imagination and he'll gladly concede all the rest. Give the direction of your son's imaginative life to teachers who are on board with all things Sodom, and most of your work will be undone in a year. You must take care to place before him imaginative and healthy portrayals of the passage from boyhood to manhood: Kipling's Captains Courageous, Kim, The Jungle Book; Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield; such classic films as How Green Was My Valley, Shane, The Yearling, Rio Grande, Friendly Persuasion, Sergeant York, The Cowboys.

5. Pray beside him, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

If your church uses hymnals that excise the masculinity of words and pronouns referring to God or Christ, don't bother speaking to the pastor about it. Don't waste your time. Get another church.

Let your son learn that we human fathers are so not in a primary but in a secondary sense. God simply is Father, from whom all fatherhood derives; we are fathers because God has created us to share in his fatherhood. We do not call God "Father" metaphorically. The name opens out to us a view of his essence; we are by comparison the mere images and analogues.

Pray as men pray. Observe the solemn, quasi-liturgical behavior of the men who patrol the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There is nothing frilly or sentimental or cute about it; nothing slack, informal, or indifferent. I'm not recommending anything so stern or so inflexible—certainly not a wearisome precision, not for family prayer, and not for bending your knee beside your son. But I do recommend solemnity, a prelude to joy.

Let him know that Jesus was a man, not a hermaphrodite. He was a carpenter; and I've been told that the Greek word suggests a man hired for large building projects—a construction worker. Give a young man twenty years of that work and he will have arms like clubs, tendons like cords, and a back and shoulders studded with muscles. That's in accord with what we see of Jesus in the Gospels: a man of great stamina and strength, who enjoyed arduous journeys on foot, and who sought out the solitudes of mountains and shores. He was a man whom some men feared and other men admired and loved; he was gentle and chivalrous with women, never harsh with them, even when he was telling them what they found uncomfortable to hear.

Acquit Yourself Like a Man

Do these things. And if you are ever tempted to doubt your wisdom in this matter, remember your allies: nature; every culture known to man; the great poets and novelists; and the Word of God. Acquit yourself like a man, and let your son see it. He will bless you for it when he comes to manhood, and honor you as long as he lives.

PhD, is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College and the author of over thirty books and many articles in both scholarly and general interest journals. A senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Dr. Esolen is known for his elegant essays on the faith and for his clear social commentaries. In addition to Salvo, his articles appear regularly in Touchstone, Crisis, First Things, Inside the Vatican, Public Discourse, Magnificat, Chronicles and in his own online literary magazine, Word & Song.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #43, Winter 2017 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo43/a-boys-life


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